Let’s say there’s an intersection on your way to work, and on your first encounter with this intersection you don’t realize it’s a four-way stop so you drive right through it. Someone else honks at you, maybe because they narrowly missed hitting you or you narrowly missed hitting them. Either way, it startles you into realizing the mistake you made. The next time you reach that intersection, the memory of that incident prevents you from making the same mistake again.
Rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD) is a term one person made up that has since become popular in ADHD communities online. It’s not in the DSM and there’s no scientific evidence of it being a legitimate, diagnosable condition. But for a lot of people with ADHD, the idea rings painfully true. It’s something we feel our brains doing to us time and time again. It’s the equivalent of another driver honking at us when we blow through a stop sign, but in this case it’s our brains shouting at us when we make a social mistake. For many of us with ADHD, those social mistakes are one of the most painful parts of it.
People with neurotypical brains have a gatekeeper between their brain and their mouth. If their brain sends something to their mouth that is inappropriate and likely to get them in trouble, the gatekeeper tells it, “Sorry, buddy; that’s an inappropriateness-free zone ahead.” For people with ADHD, the gatekeeper is often off duty and the guard shack is empty. That inappropriate thought just continues right on through the checkpoint and comes out of the mouth. Trouble often ensues.
Then, after the fact, our brains punish us for it. That moment we said the inappropriate thing and made things awkward? Our brains replay it over and over again, asking, “Do you see what you did wrong there?” And we do! Boy do we ever. We’re not stupid. We get it. But the next time something inappropriate comes out of our brain, guess what? The gatekeeper is off duty again. The cycle repeats itself.
So, our brains punish us again. And again. And again. We’re used to it. We’ve dealt with external punishment like this all of our lives. Other people think that if they punish us for missing a deadline or not turning in a homework assignment or falling asleep during a meeting or forgetting to a bill, etc., etc., that we will learn our lesson and not do it again. But it’s not a matter of learning a lesson. We’re not stupid. We’re not lazy. We’re not apathetic. Our brains just work a different way, a way that is slightly out of step with time.
RSD is the result of our brains trying harder and harder to get us to learn the lesson, but not realizing there’s no lesson left to be learned. We know already. We’ve seen the discomfort we’ve caused. We remember the people we’ve alienated, the relationships we’ve ruined. We get it! But our brains keep punishing us anyway.
This is the point in the blog post where normally I’d turn the topic around and spin it into a positive. And there are positives to having ADHD. People with ADHD are some of the most creative, intelligent, and empathetic people you’ll ever meet. But this post isn’t about that. It’s about how yes, we get it, we screwed up. But damn it, we’re trying.
[Please note: I am not a mental health professional. These are just my thoughts and opinions as someone who has been through stuff. If you feel like you might have undiagnosed ADHD or are feeling overwhelmed by depression or anxiety, please see a mental health professional. Nothing on the Internet is a substitute for that.]