Are They Narcissistic or Do They Have Rejection-Sensitive Dysphoria?

Your partner is dismissive. Your partner is defensive. Your partner is withdrawn. Your partner is cold-hearted and indifferent.

Or is it that your partner is overwhelmed?

Your partner is misunderstood. Your partner is stigmatized. Your partner is judged. Your partner has broken down out of self-preservation. Your partner is insecure.

Have you ever heard of rejection-sensitive dysphoriaI hadn’t.

I did, however, have a lot of experience as a teacher of students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD), so over the years, I learned they don’t take kindly to negative criticism. Alternatively, these students do better with positive reinforcement.

Similarly, I learned to “catch” one of my children (diagnosed with ADHD) doing good things instead of correcting misbehavior. Unfortunately, when he was younger, he experienced punitive measures at a summer camp, which hurt his confidence. While some parents think I am too lenient, they do not know why or how I appear as such.

Still, while I adapted to my child’s needs, unfortunately, as a high school teacher, by the time some students get to my class, the damage is done. This is because those with rejection-sensitive dysphoria end up 1) shutting down to protect themselves or 2) becoming angry and defensive.

While narcissistic behavior and abuse are real and not to be minimized, I can see why others would mistake rejection-sensitive dysphoria for narcissism. These days if someone is not open to constructive criticism, or shuts down we deem them narcissistic. But imagine how damaging it can be to a relationship if rejection-sensitive dysphoria goes undiagnosed?

As an educator, a mother, and a wife, learning about rejection-sensitive dysphoria has strengthened my relationship with those who suffer from this condition by building empathy and compassion for both the self and the other and practicing effective coping strategies.

What is ADD/ADHD and rejection-sensitive dysphoria?

According to William Dodson M.D., “Rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD) is extreme emotional sensitivity and pain triggered by the perception that a person has been rejected or criticized by important people in their life.

It may also be triggered by a sense of falling short — failing to meet their own high standards or others’ expectations.”

Since living with ADD/ADHD can be challenging and can go undiagnosed many individuals suffer in silence.

I have noted those with the condition have challenges regulating emotions, being in the moment, and focusing on tasks, and seeing them through, for instance. Therefore, while the condition is common, it is also misunderstood. According to Attitude Magazine,

ADHD is the preferred medical term for the biologically based neurological condition that was once called ADD. Its symptoms fall into one of three quantifying subtypes: Primarily Inattentive, Primarily Hyperactive-Impulsive, or Combined. They also vary in severity from person to person, making diagnosis challenging.

While the traditional understanding of the condition includes impulsivity and boisterousness, there has been a growing understanding of how qualities such as being withdrawn or quiet are also prevalent especially in women.

Although there is awareness of how ADD/ADHD affects both children and adults, there is little understanding or knowledge of rejection sensitive dysphoria, but it can create the following, cites Attitude Magazine:

For people with ADHD or ADD, Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria can mean extreme emotional sensitivity and emotional pain — and it may imitate mood disorders with suicidal ideation and manifest as instantaneous rage at the person responsible for causing the pain.

As you can imagine, once the individual and those around them such as teachers and or parents, peers, and family members, understand this condition, then strategies can be used resulting in stronger relationships, understanding, self-compassion, and compassion for others.

Building compassion for the self and the other

Those with rejection-sensitivity dysphoria are quite sensitive to tone and also feeling that they are doing things right. This is why many either fall into the trap of being people-pleasers or go to the extreme and give up and stop speaking in public for instance. As you can imagine, speaking softly to an individual with this condition is beneficial, as is focusing on problem-solving.

However, being a very blunt and outspoken person, it can be challenging for me to be soft. This is also because when I feel overwhelmed and anxious, sometimes I am triggered and react swiftly.

But, when learning about this condition and living in a home with family members diagnosed with ADHD, it has become paramount for me to know when not to speak, speak softly, or throw in an endearing phrase or two — or three!

Actually, I am really not one for calling others “dear,” or “honey,” etc., but so far this technique has been working well for me and I notice that the boys and men in my life respond well to it.

It’s almost as though simply knowing how hard a person who has ADD/ADHD is working to process and gather thoughts, ends up building compassion. For example, when one of my sons was diagnosed with ADHD, the psychologist made me see how the use of assistive technology was important for him.

This way he didn’t have to spend so much time and energy focusing on the handwriting so that he could focus more on forming thoughts. Consequently, over time, the handwriting also improved naturally.

In addition, now in my marriage, my partner and I are aware of the condition, so we are more able to laugh at our quirks. For example, if I overreact at a mistake he makes, and he is underwhelmed by it all and fails to be accountable, eventually we laugh at the both of us, and literally laugh it off, and away. Last week he sprayed bug spray on me by accident but I was rather harsh in the way I responded. This could have been a full-blown fight but it wasn’t because we each ended up laughing at ourselves.

But this is a difference from before. In the past, he would sometimes try to make me laugh at my own expense, as a defense I suppose, but eventually, I made him understand why it’s not funny to me. It was a relief to have my feelings validated and not feel like he was shutting down, and shutting me out.

Knowledge is empowering and life-changing

For many just knowing about the condition and sharing this diagnosis with a partner can make a world of difference. According to Attitude Magazine,

Rejection sensitivity is part of ADHD. It’s neurologic and genetic. Early childhood trauma makes anything worse, but it does not cause RSD. Often, patients are comforted just to know there is a name for this feeling. It makes a difference knowing what it is, that they are not alone, and that almost 100% of people with ADHD experience rejection sensitivity. After hearing this diagnosis, they’re relieved to know it’s not their fault and that they are not damaged.

Suddenly, one who suffers from this condition is relieved to know that they do not have to live up to their self-imposed standards, but that is only if they have others there to remind them of this. It’s almost like they need help talking themselves down, and self-regulating themselves.

When my child who is diagnosed with ADHD was a baby he needed a lot of assistance regulating himself. I had to rock him to fall asleep at night and for naps. But my other two sons, self-soothed themselves by sucking their thumb and rubbing their ears. They both did it.

It’s a rather interesting observation to me, that my sons who do not have ADHD soothed themselves and thus regulate their own emotions more effectively, while my son with ADHD needs more assistance.

No one knows how hard someone else is working to do what appears easy. No one knows how hard something comes to someone. Or how hard someone has to work to make up for a deficiency.

Building compassion and understanding is key but self-compassion and forgiveness are paramount.

So too is coming out on the other side.

Anything good only comes from hard work.

Anything not worth losing also takes fighting for.

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