I’m Not Overreacting, I’m Over-Feeling!
Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria Explained by Someone Who Gets Rejected A Lot (A Writer)
Recently, I sent texts and emails to all of my mentors, teachers, writer friends, non-writer friends, some family members, and even a few contacts I didn’t recognize, but who needed to know I would never write again. Never! I was done forever. Whatever meager success I’d had in the past was a fluke. I tried to sound brave and proud when I announced, “It’s time for me to explore my next phase of life.” I felt neither. I wanted to melt into the ground. I felt like something essential to me had shattered into shards so small they could never be glued back together.
I’d received a rejection letter just minutes earlier. This demonstrated that I was an utter failure and needed to move on—maybe take up candle-making and open an Etsy store or finally veganize all my grandmother’s recipes or literally anything that didn’t require putting words on a page. Almost instantly, responses began pinging my phone and inbox. Most went something like this: “You’re overreacting. Rejection’s part of being a writer.” Or “You’ve always been sensitive. Maybe go for a walk?”
At some point, I yelled at my phone: “I’m not overreacting! These are my feelings!” And they were. I’m not sure I said this part out loud, but I was yelling in my brain, “You don’t understand!” And they didn’t. How could they? I think most people, at least neurotypical people, assume that everyone feels things kind of the same. Rejection causes a certain amount of pain. How much? No one can articulate that, but we seem to all accept that it’s not as much pain as if the doctor says you’ve got a year to live. That might sound extreme, but I was once given that medical news (thankfully as part of a misdiagnosis) and the feeling of it wasn’t necessarily worse or deeper. It was just different. In that case, I had to worry about how my daughter would get by without me. This didn’t come up when my story was rejected. The pain was only for me. But I can’t say that it felt much different. In both cases, I felt like I’d been used up. I was done.
I have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a neurodevelopmental disorder that involves the brain’s ability to perform executive function tasks, things like planning, organizing, and regulating emotions. So reacting appropriately to external stimuli is challenging at best. But on top of this, research is emerging around a new syndrome that many people with ADHD experience—rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD). This condition is more complicated than it sounds. My immediate response to hearing it was something like, “Do some people feel euphoria when rejected?”
Sure, I’d been told my whole life that I overreacted. I was hypersensitive. I “made mountains out of molehills.” But I didn’t know how to feel differently. I didn’t inflate my feelings for attention, which I’d been accused of by parents, teachers, friends, and especially boyfriends. “You’re such a drama queen,” was a common response to me saying I might die if whatever it was in the moment happened. If a boy I liked didn’t like me back, if a college I applied to didn’t accept me, if I got passed over for a promotion at work whether I really wanted it or not, these all made me feel like I was a failure. I get it. These extreme responses sound like something you say for attention. But for me, it was simply how I felt. And that was the problem that neither I nor anyone around me understood. People with RSD have heightened emotions when rejected, and those feelings are difficult to control once they’re triggered. The rejection of my story felt like a rejection of me, like my entire soul was unworthy. In other words, I didn’t and don’t exaggerate my emotions. I just feel things differently from the norm.
There are a few people remaining in my life who haven’t completely lost patience with me. One of my mentors responded to my email by reminding me that I’d recently had stories accepted for publication. She encouraged me to see the rejection as an opportunity to grow as a writer. She added that rejection is just part of the process, and it would be best if I found positive ways to get beyond its “sting.” You’d think this positive, logical response would have helped. Right? Not a chance! To me, rejection of any kind doesn’t sting; it annihilates me. It always has. In the third grade, I ran away from school when my best friend didn’t pick me to be on her team for the class math competition. She said I took too long on division problems. I didn’t move or make a sound until recess and then I ran. They found me hiding behind the dumpster in the parking lot of the local market. I have a lifetime of these stories, but there’s no way to express the feeling accurately. Just imagine the worst rejection you’ve ever experienced and multiply it by 100. People with RSD feel rejection at a profoundly disproportionate level.
I truly believed that my earlier successes would never be duplicated. They were probably freak luck events. And even if they weren’t, I’d spent my creative lot. I needed to accept that I was done, a has-been, a loser. But don’t think it was as emotionally smooth as this sounds. People who have ADHD, and especially those with RSD, do not move on easily. I was so depressed, I couldn’t function. I sat in my favorite chair for hours, sometimes crying, sometimes screaming at the wall or at anyone I could get on the phone. Sometimes zombie-blank, I just stared. In my brighter moments, I clicked through TV shows hoping something would distract me. Nothing did. This went on for several days. I was so sad, as I watched the agonizing death of my dreams. I was so angry at myself for not being talented enough. And I was angry at the stupid people who didn’t see the brilliance of every word I’d ever written. Hell, I was even mad at my teachers and mentors, because they’d let me believe I was good enough. Why hadn’t they told me that I sucked before I’d invested so much of myself into writing? The whole experience just hurt on every level of my being.
