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What is Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria? 

 

Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria is a term for a phenomenon that many neurodivergent individuals experience, which is an intense emotional reaction to real or perceived criticism or rejection

I do not like this term as it was created during a time when descriptors for neurodivergent ways of being were quite negative and pejorative. I like to view it as akin to the sensory differences that are also experienced by neurodivergent folks, that is, some people are quite sensitive to sensory information (aka hypersensitive, where quiet sounds can feel loud), some are less sensitive to sensory information (aka hyposensitive, where loud sounds can feel quiet), and some experience sensory information in the neurotypical range (loud sounds loud and quiet sounds quiet). 

 

This behavioural feature appears to be like a hypersensitivity to language about the person, as heard through a ‘critical’ lens

Perceived Criticism or Rejection

 

Neurodivergent folks who experience this feature have their brains tuned to the station Rejection FM: All criticism, all the time.

The thing about this station is that when your brain is scanning for signs of criticism, rejection, and/or dismissal, it’s going to find something – even if there is no critic present. So, a person tuned in to Rejection FM will react not just to actual criticism or rejection, but any perception of it. What does perceived criticism look like? If a smile is unreturned or if acknowledgements are not given for work done… an intense emotional reaction can occur!

Imagine you have a partner tuned to Rejection FM. You come home and they ask, “how was your day?” Tired after a long day at work, you reply “fine” a bit tartly. Your partner will interpret this response as a criticism of them - their brain starts playing a lyric by Taylor Swift: ‘Hi it’s me, I’m the problem it’s me’ (from Anti Hero). Rejection FM likes to play this lyric a lot. I mean a real lot.

Characteristics of Rejection FM 

Rejection FM can show up in many ways:

  • Hyper Emotions: Emotional reactions can be big and may appear disproportionate to the situation to family, friends, or peers; these emotions can also appear storm-like, with bouts of frustration, anger, or sadness

  • Shifting Emotions: Emotions of those tuned to Rejection FM may seem to shift quickly if rejection or criticism are perceived (or real)

  • Physical Side-Effects: Emotional responses can result in physical discomfort; some have described it as a punch to the gut

  • Self-Esteem Impacts: A brain tuned to Rejection FM often experience feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy, or may feel useless or unwanted

  • Social Impacts: People tuned to Rejection FM cannot help but be on the lookout for signs of rejection or criticism, and may avoid social interactions due to fear of being rejected and the anxious response this may create

  • Relationship Impact: Rejection FM can make disagreements challenging; those who experience this feature may try to avoid conflict, may people please, or may go non-responsive during disagreements to limit opportunities for criticism and rejection

 

Tips for those tuned to Rejection FM

 
Clear and direct communication. Neutral signals can be interpreted as criticism or rejection and the intent of others may be misinterpreted. To navigate this challenge, clear and direct communication is key. In a trusted relationship, ask your communication partner if they meant to communicate how you interpreted it. For example, if you feel rejection when you ask your partner ‘how was your day?’ and they respond with ‘fine’, ask a follow-up question to clarify. For example, ‘did you have a bad day at work?’ or ‘you sound upset, what’s up?’ to test the accuracy of your interpretation.

Rejection is a common human experience. Those tuned to Rejection FM unsurprisingly have a fear of rejection. This fear can have long-standing impacts on activities one engages in as well as their relationships and may result in the engagement of avoidance behaviours.  To navigate this challenge, it can be helpful to remind yourself that a fear of rejection is a common human experience. Most people fear rejection and feel the sting of rejection from time to time. What is important is to acknowledge how you are feeling or thinking. When you notice criticism or rejection rising in you, you can say to your partner, ‘I am feeling uneasy, can we take a moment?’ 

Honesty with partner. It is important to have an honest conversation with your partner. This could look like talking, it could be a text message, or a written communication journal that you share with your partner. If you are someone who would like to have time to process thoughts, take time to think about how you would like to respond – the key is responding honestly about your experience. 

When in a state where you are not feeling rejected, talk to your partner about ongoing matters in your relationship. Ask each other how your day was. Keep your attention on your partner. Share authentically and honestly. During these moments, if you feel rejection rise, you can practice self-compassion and tell yourself that everyone feels rejection from time to time. Other things you can say include: 

  •  I am speaking with a loved one, I can choose to believe that they are not criticizing me

  • My worth is not dependent on the opinions of others

  • I am worthy of acceptance  

Put some time into identifying your triggers. In your relationship, what types of situations, thoughts, or conversations tune your brain to Rejection FM? Ask your partner what they believe triggers the switch to Rejection FM from their perspective. Map it out - this can help you learn more about yourself and when you may be listening to Rejection FM instead of Neutral FM.

 

Track your thoughts and experiences. When you notice that you are feeling rejection, make a note in your notes app. This can also help identify triggers and help you process the experience. You can ask yourself ‘was I listening to Rejection or Neutral FM?’ 

Manage your experience. When you are experiencing rejection, try a relaxation strategy. This can look like anything that you find calming or relaxing and may include deep breathing, sensory grounding, and engaging in preferred interests or activities. The goal is to calm your body and mind. When feeling rejected, although odd, may also be a moment to connect with your partner. Tell your partner you are feeling uneasy and ask them to engage in deep breathing or other calming strategies with you. 

 

Sources 

https://neurodivergentinsights.com/blog/how-to-deal-with-rejection-sensitive-dysphoria

https://neurodivergentinsights.com/blog/rejection-sensitive-dysphoria-relationships?rq=rejection

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