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March 28, 2023

A Look at Rejection Sensitivity with ADHD

A brand new series is here, and it’s on everyone’s favorite topic: rejection. 

From childhood to adulthood, we experience rejection in a variety of ways and learn how to respond to it. Those of us with ADHD often experience this frequently and at an early age. As a result, we tend to have heightened sensitivity to feelings of exclusion or dismissal. We react extremely or suppress our own desires in order to please the people around us whose love and approval we most crave.

The first episode in this series involves a critical self-examination and reflection time to determine whether or not you may demonstrate rejection sensitivity. 

I discuss expert opinions on the relationship between having ADHD and experiencing rejection, how rejection can be perceived but not real and the importance of nurturing our psyches when we experience these strong feelings.

While this episode may bring up some intense memories or emotions, I’m here to offer generous validation and grace so that listeners can better prepare for self-regulation in times of uncertainty.

In addition to finding a good trauma-informed therapist for support, my group coaching program, FOCUSED, is a great, supportive community for other ADHDers learning how to harness our strengths and overcome our weaknesses. I hope you check us out!

Referenced Links:

Experiences of criticism in adults with ADHD
Rejection sensitivity and the social brain
Rejection sensitivity and disruption of attention
Peer Functioning in Children with ADHD
Peer victimization in children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder



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This totally free printable includes a psychologist-approved list of symptoms that adults with ADHD commonly experience. This could give you the answers you’ve been begging for your entire life.

Kristen Carder 0:05
Welcome to the I have ADHD podcast, where it’s all about education, encouragement and coaching for adults with ADHD. I’m your host, Kristen Carter and I have ADHD. Let’s chat about the frustrations, humor and challenges of adulting relationships working and achieving with this neurodevelopmental disorder. I’ll help you understand your unique brain, unlock your potential and move from point A to point B. Hey, what’s up, this is Kristen Carter and you’re listening to the I have ADHD podcast.

I am medicated, I am caffeinated. I am regulated. And I am ready to roll. That’s right. You heard it, you heard it. After four years of this podcast, I’m making a tiny, tiny, tiny, but massive change to the intro to include the fact that I am regulated. Because I’m realizing it’s not enough to be medicated. And it’s not enough to be caffeinated. I also have the responsibility to be regulated. And this is why we’re here today, my friend. It’s the crux of ADHD management. And this is what we are learning together, day by day on this pod, medicated, caffeinated, regulated. And now we’re ready to roll.

I gotta tell you, though, being regulated, it’s actually quite difficult for me during this topic, because we are talking about rejection sensitivity, and rejection sensitive dysphoria. And I’m not joking when I say that it gets me fired up. This is going to be a series of episodes on rejection, rejection sensitivity, rejection, sensitivity, dysphoria, et cetera, et cetera. And I am going to need to be practicing all of my self regulatory techniques as I research and take notes, and record today’s episode and episode for next week. My goodness, you might need to hang tight and do some deep breathing with me, which is totally fine, we can be in this together, it is going to be on the heavier side. And so if you’re not in a good place, just make sure to take care. You know, make sure that you are nurtured and safe as you listen to this episode. But first, if you are looking for supplemental support for your ADHD, I want to invite you to join my coaching program focused focused is a monthly membership where adults with ADHD gather in community to learn skills that we really should have learned in childhood and adolescence, let’s be real skills like time management, emotional regulation, how to organize how to understand ADHD, and all of the things that help us to develop into fully functioning adults. Now I’ve served 1000s of adults with ADHD through this program, and it’s proven itself over and over to be beneficial to those who are struggling with ADHD symptoms. Now, I got to chat with one of my clients this week, and I want you to hear what he has to say about the program.

Coaching 1 3:13
You have changed my life, because I’m not on medicine. But I’ve been attending focus for I don’t know, like two years now. And there was a point in time where I was gonna get rid of it. And luckily, I pause, and I’m so glad I stayed because you’re my medicine. And you seriously, you have helped so many people. And you have helped me. I mean, I could identify you said one time you were back in the day sitting on the couch, and you did nothing with your day. That was me. Now I’ve I’ve started a business.It’s a tiny business. I’m still waiting for it to pay off for things to happen. But I’ve done things and I’m actually moving forward and doing more and more. So thank you. Thank you.

