After publishing an article and slideshow on rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD), tens of thousands of people shared and commented across social media about how much it explained their own experiences.
To recap, RSD is common in neurodivergent people (NDs) and is a heightened sensitivity to real, perceived, or anticipated rejection.
RSD is more prevalent among neurodivergent people, possibly due to being more frequently rejected, excluded, misunderstood, bullied, and misunderstood. Whether the neurodivergence is innate (autism, ADHD, dyslexia) or acquired (PTSD, complex trauma, traumatic brain injury), RSD is a painful reality for too many people.
It’s important to acknowledge that every person is unique, and some people may not identify with every aspect of this article. Please use what is helpful to you.
You can read more about RSD here:
Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria is a Byproduct of Masking and Trauma
Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria cannot be understood fully without understanding the complex interplay between trauma, relationships, and identity.
Trauma is most commonly understood in the context of catastrophic events like war, sexual assault, or physical abuse. But complex trauma is a more cumulative form of trauma that may be harder to describe and identify.
Complex trauma results from years of painful experiences that can be obvious, like child abuse, bullying, neglect, or experiencing serious chronic medical conditions; or the cause could be more subtle, like years of being invalidated, over-controlled, or exposed to extremist religion.
Because they are different from their peers, neurodivergent children often experience complex relational trauma that follows them into adulthood.
Editor’s note: For your convenience, full text of image descriptions for all images in this article can be found here. Alt text is added to each image. Illustrations provided by Kate Jones of Dissent by Design, an autistic psychotherapist and NeuroClastic’s chief communications officer.
Complex trauma accumulates in the psyche of the person at the receiving end and begins to drown out their Core Self.
The Core Self
The Core Self is the person you are, beneath the masks and trauma. Over time, complex trauma can cause a person to disconnect, or dissociate, from their Core Self.
In order to survive, a person develops masks that protect the Core Self from being injured.
Everyone has experience of masking. One might choose to tone down their energy in a library or may fake appreciation for a bad gift from a loving grandparent.
But when masking is necessary in almost all contexts, in order to remain safe, a person may lose contact with their Core Self and only know themselves by how their masks respond to others.
When a person is forced to mask from a young age, they may never have had a chance to develop and know their Core Self because authentic expression has never been safe.
Even if an identity is true to the Core Self, a person may still have to mask, making themselves seem more or less of that identity. Every mask further walls a person off from access to their Core Self.
For people whose life is spent behind masks, they know no other way to be than dissociated from their own identity and needs as a matter of existence.
Without any help to reconnect to their Core Self, to learn how to set boundaries, and to practice authenticity, people with complex trauma often assume that this existence is normal and others are experiencing life the same way.
Masks can be convenient and useful when a person knows the masks are temporary and that they have places to authentically express themselves. For example, a high school student with a supportive family and lots of friends may choose to mask in an unfair teacher’s class to avoid conflict.
This mask will not cause long term harm because it was a choice that allowed for more autonomy. This person still has safe relationships with people who matter to them wherein they can be authentic.
When a person has to mask in most, if not all, interpersonal contexts, they will lose connection with their Core Self. Their entire identity is buried under masks.
RSD happens to people with very little access to their Core Self. If someone is dissociated from their identity as a matter of existence, rejections tear at the masks—the fragile illusions— that are their only access to the world.
By nature, masks are social. They require at least one other person and a degree of performance. To maintain these masks, a person requires others to play along.
Codependency is a way to describe the unhealthy relationships people engage when they have complex relational trauma and have lost access to their Core Self. Because only their masks have access to others, relationships feel dangerous.
People who engage in codependent relationships suffer profoundly and being around others is exhausting. Their participation in their own world depends on their reactions to others, not their own free will.
In a way, their lives are lived as if they are in a dance competition, and they must either lead or follow their partners because they don’t know the choreography. Missteps are catastrophic because of the fragile nature of masks.
Codependency in Relationships
Codependent relationships often start off intense, with both people understanding and accommodating for each other’s masks. Once the masks are torn, though, the relationships tend to erode quickly.
Other times, predatory people who recognize signs of codependency will target and exploit people who have never been allowed to set boundaries and don’t know how to protect themselves. Predatory people will take and take from a person with codependency, finding ways to keep them in a cycle of earning conditional love.
Healing from RSD and Codependency Requires Reconnecting to Your Core Self
Healing from codependency and RSD is a long and slow process that begins with reconnecting to your Core Self. No single article, slideshow, or formula will give you everything you need to get there. It took years of trauma to get you to this place, and recovering is an ongoing process.
But before you begin to know yourself, you need to know that your Core Self is not a granite statue. It’s more like a lump of clay that you will have the opportunity to discover and form over the course of your life.
Identity is not a fixed construct. It’s a complicated, multi-faceted work in progress that becomes more developed the more you connect and interact with your Core Self.
These four steps may help you begin that journey:
1. Actively search for your Core Self
The Core Self is the voice inside you that asks, “Who am I?” It is okay if you don’t know yet how to answer that question. You may have to begin by simply meeting yourself.
