RSD (Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria) has been appearing recently in the blogs and sites about ADHD I follow. I had no clue what it was, and after a quick glance at the definition I wrote it off as something that didn't concern me. After reading a few personal accounts of it, however, I decided to take a closer look at what it is exactly.
Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria is, in the most simplistic terms, that feeling that everyone gets when they stress out over how another person feels about them or about something they did. For example, when you give a cheerful “Good Morning” to a co-worker that brushes you off with a scowl causing you to spend the rest of the day wondering what you did wrong - that's how RSD feels, but much more so.
According to ADDitude Magazine:
"Rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD) is an extreme emotional sensitivity and emotional pain triggered by the perception – not necessarily the reality – that a person has been rejected, teased, or criticized by important people in their life. RSD may also be triggered by a sense of failure, or falling short – failing to meet either their own high standards or others’ expectations."
“RSD can make people with ADHD anticipate rejection - even when it’s anything but certain. This can make them vigilant about avoiding it, which can be misdiagnosed as social phobia…It is always triggered by the perceived or real loss of approval, love, or respect.”
If you're familiar with ADHD than you probably have noticed that being more sensitive is a common trait. In the past, general anxiety was just considered part of the whole package. During childhood when we're mapping out our feelings of self-worth as we interact with those around us, kids with ADHD tend to be corrected, criticized, and ostracized more often than their neurotypical peers - 20 times more, in fact. That lays the groundwork for being much more sensitive to rejection than their neurotypical peers.
I chalked a lot of my social anxiety up to low self-esteem, but there may be more to it than that. But what does all this mean for writers who have RSD tendencies?
A lot, actually.
A big part of my own writing issues stems from fears of being judged and falling short. Well before anyone even hears about an idea I'm working on I feel an overwhelming sense of dread that it's not going to be as good as I think it is. Usually, the excitement over my new idea overrides this feeling, but then I spend way too much time wondering if the people I shared with were just being polite, or worse maybe they're at home right now feeling sorry for me cuz I’m a hack. Then a sick feeling starts to churn up in my stomach, and my enthusiasm takes a nose dive. Since the term RSD is still very new to me I have yet to seek any kind of confirmation as to whether I have it or not but the more I read about it, the more it sounds a lot like how I feel about showing my work. And that's a problem. Writers get better by letting others read and review their work. I won't be able to reach my writing goals if I stay stuck in Fearsville, so I need to push past this. That’s why I took a closer look at RSD and how to combat it.
According to my research RSD can cause people to react in one of two ways: Perfectionism and Avoidance. These are two things I deal with, and also the same for the writers I know as well. Maybe fear of rejection is more common than I thought.
For me, it’s writing hot with a great idea only to crash into a big block after the daydreams of success start rolling in. I get carried away with fantasies that this is going to be THE ONE. The story idea that will make all my dreams come true. And then suddenly I get cold sweats when it's time to write. Just thinking about my story makes my stomach churn. I try to pick up where I left off, and I cringe when I reread what I last wrote. I run far away from writing into the safety of a Netflix binge until those feelings go away.
The problem with that though is it's hard to get back into a story when you leave it alone for too long. The tone changes. Characters shift. The whole vibe is different from what it was before. It's possible to get it back, but generally, when I re-approach a story after a Rejection Sensitive/Netflix meltdown it's a reminder of how I failed. And then I'm right back where I started.
When a writer keeps rewriting the same scene or chapter or drafts over and over without moving the story closer to completion Or the are the One-Day writers that have a terrific idea (or maybe even started to write it) but aren’t writing because they are waiting for some allusive perfect time. Either way, both scenarios keep writers from moving forward.
HOW TO PUSH PAST RSD TO KEEP WRITING:
START SMALLYou can't wake up one morning and decide to run a marathon. You have to work up to it. You set little goals for yourself that are manageable until you are race ready. Same with writing. The sense of accomplishment found at the end of a fully polished story is AMAZING. And it's a lot easier (and faster) to attain when you set out to write something short.
Begin by just aiming to complete a short story. It can be a creative fiction memoir, a writing prompt exercise, a side story to the novel that has gotten you blocked, or even some kind of fanfiction. Whatever you decide, be sure to finish it, edit it until it feels good, give yourself a big reward, and repeat as needed until it’s something you can be proud of.
HAVE FUNI know I've already used this advice and I guarantee you I will say it again because I just can't tell you enough about how well this works. If you're just writing something silly, unimportant, or just for fun you're less apt to put pressure on yourself to produce something so perfect it's impossible to write. This is my number one guaranteed to work device in my writing toolbox. When that wave of awful washes over me until I just want to hide under the blankets this is what calms me down and keeps me writing. It's a lot easier to imagine that I'm the only one who will ever see what I'm writing when I'm literally writing just for myself.
Not gonna lie, I usually write a little one-shot fanfiction because I can immerse myself in a world and characters that are already laid out for me. I don't have to be worried about judgment because they aren't my ideas really. I'm just borrowing them for a little side story excitement. When I've come to the end of the story (I always try to keep it short to only a scene or two), I put it aside to toy with editing later and ease myself back into my original writing.
YOUR EYES ONLYWhen that wave of fear of rejection and ridicule hits take a deep breath and tell yourself what you're working on is for you and you only. No one will ever see it until you want them too. For me, I have to convince myself that I'm NEVER going to let anyone read what I'm writing even if it’s not really true. It liberates me from feeling judged so I can just get the story out.