Kristen Carder 4:03
Isn’t that beautiful? So if you’re looking for support, look no further go to I have to learn more about the focus program and join us today. Okay, I already alluded to this earlier, but this series of episodes has been a journey, I thought I could get away with just doing one episode on the topic of rejection. And that’s just really sweet and adorable, but it looks like we’re gonna be talking about rejection for like a couple of weeks. So just hang with me. There’s a lot to cover. So if you don’t hear what you want to hear in the first episode, or the second episode, you might hear what you want to hear about it in the third episode. So I hope that what you walk away with is an understanding about yourself and the ADHD brain and how to navigate ADHD life even better. That’s what I’m hoping for.

Okay. All right. So let’s Start Here, I want to let you know that I’m going to make a distinction between rejection sensitivity and rejection sensitive dysphoria, which sometimes we just call RSD. Okay, so today’s episode is all about rejection sensitivity. We’ll talk about how it relates to ADHD and what we can do about it. Next week, I’m going to dive into rejection sensitive dysphoria RSD and I’m going to tell you that episode is going to be full of spice, I’m bringing the heat so get ready.

Now after that, I have an interview with psychotherapist Helen Villars on the topic of rejection sensitivity. I’m sure you remember her from the podcast a few weeks ago on emotional abuse. You’re gonna love our conversation we’ve already chatted, I can’t wait for you to hear it. And lastly, if there’s anything else to talk about, like if we end those three episodes, and I still feel like there’s more to talk about, I’m going to do a wrap up episode for you just to make sure we’ve covered all of the bases on rejection. All right, but we’re going to start here for today, rejection sensitivity. According to an article in Psychology Today called rejection sensitivity written by there’s actually no author written, like listed so sorry about that.

But the article itself is called rejection sensitivity and it is from Psychology Today. Here is what they say about rejection sensitivity. Someone high in rejection sensitivity will often interpret benign or mildly negative social cues, such as a partner not answering a text message immediately, as signs of outright rejection. They may disregard other more logical explanations, as well as reassurances on the part of the supposedly rejecter paradoxically, such behavior may actually push others away, creating a self fulfilling prophecy. Rejection sensitivity is a real thing. It is valid and it is not all in your head. It is a true experience that deserves to be talked about and researched and honored and treated.

So that’s the lens through which I’m going to approach this episode. Rejection sensitivity is real. Across the board, adults with ADHD seem to be more sensitive to rejection than their peers. We’re going to talk later about why that might be. But I’m going to quote a statistic to you from Dr. William W. Dodson. Now he throws this statistic around we are going to talk about Dr. Dodson. Next week, in our episode on RSD. We’re gonna do a deep dive. But one thing that Dr. dodson says, in many of his writings, and in a YouTube lecture that I watched, is that 98% of ADHD ears report that they are high in rejection sensitivity, and 30% of ADHD, or say that it is the most debilitating component of the disorder for them personally. I want to sit with that statistic for a minute. Because, wow.

Now, it’s important that I say that I don’t know where he got this information. He does not quote a study. He does not quote his own clients experience. He’s he, I can’t figure out where he’s getting this info. So we got to take it with a grain of salt. Okay, but let’s just say that he is exaggerating, let’s just pretend let’s say he is exaggerating, and it’s only half of what he reports. Let’s say that 50% of ADHD years experience high rejection, and 15% say that it’s the most debilitating component of the disorder. That’s still a lot. That’s still something that we need to take very, very seriously.

So, my sweet listener, if you are someone who freaks out at rejection, whether it’s real or perceived during good company around here, ADHD community your night, okay. So, rejection sensitivity is exactly as it sounds. It’s an extreme sensitivity to the idea of being rejected. Whether it is a real actual rejection or a perceived rejection, and ADHD or are prone to extreme negative emotions around rejection. An article on very well by Jamie R. Herndon put it this way.

Rejection sensitivity is a trait that makes a person expect, perceive and react intensely to rejection, whether that rejection is real or perceived. For instance, things like not answering a text message pitch can convince someone with rejection sensitivity, that they are no longer liked. These feelings override any other more logical response or explanation and can impact relationships of all types is really, really important. So listener, what’s it been like for you, as you’ve experienced teasing, or as you’ve experienced someone misunderstanding you? What’s it like for you, when you perceive that someone is ignoring you, or judging you, or flat out rejecting you? What’s it like for you when you fail, or when someone gives you critical feedback. If you feel huge, almost unbearable, emotions welling up inside of you. If you feel like your heart is being cut out with a knife, if you experience major anger, and completely explosive emotions, it’s possible that you are highly sensitive to rejection. It’s important for you understand that adults with ADHD seem to be massively prone to this rejection sensitivity.