Your masks do not feel pain. That grief and suffering is felt by your Core Self. That’s real. Once you begin removing the wall built around your Core, one brick at a time, you can begin to free yourself from the cages of identity masks.
2. Removing the masks
Your identity is like a tree, with leaves, a trunk, roots, and fruit. There are parts you shed with changing seasons, parts you share, parts that grow toward the light, parts that are unbending, and parts that anchor you. The masks are like parasitic vines stealing your resources and offering nothing in return.
Identity masks are the bricks in the wall that have removed your access to your Core Self.
Removing the masks is not an exercise in demolition. Rather, it’s a slow and thoughtful process of identifying what’s not true to you, what doesn’t serve you, or what violates and undermines your autonomy and dignity, then surgically removing those influences and masks one at a time, when it is safe.
You may begin by simply asking yourself, “Is this belief/ practice/ relationship/ situation adding anything positive to my life?” Then, thinking about how your life would be different without it.
It could be as simple as deciding that you don’t enjoy going to book club once a month or that you don’t have to answer the phone every time a specific person calls.
It may also look like rearranging your priorities, spending a little more time developing something you enjoy and a little less time doing something for others who are not reciprocating your efforts.
3. Losing value judgements
If you suffer with RSD, it’s likely that you were raised or heavily influenced by someone who made constant value judgements about themselves and others. They obsessed over their weight, plucked out grey hairs that emerged, criticized themselves for being lazy, and had a lot to say about others, too.
If you had any kind of intervention therapies, you’ve likely been micromanaged and corrected so much that you are hyper-aware of your own behavior and stuck in fix-it mode.
Make a goal to begin evaluating your thoughts for a few minutes every day to look for value judgements.
Did you see someone wearing sweatpants or pajamas in public and think they were a slob? Did you make a moral judgement about someone’s innocent behavior? Did you compare yourself to someone else and feel either jealous or accomplished?
If you are always judging others, you’re also going to be having the same unrelenting and impossible standards for yourself. Of course, some things are objectively harmful— like malignant abuse or bigotry. But if you’re judging behaviors based on how socially acceptable they are, try and see them as existing, not as signs of value.
We all have value and are worthy because we exist.
Tolerating difference in others is a reflection of learning to accept your own authentic self without judgement. For people with disabilities, especially invisible disabilities, this is especially true. You may have been forced for most of your life to see disability as a failure to be fixed.
4. Learn to set boundaries
Setting boundaries is terrifying, especially if you’ve never been safe enough to set them. You may not be safe enough in some circumstances at this point in your life to set boundaries.
If you experience RSD, you probably know the trauma of anticipating a future rejection and burning bridges preemptively. For example, if you believe a supervisor at work is going to reprimand you for being late to work, you may have decided to quit your job instead.
Every boundary you set and every change you make comes with risks. It’s important to be gentle with yourself, understanding that to truly heal means not jumping head first into new trauma or putting yourself into situations you’re not emotionally ready to handle.
Take your time. You deserve to heal and find yourself on your own terms.
You may be in the middle of co-dependent relationships that are dangerous to escape, and that is when working with a skilled therapist, an identity coach, or even a domestic abuse nonprofit may be necessary.
Claiming your identity
If being disliked, rejected, or disagreed with is scary for you, then it will take a lot of time and work to begin to accept, know, and love yourself enough to be okay with who you are without needing the approval of others.
But you do deserve it.
Your identity is for you. It’s not for anyone else. You do not have to live as a reaction to other people‘s emotions and behaviors. You do not need other people’s approval to be who you are.
You can use these suggestions to help you identify ways to begin reconnecting to your Core Self, or come up with your own strategies that work for you.
If not codependency, then what?
The word codependent may seem like it means collaborative, but it’s not. It’s more like a game of tug-of-war– someone is going to be dragged through the mud.
The alternative is interdependence. Instead of an endless power struggle or masking perpetually, people in interdependent relationships maintain their boundaries. No one has to bury or wall off their Core Self to remain safe.
Being interdependent is much safer for you and the people you love. You can engage in mutually beneficial relationships that accept you for your Core Self, that do not require you to sacrifice authenticity for acceptance, and that do not make love a condition of behavior.
For Service Providers, Educators, and Intervention Therapists
If you work in a service provision field, please be mindful that you are not encouraging your clients, especially those with disabilities, to fall into codependency or to lose contact with their Core Self.
You are tasked with doing no harm, but you may have been conditioned to cause a lifetime of harm by encouraging codependency and conditional love in the form of positive reinforcement. You may have been taught to groom your clients into trusting you enough to comply with your demands and to ignore their own identities and instincts.
You have a responsibility to your clients to understand the long-term trauma caused by codependency.
NeuroClastic is working on creating resources to help you connect to your Core Self, untangle yourself from codependent relationships, and identify the masks that are acting as identity cages.
We rely on your feedback to know what is important and meaningful to you and try to be responsive to what is helpful and needed. As always, we appreciate your comments here and on social media.
