Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria: an innate or emergent property of neurodivergence?

Sounds kinda like a scientific paper, doesn’t it? It isn’t. It’s just me swallowing some random concepts and, huh, ejecting some ideas.

I just finished “The Silent Guides” by Prof Steve Peters. I think it’s a terrible book at a number of levels and I am absolutely NOT recommending it. However, it raised (and promptly failed to prove) an interesting point: that an adult’s ability to emotionally handle rejection is a skill learnt in childhood, and is dependent on several factors including:
– secure attachments with one’s care giver(s),
– self-confidence in one’s ability to handle situations, 
– and self-worth independent of achievements.

It also stated that children’s self-worth can be encouraged by validating their concerns and experiences, and that in order to foster children’s trust in their own abilities, it is essential not to face them with demands that are age-inappropriate.

The book blithely ignores the existence of neurodivergent people, but it made me think about whether rejection sensitive dysphoria is a symptom of ADHD per se – as in, a manifestation of the neurodivergence itself – or a symptom of the emotional damage a person with ADHD can incur by being raised in a family/school/society that does not validate their experience or accommodate their needs.

I mean… I have sensory issues. They’re not as pronounced as those of many people, but they’re definitely there. Most of my childhood consisted of me saying that something was too loud/too smelly/too scratchy/too sticky and being told that no, it wasn’t, and that I was being rude or difficult by suggesting that it was. I was making a fuss over nothing. That’s basically sensory gaslighting: I’m being told that my perception is wrong. As a result, it isn’t worth of being considered, and neither am I unless I learn to ignore it. Needless to say, the experience didn’t make me feel terribly secure in my relationships. It also didn’t teach me to respect my own sensations and needs as an adult, or to use them as guidelines on how to live.

I was also ahead of the curve for certain things (e.g. reading), but waaaaaay behind the curve for a ton of things (e.g. anything involving gross motor skills). I literally COULD NOT meet certain demands; in some cases, I still can’t. For instance, my inability to tell left from right used to drive my gymnastics teachers to distraction, and used to get me yelled at on a regular basis. Was I not paying attention? Was I doing it on purpose? Alas, the fact that 40 years on I still have the same problem suggests that my failure was not solely due to a lack of application on my part.

Throughout my childhood, I was constantly measured against criteria created for people with a brain that worked differently, developed at a different rate, or needed a different type of input. I had no idea that my brain was not standard issue, though, so I had no idea that other kids weren’t going through the same experience. I just figured that they were all better than me at most things, and that it was absolutely critical that I was perfect at the things that I could do to make up for my shortcomings.

Growing up like that has had a huge influence in how I see myself and react to the world. It has taken me years to realize that 100% is not the pass grade. I don’t know how to convert my past achievements into a sense of self-trust. I have only recently discovered that feeling constantly overwhelmed by absolutely everything isn’t how everyone lives. And, yes, I find rejection unbearably painful, and I’ve been told by experts that it’s “just” my ADHD, that it’s a common symptom and it’s normal – for the likes of us, anyway. But is it? Is it one of my inherent shortcomings, or just one of many skills I’ve not been given a chance to develop? If it’s the latter, can I, like, start working at it now? Because it’s no fun at all, and I’d rather leave it behind.

So, yeah, that’s my thought for the day. I could be full of shit. I’m not particularly looking for a debate on this, just presenting a theory I developed from a handful of statements I found in a terrible book I’m advising you not to buy. So yeah, pinch of salt or three, and please don’t shoot the messenger.

2 thoughts on “Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria: an innate or emergent property of neurodivergence?

  1. I’m hung up on “self-worth independent of achievements” — assuming the achievements are… achievable, where else should one get a sense of self-worth? Can someone say this in different words that don’t sound like baseless feel-good self-affirmations?

    (In re. “in order to foster children’s trust in their own abilities, it is essential not to face them with demands that are age-inappropriate” — that sounds very padded. Isn’t it also essential to face them with, in modern management terms, “stretch goals”?)


    • I don’t know what is a “baseless feel-good self-affirmation” for you, so I may miss the mark, but I’ll give it a shot. If you had two children and one was more capable than the other due to the vagaries of nature (they are smarter, stronger, healthier, whatever), would you consider the more capable one more worthy of love and care? If a cure for the problem was found, and the child who had lagged behind suddenly blossomed and started being more productive, would your love and care shift? I’d say that if your answer is “oh fuck no!” , then your approach to parenting is such that your children would grow up knowing that they don’t have to jump through hoops to earn your love, that they have a basic level of worth in your eyes that can’t be obliterated by a bad grade, an illness, or an accident.
      That isn’t the case for a lot of kids. As undiagnosed neurodivergent children are often pegged as problem children, rather than children with problems, they can grow up believing that they are worth less than other children, or that they are worthless. Even diagnosed children can stretch the abilities of their parents to provide consistent love, care, and support. Add the rest of society judging from the outside with little or no knowledge of the situation, and you can create a pretty toxic environment for a child to grow up.

      Re. your second point, you answered it in your first paragraph. Age-inappropriate goals are not achievable. If you try to make your toddler ride a bike without stabilisers, they’re gonna fall over. If you then chide them for their “failure”, you’re a pretty terrible parent. The issue for a lot of neurodivergent people is that we may develop at different rates from our cohorts, so measuring us against the average doesn’t lead to results that reflect our level of effort, or see us punished when we actually just need help. In some cases, we may struggle with certain things to the point that we just can’t do them. I read “War and Peace” when I was nine or ten, but I am literally incapable of telling left from right. That isn’t going to change.


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