This means that if we believe we are being rejected, even if it’s just a potential rejection, or perceived rejection, or our own rejection of ourselves, we feel huge amounts of pain. And this pain can literally feel like physical pain, the pain can be absolutely debilitating. And it can often cause us to avoid even trying, it can make it so that we don’t put ourselves out there in relationships or in our jobs or in social situations, because we’re so terrified of the intense and awful feeling of rejection.

The other thing that being highly sensitive to rejection can cause us to do is to abandon ourselves and people, please, if we’re afraid to be rejected, and the only way not to be rejected is to keep people happy, then we are going to work really, really, really hard to keep the people around us happy, aren’t we? So listener, pay, raise your hand, if you’re a people pleaser is that because perhaps you’re intensely afraid of being rejected? I really want to encourage you that this is really very common, you’re not broken, you’re not doing it wrong, you’re literally protecting yourself from danger, the danger of being rejected.

So I just want you to know that you’re loved, you have so much value. And if your eyes are being opened right now, and you notice that maybe you’re using some coping mechanisms like avoidance or people pleasing, and you don’t really love that, I just want to invite you to give yourself a little space and a little grace. Because the coping mechanisms that we use, are there for a reason. They’re there to protect us, they’re there to keep us safe. They’re there to make sure we have what we need. So the first and maybe the most important thing here is just awareness, that rejection sensitivity is a thing.

You need to be aware that rejection sensitivity is a thing for adults with ADHD. It’s a thing that has the potential to dictate your actions and your behavior if you’re not aware of it. So this episode goes hand in hand with the episode recently on self awareness. So if this is really resonating with you, and you’re kind of wondering like, How can I move forward, listening to that episode on self awareness in light of rejection sensitivity might be really helpful to you. And I’m going to ask you some self reflective questions here.

So I invite you to listen to the questions you can pause this episode while you answer them. If you’re like in your car, or on a run or doing your dishes, just answer them out loud. Just like literally, I’m going to ask you a question, you respond back to me and I’m just going to pretend that I can hear you that I can feel your energy and we’re just like so connected here. Okay. So do you feel that maybe you’re more sensitive to rejection than your peers? How do you feel when you’ve been rejected? What is that experience like for you? When’s the last time that you felt rejected? How did you handle that? Do you still think about failures or rejections that happened decades ago? Can you even feel the pain of those rejections right now? If so, oh, my goodness. I am so here with you. Let me just take a deep breath.

I’ll take a deep breath with you so that you can expand and let that emotion kind of move through you It’s really possible that as an adult with ADHD, you are highly sensitive to rejection. And what’s very important for you to understand about this is that rejection doesn’t even have to be real, for you to experience real emotions around it. I’m certainly not here to invalidate anyone’s emotion. The experience that you have in your body, when you perceive that you’ve been rejected, is 100%, legitimate and real. I want to share an experience that I had yesterday, literally yesterday. It’s always a thing where I am working on a podcast topic, and then I see it in my own life. And so this is one of those times. So I submitted a design request to a subset of our builders company.

Let me explain. We had a house built about a year ago. And by a certain company, we loved working with them. And I want to add some built ins next to our fireplace, some like cabinets and shelves and lights and stuff next to our fireplace. So the builder has a home renovation branch, which I think would be perfect for this. So I submitted a request there on their website, didn’t hear back, submitted a second time, didn’t hear back, I was driving home from work yesterday, totally overcome with the feeling of rejection. I mean, I created a whole scenario about this, in my mind, I created this scenario where they didn’t enjoy working with us as clients and the builder, like told the design plays like listen, you don’t want to work with the Carter family there. So high maintenance. And I had it all decided and all played out in my head, I was imagining them talking to each other about us like it was a whole thing. And the rejection feelings were there with me in real time, those feelings were real.

And then I realized, Kristen, you don’t even know if any of this is true. Now, that gave me just a tiny bit of space. And it was the space that I needed to just observe my thinking, the feelings were still there. And I had to breathe through those feelings, and acknowledge them and validate them and process them. But I was able, intellectually, to help myself see that I had created a whole rejection scenario, because I am highly sensitive to rejection.

