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Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria Kept Me From Following My Dreams (Until Now)

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There’s a particular aspect of ADHD that has been the bane of my existence and, more specifically, my goals in life: rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD).

For the uninitiated, rejection sensitive dysphoria is a symptom you wouldn’t necessarily associate with ADHD. If emotional dysregulation and anxiety had a baby, it would be RSD: the constant fear and perception of rejection in all its forms. Teasing and criticism sting like arrows. I’m always on the lookout for the minute signs that I’m being “rejected,” my thoughts spiraling into self-criticism and depression when I believe I’ve perceived said rejection. It can come from anywhere and anyone; a long-time friend, my fiancé, my coworkers. Most damaging, though, is the way it has kept me from following my dreams.

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It might not be a surprise, but my long-term dream is to be a writer — not only articles and personal essays such as this one, but also fiction. I have a master’s degree in creative writing; I have a vague scattering of published short stories and a finished (but problematic) first draft of a young adult urban fantasy novel that is extremely dear to my heart.

And yet…

My fear of failure is intense. The thought of trying and not succeeding is enough to keep me from trying at all. Even writing about this feels mortifying, like I’m peeling away a mask and showing a vulnerable side of me that I am — you guessed it — afraid is going to be heavily judged, criticized, rejected.

Critique and criticism are a part of life, particularly for creative pursuits like writing, so I know how important it is that I am able to cope with this particularly troubling aspect of ADHD. In order to get there, though, I also have to find a way to pursue my fiction writing dream without this fear of rejection holding me back. What if my fiction isn’t well-received? What if it’s not as good as the story in my head? What if I’m incapable of doing it justice?

Recently, I took a step that might, in a small way, help me take a step in the right direction. My writing mentor (the incomparable Maya MacGregor) invited me to participate in the Inkfort Press Publishing Derby, an annual competition of sorts where authors old and new are challenged to write a novella with a preassigned cover, pseudonym, and title. And, there is a catch — one which may simultaneously be the aspect to help my rejection sensitive dysphoria: it’s entirely anonymous. In September, participants will self-publish their novellas under their anonymous pseudonyms without revealing who they truly are until later.

So much of my rejection sensitive dysphoria feels tied to my identity as Matt Sloan that, in a way, publishing under a pseudonym has lessened some of the fear I normally attach to my writing. I don’t quite feel the same terror; it’s a low-stakes environment where I can test my strengths. If I don’t succeed… well, that’s OK. At least, it feels OK right now. My response to this might change in a few months but for now, I feel like rejection sensitive dysphoria has lost some of its power over me. It’s a battle I didn’t think I could win, but with this, I can at least try without the grand fear of failure that RSD brings. For the first time in recent memory, I feel excited about the prospect of writing and publishing something new.

If you too live with rejection sensitive dysphoria, could this help you? Doing something you love in a low-stakes way, without the fear of failure breathing down your neck? I’d love to hear from you. You can find some other tips for coping with rejection sensitive dysphoria here, if this wouldn’t fit your lifestyle. Regardless, I want you to know that it’s going to be OK. I can say this to you now without the immediacy of RSD, but failure isn’t the end of the world. We try, we fail, we try again. It doesn’t determine your worth.

Keep up with my journey on my website,

Getty image by Alexander Spatari

Originally published: June 7, 2022
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