Password protect your files or hide your writing notebook under your mattress. Whatever it takes to make yourself feel safe to express yourself without fear.
BAD WRITING IS ALWAYS BETTER THAN NO WRITINGFailure is not a pleasant feeling, but it's always better than doing nothing. Daydreaming about writing a story is fun, but you'll never be the writer you want to be if you don't actually write. And you can't progress as a story teller if you never finish a story. Writing something you feel is subpar beats the heck out of the story you didn't write.
Also, resist the urge to hit the delete key. Even if it's completely wrong for your story. You never know what might be useful for a different story later down the road. And you might find after re-reading it that it wasn't so bad after all. You can't edit nothing so get back at it even if what you're writing makes you cringe.
ACCURATE ASSESSMENTWhen you get stuck, ask yourself what is working? What are you enjoying about this project? It’s easy to see the project as a big tangle of failures when things start to go wrong but take another look to see the positives. Then take a deep breath and try to pinpoint what SPECIFICALLY isn't working.
Determine what is working and what isn't before you scrap the entire thing. Remind yourself why you wanted to write this in the first place and try to pick out the parts you're having fun with.
BAD IS GOODRough drafts are just that, rough. They are awful by definition. It's a collection of word-vomits loosely contained in story format. It's good to keep an end goal in mind of how you want the story to look or be received, but you also have to give yourself room to write some truly embarrassing stuff first. I'm sure if we could read the very, very first drafts of the novels we love we'd be truly surprised.
Need proof? Rough draft samples of Harry Potter and George Lucas' early concept of Star Wars.
DON'T COMPARE, CONNECT INSTEADMost writing advice will tell you to read as much as you can. This is very good advice, but I say to take it a step further. Read more than just polished finished stories. Seek out other writers that are in the same place you are writing wise and offer to read their works in progress. You'll soon see how much you have in common and the more you talk with other writers, the more you'll see your fears and anxieties are not exclusive to you. It’s a very normal part of the process to make mistakes and create terrible rough drafts.
Reach out to a local writers group or find a community online. There are plenty of places online to find writing buddies - Scribophile, find a critique partner online through Writing Questions Answered Tumblr, or check these other sites.
KEEP WRITINGDon't spin your wheels trying to get a sentence just right or rewrite the same paragraph a thousand times. Sometimes you just have to leave an awkward sentence where it lays and breeze past a chapter that you just aren't feeling. Keeping momentum is critical in the early stages of writing so do whatever you can to keep writing to the end. You can go back to fix and fill in the blanks when you edit.
And don't get locked into all or none thinking. You can write a successful first draft and still leave parts out or hate whole chapters of your story. The editing process is where you will go back to clean that up but in the meantime accepting that your story is imperfect for the sake of finishing is vital.
DON'T GIVE UPHalf finished drafts are more than just frustrating, they do you absolutely no favors in becoming a better writer. Practice makes you better, no matter what you're trying to achieve and writing is no different. Finishing a draft, editing it, editing it some more, sharing it for feedback, and editing it again is part of the process. You can't do that if you have nothing to edit and receive feedback on.
However, there's nothing wrong with setting a project aside if you need a breather. And sometimes stories stall out because the timing is wrong or you need to go back to the drawing board for more story creation. That's completely fine.
FIND A CHEERLEADERA piece of writing advice that I heard long ago was to write for one person that was your number one fan. A sibling, spouse, best friend, teddy bear, whatever. Sometimes the excitement of writing the story isn't enough to keep you plodding along, but the thought that someone is going to want to read what you're writing and be absolutely thrilled by it is the only thing that keeps you at it.
This can be tricky because the idea of having someone else read your work is usually what triggers the very feelings of judgment that we're trying to avoid, so the key is to find someone who is just there for encouragement. So this advice isn't for everyone. If it triggers your anxiety too much for even the most unconditional fan to see it then just don't. I've found fanfiction communities to be full of amazing cheerleaders, by the way.
THERAPYWhile therapy can be expensive if you're finding that you're anxiety is too insurmountable and it's interfering with your life (writing, socializing with friends, dating, work interactions) it's important to realize that some things can't be fixed by sheer willpower alone. I find affirmations and positive thinking to be very helpful but usually only after delving into the underlying causing with the help of a trained professional. There’s no shame in seeking consoling. And don’t rule out the possibility that your brain might need something it’s lacking, that can only be attained through medication. Be the best you that you can be with all the resources you can get your hands on and it will pay off in all areas of your life.
Nothing stops the flow of creativity faster than fear. And fear is at the heart of RSD. It's the fear that this very intimate part of ourselves, our stories, will be judged, ridiculed, and rejected. Even if you don’t think you suffer from clinical RSD, the symptoms described above can happen to anyone at anytime. If you even have a small amount of RSD or RSD-like feelings, it can mess with your writing. Fear of your writing being rejected is a monstrous hurdle that can stop you in your writing tracks but only if you let it. Do whatever you can to create a safe place for your writing - both around you and inside your own head. Anyone who is callous or ridicules your writing is no friend of yours and is probably just projecting their own insecurities onto you - either way don't give them a second of your time. Seek out a supportive group of writers, in person or online, that can, at the very least, offer proof that you are not alone in your struggles. Keep your head up and your fingers on your keys and every day you will get better. I believe in you, so keep writing.
Good luck, dear writer. You've got this.
P.S. Check out this video from one of my favorite authors, Maureen Johnson called Dare to Suck!
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