Now, this was not an opportunity for me to dismiss myself, or invalidate myself, or to tell myself like, Oh, you’re just being stupid, like, why can’t you just be normal? Cut it out? Like, no. And I don’t want you to do that to yourself, okay? But when you notice that you’re creating rejection scenarios in your brain, it’s important that you validate that you are more prone to those feelings of rejection.

And you give yourself lots of comfort and lots of nurture around that. And then you decide, do I truly have enough evidence to believe that I’m actually being rejected here? In my case, the answer to that was No, I have no idea. There could have been a glitch in their system, their assistant could be on vacation, maybe they don’t even have, like, maybe they want to work with us, but they just haven’t gotten to it yet. Maybe like, I have no idea. Is rejection one of the potential scenarios? Yeah, sure. Is it possible that they didn’t like working with my family? I mean, how could that be possible? Because we’re like, amazing, but yes, that is a possibility. Like it is possible that they don’t want to work with us, and that they hate us. Sure. But it’s also possible that they just haven’t gotten to it yet. That they are too busy for it. There’s a bunch of other possible scenarios. And when you understand that you are prone to being highly sensitive to rejection, you’re going to help yourself understand that rejection is not the only scenario possible. There are other things possible. And yes, those feelings are valid, and they’re real, and they deserve nurture and care.

But it doesn’t mean that you are actually being rejected. You are for sure feeling like it. And that needs to be taken care of in your body. But we don’t know for sure if you are being rejected. All right. So let’s transition just for a quick minute and chat about this question.

Why are adults with ADHD more prone to being sensitive to rejection? In order to answer that question, I think it’s really important for us to examine the typical experience of someone with ADHD and While I’m chatting about this, it might be helpful to you to kind of reflect on your own experience as a child as an adolescent, as a young adult, as a as an adult with ADHD, because here’s what’s true about us, our brains don’t work like everyone else’s. We struggled to regulate our behavior. And our emotions were impulsive and inattentive, we struggled to, like do things the right way in the right order in the right amount of time. And so for most of us, from the time of birth, we’ve been told both implicitly and explicitly that we’re doing it wrong. In order to fit into our families in order to fit into our schools in order to fit into our friend groups. And now our jobs.

We’ve had to try to be different than we really are. Think of all of the corrective feedback and criticism that you received as a child and as a teen and now as an adult. In short, we’ve been rejected our entire lives over and over and over and over way more than the average person. I want to illustrate this for you by asking the question, Did you listen to my episode with Helen billers and Katie McKenna on emotional neglect and abuse? Did you resonate with that? Did you listen to my episode with Dr. Lindsay Gibson on emotionally immature parents? Did you have 100 aha moments during that episode? If so, wouldn’t it be safe to say that you may have been surrounded by people who have been rejecting the real you for decades, if not your entire life? And wouldn’t a persistent continued amount of rejection lead to rejection sensitivity?

If you’re not truly seen for the amazing human that you are, if you were and are constantly told that you are the problem, if you’ve been made to feel at fault for pretty much everything, if you feel the need to people, please and take care of your parents in order to get the love and affection that you deserve as their child, wouldn’t that perhaps cause some rejection sensitivity? I mean, logically, can’t we just say that it’s more than possible that being neuro divergence in a neurotypical world. And everything that comes along with that makes us hypersensitive to rejection. Because what happens when we are rejected? I mean, research, it’s so well documented in psychology, when we’re rejected by our parents, we lose our attachment and attachment is everything to a child. Oh, my gosh, there’s so much research to show that attachment is biological unnecessary, and it’s front and center in every child’s brain. So if we perceive rejection, it’s a huge threat. And when we’re rejected as adults, we run the risk of losing our place in society, like rejection isn’t safe. We are social creatures biologically wired for connection. That’s the opposite of rejection. Yeah, we are biologically wired for connection.

