Biologically it’s hard work being alive. There’s very little easy about it. In the wild a human’s life is a constant stream of interactions, interpretations, communications, events, distractions, responsibilities and that’s before you’ve even donned your loin-cloth or figured out where you’re getting food for that day.
Modern life, you would think, would make it easier. Has it, though? Once upon a time a human was considered productive if they could merely forage or hunt enough food, now they have to adapt themselves to arbitrary tasks for currency, an intermediary exchange medium between effort and food. The value of those tasks is determined not by the value of time as a finite resource for the individual, but in line with what the people who exploit that resource are willing to pay to the surplus-size group of individuals all desperate for a chance. This has created a crazy competition, whereby scores of people all compete for the same chance to devalue themselves just so they can survive.
To me it makes no sense, but then I am autistic and many aspects of society make no sense.
There’s something about this particular brand of competition, though, that rubs me the wrong way. There is little about it that is meritocratic, the best jobs rarely go to the best people and the levels of investment involved in getting even a ground-floor job mean many people work to their social circumstances rather than their potentials – which it doesn’t take a genius to figure out is inefficient.
Then we have rejection.
Rejection is a hard thing for any person to take. Everybody likes to be valued. Rejection is the opposite of that. Rejection is saying “We don’t value you enough.” Whether it be asking someone you like on a date, an application for a job, a club membership or even just not feeling welcome somewhere, rejection is uncomfortable.
Now certain conditions, like Autistic Spectrum Conditions (ASC), Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or depressive conditions can make that situation a whole lot worse. Particularly in ASC and ADHD all of your senses seems to be over-sensitised anyway. Imagine, then, that all of these people have a sort of emotional sunburn. Usually your skin is sensitive it has many nerve endings used to detect changes in touch, pressure and temperature. When it is sunburned it is particularly sensitive, touch and pressure feels excruciating, colds feel like ice-daggers and heat feels like the sun. That’s sort of what happens with rejection sensitivity dysphoria.
I think there’s a bit of a misunderstanding, a belief that people with conditions like ASC or ADHD are just thin-skinned, can’t take the hard realities of life. That’s not the case and many of the people I know with these conditions are some of the strongest people in the world. When you have an overly sensitive nerve it is not because it is weak, but because it is exposed. That’s how it is with people with these conditions.
So what is Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria (RSD)? Dysphoria is an extreme discomfort with something, an inability to bear it, the other two words pretty much explain themselves. It is an inability to bear the suggestion of rejection.
That’s right, it doesn’t even have to be a full rejection, merely a perceived rejection, maybe someone responding a little late, someone calling you in for a meeting and not telling you what it’s about, someone saying “Good job,” in a monotone rather than “Great job!” with an upward inflection. All of these things could be perceived as rejection by someone with RSD and it will cause an acute period of difficulty.
That difficulty can manifest itself in many different ways. For me, I withdraw. I retreat within myself, I shun social contact and company, I desire to be alone. It sets off my other autistic sensitivities, so I prefer the dark, the quiet and the anti-social more than light, noise and people. It hurts, it physically hurts – Studies have shown that social rejection manifests in many of the same pathways of the brain as physical pain – So being more sensitive to it means more pain!
It’s relatively acute, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t troublesome. ‘Relatively’ acute in my case means anything from 4-14 days to get over it fully! Four days of extreme discomfort is about four days too many. In that time I need to be very careful as the rejection can trigger other aspects of my conditions, anxiety and depression being the two things I need to manage very carefully during this time. One small rejection can lead to one long depressive episode and that’s not good!
Other people might respond differently, they may have angry outbursts, or extreme sadness, crying, anxiety etc. It varies.
Obviously longer term it has implications, too. People who experience RSD often find themselves either busting a hump to please everybody and stay in everyone’s good books or else withdrawing longer term and finding it easier to avoid rejection by avoiding everything. A tendency to perfectionism can occur. Guilt and/or shame are common long-term emotions of people with RSD.
What’s more, there’s a gun-shy aspect to it too. Anticipation of rejection can lead to people who experience RSD selecting themselves out of situations for fear of the rejection. I talked about it in ‘My Life and Intolerance to Uncertainty’. One of the aspects of uncertainty I don’t like is the potential rejection! Exposing myself to any new scenario, particularly if it is a social scenario, is exposing myself to the potential of feeling like I don’t fit, like I’m being rejected, like I’m doing something wrong and like I’m powerless to control any of it.
It’s a horrible thing. A truly inhibitive complex of symptoms associated with what are already some of the most difficult to manage and alienating conditions we are aware of. People with ADHD and ASC are significantly more likely than the base population to experience rejection, in all forms, from friends, socially, from colleagues, professionally, in terms of opportunities, feeling like they’re not heard, being marginalised in society – it’s already hard enough. Does this sensitivity manifest out of that? Or is there something in these conditions that creates the sensitivity already? That we don’t know.
Research into RSD, like with many aspects of the neurodivergent experience, is recent.
What I do know is we have a world setup in the exact opposite way to work for these people – A world of competition, often entirely arbitrary and to prove worthy of doing the most mundane of things. Rejection is hard enough when you’re an expert getting rejected a job opportunity in which you compete with other experts, but when you’re competing for a base-level job as a rejection-sensitive, ASC-diagnosed, otherwise hardworking and intelligent individual and you lose out because you don’t smile enough at the interview it cuts deep, it cuts hard and it causes bitterness.
It can make you hate what you love.
I have to be very careful with We Lack Discipline. I genuinely love what I do. I’m an overthinker by nature and having a website where I can freely overthink anything I might be interested in at that point, it’s a beautiful thing. I have rarely been happier with what I am doing.
But some days the viewing figures are not so great, some days I get no comments or interactions, some articles perform better than others, do I go for views or write what I love. Sometimes what I love feels like it’s rejected. I see twitter accounts with a thousand times as many followers as mine and all they do is retweet memes whilst I invest full time working hours in research, writing, editing, formatting, all as one lone person and that feels like a rejection, people don’t give me feedback, positive or negative, so I have no idea what I’m doing right or what I’m doing wrong, so I inevitably think everything I am doing is wrong – It builds and builds and builds and can ruin things you love if you’re not careful.
Sometimes I reach out, when numbers are particularly bad I probe and I prod on Twitter, on Facebook and try and get people to engage but often the best thing I can do is re-read what I have written and remember the fun I had writing it.
Even articles like this, about topics it can be difficult to talk about because of my personal experience (and I have literally left places and never gone back because of RSD – I have movies I won’t watch, songs I won’t listen to, images I can’t stand to look at because of their associations with rejection!) are enjoyable because I get to share aspects of myself that otherwise go unshared.
So do your best to anti-reject me. Like, share, follow, tweet, retweet etc! It all helps me to put my own worth into some wider context and, frankly the sooner I start getting some dissenting voices the better because I am going to have to learn how to manage them at some point!
Until then I just want you to consider RSD as very real, as not indicative of a weak person, but an exposed person, and to give people the care and patience they deserve.
Fancy reading some more stuff about psychological or neurological phenomena and how they’ve messed my life up! Read more in the ‘My Life and…’ Series;
My Life and Learned Helplessness
My Life and the Halo Effect
My Life and Executive Dysfunction
My Life and Autism
My Life and Intolerance to Uncertainty