To complicate matters, I don’t know how to let other people into what I go through when I’m rejected. Even if I could pull myself together enough to try to communicate in a productive way, RSD is difficult to explain to people who don’t have it. While I think most neurotypical people still don’t understand what ADHD feels like, at least they’ve heard of it, and they try to make allowances(often after saying something completely insensitive like, “Oh, we all have a little ADHD. I got it during the pandemic.” Yeah, that’s not how it works. RSD is different. It’s only just starting to be researched. And to make matters so much worse, it’s not an official diagnosis yet, meaning it hasn’t been included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the book that lists all accepted psychiatric conditions and their symptoms. If it hasn’t reached all mental health professionals, it certainly hasn’t trickled into mainstream dialogue.
When I try to explain my extreme reactions to my neurotypical peers, I get the blink-blink-stare, usually accompanied by a very helpful comment like, “Have you tried meditation?” (It’s everything I can do not to punch people when they suggest these obvious strategies. I’m neurodivergent, not stupid, I want to scream as I pummel them …but that’s the ADHD lashing out, not the RSD. This all gets very complicated.) While RSD isn’t an official diagnosis yet, many doctors are finally recognizing it and exploring it with patients. And this is a very good thing. A big part of what makes dealing with neurodivergence of any kind difficult is that I feel whacko and like I need to pull myself together.
My doctor is one of the good ones who stays up-to-date on all things ADHD. This isn’t true of all doctors, especially those who don’t specialize in the disorder. After hearing about one of my rejection-fueled episodes, he explained RSD and gave me about a zillion articles to read. I learned that this syndrome is most probably linked to differences in the structure of the brain, which cause it to send feelings that are out of proportion to the norm. In other words, we literally feel rejection more intensely than a neurotypical person would. Our extreme reactions are not over-reactions. They are appropriate to the feelings our brains are sending us, or looked at another way, to the over-feelings we’re experiencing. And there’s nothing that can be done about the root cause, a difference in the brain.
As I learned about RSD, I had flashbacks to getting diagnosed with ADHD when I was 60 years old. Once the diagnosis sank in (no small thing when it’s been missed for 60 years), my whole life came into a different kind of focus. My impulsivity, social anxiety, challenges with time management, etc., all made sense. But after that first breath of relief, that feeling of validation, then what? The options aren’t great. Amphetamines are still the frontline treatment for ADHD. They work. But they come with a whole slew of sometimes intense side effects, in my case bleeding ulcers and migraines. Suddenly, I’m given this whole new set of letters, RSD, to deal with. I was immediately grateful for the information, but then what? That’s not so easy.
I did my research only to find that the pharmaceutical options didn’t look great for me. I could up my uppers (I mean Adderall) or add other medications that all come with their own side effects and on top of that, the new medications don’t always play well with Adderall. The only other treatment option is therapy. I’ve been in and out of therapy my entire adult life. I don’t see how it’s ever helped, but I brought up the new thing to the therapist I was seeing. She said, “RSD isn’t even a diagnosis. We just need to keep working on building your resilience so you don’t react so strongly.”
I divorced that therapist immediately. So what did that leave? Nothing. When I discussed my frustration with my psychiatrist, he pointed out that there are many pastimes (that’s evidently what writing is) that don’t come with so much rejection. Perhaps writing wasn’t the best choice for me.
I felt like a bomb went off in my already wonky brain. I wanted to lash out, give him a piece of my mind, throw his crystal clock into the wall, and unleash whatever rage-fueled behaviors came up. (Again, this impulsivity is the ADHD, not the RSD, just to be clear.) But I didn’t do any of those things. I’d taken my meds that day and had a tiny bit of impulse control. And he wasn’t wrong. Writing is a weird choice for someone who can’t handle rejection.
I’ve continued to mull this issue over since that day in my doctor’s office, quickly deciding that I would never stop writing. I’ve defined myself as a writer since my high school English teacher (Hi, Ms. Reynolds!) let me write short stories to make up for all of the points I missed during truancies. As I processed my options, I realized it isn’t the writing that’s so dangerous to me; it’s publishing…or not. I could keep writing and save my stories on my hard drive. Or post them on my own website. Or print each masterpiece on pretty pastel paper and hang it on my walls. But I won’t do any of those things. I’ll write stories and submit them. Some of them will be published, and some of them won’t. I’ll keep over-feeling because that’s all my brain knows how to do. And I’ll continue to use my writing, as I’m doing here, to spread the word that more sensitivity is needed when responding to neurodivergent people. The first step? Just believe us. After that, give us time to process. Listen. There’s no perfect way to respond, but a surefire way to make things worse is to suggest that we’re acting out for attention. Trust me! We don’t want any more of the kind of attention our differences elicit every single day of our lives.
Kait Leonard writes in Los Angeles where she shares her home with five parrots and her gigantic American bulldog, Seeger. Her fiction has appeared in a number of journals, among them Does It Have Pockets, Roi Fainéeant, Six Sentences, and Flash Fiction Magazine. Stories will be appearing in Sky Island Journal, The Dribble Drabble Review, The Bookends Review, and Academy of the Heart later this year. Kait completed her MFA at Antioch University, but she’s refusing to leave.