And so of course, we are sensitive to rejection. Because rejection means danger. And of course, as people with ADHD, we have gathered so much evidence that the way that we show up in the world means that we’re going to be rejected, and that A plus B equals C, if I am impulsive and loud, I’m going to be made fun of and rejected. Or if I show up late, I’m going to be rejected. Or if I, you know, say the wrong thing, I’m going to be rejected. And so we’ve collected more evidence than most people that we are at risk of rejection, we have collected more evidence than the average human, that rejection is a real and present danger for us. This is so heavy, I just, I’m sending you the biggest hug, I’m sending you the biggest hug. As we wrap up, I want to mention one study from the National Library of Medicine that I will post in the show notes. And it’s absolutely fascinating. Listen to this. This study shows that social rejection actually disrupts our attention. Okay, I’m gonna say it again, social rejection, whether in families or schools or at work, it disrupts our attention because our brain is so focused on the danger of being rejected, that it can’t concentrate on whatever it is that we’re supposed to be doing in the moment. And this out of all of the things that I researched out of all of the things that I read over the last couple of weeks, and it’s been a lot, okay, it’s been a lot This makes me want to cry, this one study.

Because when I remember the little version of me, that little girl just wanting so badly to fit in, just wanting so badly, to have connection to feel like I was a part of a community to feel like I was seen, and I just didn’t have it. And I was so distracted, my attention was so disrupted and constantly on the lookout for social threats. And those social threats. For me personally, they were real. There were a lot of threats to my connection, there were a lot of threats to my being a part of something and, and it impaired my attention. I know it did. I know it did. I’m so much compassion for that little girl. So much compassion for you, listener. So we’re gonna wrap it up here. And just a reminder, we’re going to be continuing the discussion.

But here’s where we’re going to wrap it up, what can be done? What can be done about our sensitivity to rejection, first, awareness, that and maybe for you, your eyes are just being open to like, Oh, I didn’t realize that this was something pervasive in the ADHD community, you are not broken. There’s nothing wrong with you. If you are more prone to rejection sensitivity than your peers, you fit right in with us in this ADHD community. Okay, so absolutely no shame, absolutely no blame, this is not on you. This is just the way it is. Okay. So be aware that rejection sensitivity is likely going to be prominent for you. So you will probably find yourself creating a lot of rejection scenarios. And I want you to begin to notice when you’re creating those rejection scenarios, and be kind to yourself when that happens.

So just like me in the car on my way home yesterday, creating this whole rejection scenario around the builder, and they don’t like us and they don’t want to work with us. It was it was just a scenario. Do I know it to be true? No. Do I have any evidence for it? Other than like the fact that they haven’t responded? No? Where are my feelings real? And valid? Yes. 100%. Yes. And it is on me to make sure I validate that and take care of that because those feelings really were valid. And that’s the next thing. When you experience those big emotions related to rejection, whether real or perceived. I really want you to validate them. Don’t tell yourself you’re being stupid. Don’t tell yourself you need to get over it. Don’t tell yourself that, you know, like, this isn’t a big deal. Just get over it. No biggie. It is a big deal. It is real. And you deserve to give those emotions some space. So here’s something that I maybe you would want to write down on a sticky note and put it up in your car, on your bathroom mirror, wherever validate your emotions, question your thoughts? Your emotions are real.

It’s not your emotions that we need to invalidate. It’s your thoughts that we want to question. Is it possible that maybe I am creating a rejection scenario here? Is it possible that I’m kind of running away with this fantasy and it’s not quite real? Is it possible that something else might be going on here? Do I have enough evidence to truly believe that I’m being rejected? Sometimes we do, sometimes we do. But I would say for most of us, ah, dears. Most of the time, we don’t have all of the evidence there to fully say that we’re being rejected. Next, I really want you to surround yourself with people who you feel safe with. I want you to surround yourself with people that you don’t have to fear rejection with. Some of you need new people. I say it a lot. I’ve been saying it for a year. Some of you need new people. You might want to go back and listen to the relationship series that I did last summer. I think that was a really, really important series for those of us with ADHD. Some of you are in really unsafe relationships and in those relationships, you’re going to experience a lot of rejection and I want to tell you that that is not your fault. That is not your fault, but it is your responsibility to make sure that you are in safe relationships with people who know you and love you and accept you.

Okay, and then last, I really encourage you to seek out help through a trauma informed therapist and or a trauma informed coach. All of the trauma informed therapists and psychology Just in coaches who I’ve spoken to believe that rejection sensitivity is related to trauma, insecure, anxious attachment styles and adverse childhood experiences, like being rejected over and over for the way that you show up in your family and your school and your society. And what I know is that having a safe place to talk about it, and a community where safe relationships are being cultivated, where you’re not alone, where you’re being validated, where you’re included, where you’re loved, is a beautiful way to start healing. All right, I am sending you so much love and care. We’re going to continue this highly nuanced and complex conversation next week. I can’t wait.

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