Is it intensely painful when someone ignores or criticises you? Do you interpret minor disagreements as a sign that someone doesn’t like you? Will you do almost anything to avoid getting into an argument? If that sounds like you, then you might be overly sensitive to rejection, or, in medical terms, you might be suffering from rejection sensitive dysphoria.
It’s normal and natural to want to avoid rejection. Rejection is supposed to be uncomfortable. That discomfort motivates us to connect with people and to behave in ways that are socially acceptable. However, people with rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD) have an exaggerated response to rejection. Any form of rejection is excruciatingly painful and deeply personal. The pain is so intense it feels almost physical, and it can stay with us for a long time.
Why daydreamers are prone to RSD
Daydreamers are more likely than non-daydreamers to struggle with RSD. There are a few reasons for this.
Firstly, RSD is often a symptom of ADHD. Since 75% of maladaptive daydreamers meet the criteria for ADHD, it’s likely that many maladaptive daydreamers have some level of rejection sensitivity.
Secondly, people who have been maladaptively daydreaming since childhood haven’t learned to deal with rejection. We didn’t have many friends when we were growing up, so we didn’t learn social skills. You can’t learn how to manage rejection from an imaginary friend who never rejects you.
Finally, the thing we find upsetting in someone else’s behaviour is often the thing that triggers a wound we’re already carrying inside us. It might be deeply painful when someone else rejects you because it highlights how much you reject yourself. Daydreamers often carry a lot of shame or self-loathing, and those feelings can surface when you feel rejected by someone else.
The consequences of being sensitive to rejection
In addition to the pain you feel every time someone rejects or criticises you, there are other problems that can be associated with RSD.
First, people with RSD are often perfectionists or people-pleasers. We desperately want to do everything perfectly so that no-one can find fault with it. And we need to keep everyone happy because we can’t handle conflict.
Second, our desire to avoid conflict can lead us to avoid social contact altogether. This is particularly problematic for daydreamers because loneliness and social isolation are powerful triggers for maladaptive daydreaming. When you can’t tolerate arguments, it’s very tempting to hide in a daydream world where no-one ever argues with you.
And, when you’re already feeling bad about yourself, being criticised by someone else can reinforce the idea that you’re unworthy and unloveable. So, shame and rejection sensitivity can work together in a vicious spiral. Being rejected increases your shame, which increases the pain of being rejected, and so on.
Is there anything we can do about it?
Rejection sensitivity is horrible, so if it was easy to overcome it, you’d have done it a long time ago. But there are a few things that can help.
Firstly, try to keep a sense of perspective. If someone criticises something you did, remind yourself that it was your behaviour on that one occasion that they had a problem with. It doesn’t mean they don’t like you or that they think you’re a bad person. And if someone ignores or rejects you, it could just be because they’re having a bad day.
If you’re a perfectionist as a consequence of RSD, practice being “good enough” rather than “perfect”. For most people “good enough” will be fine, and the more you notice that, the easier it will be to let go of the need to be perfect.
And when something happens that triggers your RSD, it’s OK to daydream for a few minutes while you calm down. Talk to one of your characters about what happened. They won’t reject you, and they can give you a safe space to process your thoughts and assess whether things really are as bad as you think.
Finally, be kind to yourself. Just like maladaptive daydreaming, RSD is the result of a normal and adaptive process getting out of control. Rejection isn’t supposed to feel nice. It’s a loss of connection, and the discomfort is your signal to do what you can to restore that connection. But if you withdraw into your daydreams to escape the pain of RSD, you’re not heeding that signal. And that means that next time the pain is going to be even more intense. So daydream as long as you need to, give your characters a chance to soothe your overpowering emotions, and then get back to reality and get on with living.