- My family’s autism services are working for us, so we will probably lose them - May 24, 2023
- What autistics mean when we say this world is not made for us: How fun activities push autistics into the margins - December 23, 2022
- Being a Great Parent to Your Autistic Child at Fall Festivals and Halloween Events - October 31, 2022
“RSD is more prevalent among neurodivergent people, possibly due to being more frequently rejected, excluded, misunderstood, bullied, and misunderstood.”
I love this. The opener was excellent and the explanation of what RSD is with excellent but even more so because unlike most people you didn’t play the classic “RSD goes away” card or to do this bizarre thing that people are doing across the internet where they intentionally ignore the severity and danger of trying to survive with RSD as a comorbidity, I was actually diagnosed with this which is extremely rare because it’s one of those things that specialists refuse to acknowledge exists does not even much about it in the DSM if it is at all when I was diagnosed as autistic this was listed as a diagnosis too.
Those who have heard of it but don’t actually live with RSD as autistics or neurodivergent people who have it, tend to blame those with it, and be extremely dismissive especially if you are AMAB Trans or Enby like myself.
Essentially they go “hahaha you’re male and so you don’t handle rejection well” forgetting that anyone of any gender can have RSD in connection with their trauma and it’s not something that goes away just because people want it too. In the last few years I’ve had to experience this, many people I know who are non-binary had to experience this. My experiences with this nightmare, have almost killed me many times combined with being misgendered and expected to not feel emotion when rejection causes a physiological response within us when we have RSD and the only reason I’m still here is because of the warmth and affection of decent people.
Anytime somebody acknowledges the RSD exists like the way you did above I feel a little bit safer, I feel seen and I feel loved.
You realize that being anonymous doesn’t mean I don’t know who you are right.
And for thousands of people including Native American and Indigenous Two Spirit people like myself being misgendered is extremely harmful to our mental health 🙂 it’s sad that you feel the need to dismiss something with such and important cultural basis to me bless you.
This is fantastic and so useful. I want to share it with all my neurodivergent friends (which I guess, right now, would be all my friends!).
Great article, but many of us are sick of you always finding every opportunity to bash religion. We get it, you’re a woke SJW and militant atheist and you hate people who disagree with you. But how is that relevant here?
Also, if you really want to see “extremist religion” in action, go to Iran. Then maybe you’ll think twice about your irrational fear of American Christians.
Let’s get one thing straight. I didn’t spend three months creating this framework for free to have someone come here with a complete lack of nuance and reduce my entire personhood down to whatever projections and cliches you want to hurl out there. I feel sorry for you.
How about you stop wasting my and your own time and go do something productive, Osborne? I’m bored of this.
Your article, “Why your neurodivergent relationships is failing” encapsulated almost every situation I’ve just experienced with a 62 year old male – and in the same order of events that have transpired over the last 10 months. A neurotypical who used to be autistic, before meditation changed my life, I can relate to the misunderstandings, escalating tensions and inability to communicate. Words like gaslighting, ghosting and stonewalling were words that belonged to the youth – but I experienced it all! I’m in my 60’s and it’s the first time I’ve ever truly been in selfless love – and now I understand. I pray that John will forgive me – and that we can still be friends. I wish there was a paradigm for communicating between neurodivergents and neurotypicals, so that I didn’t react in a way that John took as criticism. It was like walking on egg shells in the end, all the fun had gone, and he began to start competing; it was so sad. I truly believe that people with AS (autism) are highly evolved, they are in touch with the life force and energy around them, but they don’t know how to use this incredible gift. Thank you so much for your insight and professionalism; it has helped me understand AS better than any other site.
You have a deep misunderstanding of autism if you believe meditation can “cure” you.
I am interested to learn how meditation has helped you and what kind of meditation you did.
Question. Do you kiss your daddy with that level of apathetic dismissal. Isn’t being a good Christian loving all and accepting everyone with kindness ? Or are you more of the “Ignore the teachings of Jesus and try to convince innocent people that your apathy gets you into heaven” nah bud you’re going straight to the basement with that attitude.
It takes significant energy to bully. Maybe next time try to be a decent human being and turn the other cheek.
Also, maybe read up on the Quiverfull movement before dismissing Terra’s worry about Christianity. Their denomination isn’t far off from those movements, and if we lose our democracy altogether, there’s a very real risk that these types of Christians will gain, and use, their power in much the same way Muslims in Iran, the Taliban, and other extremist Muslims do. It’s just that if such a threat comes here it will be bearing a cross and Jesus’ name. That does not make it okay. It doesn’t make it okay now, for instance, when they persecute atheists for calling out them teaching their religion in ostensibly secular classes, as happened to Youtuber Owen Morgan (aka Telltale) when his daughter Kylie reported such preaching in health class and then Owen and his family had to flee to NYC as de facto refugees because they were literally being hunted by their neighbors in West Virginia.
One line about “extremist religion” in here and that’s “bashing”?
The framework is great. I wouldn’t change anything.
Excellent article and diagrams. I think many Autistic people retain a strong sense of core self even in the face of trauma, but not necessarily across all aspects of their life. We may have figured out a way to maintain our core self, for example by being self-employed, but we may have failed to do so in our personal lives, or we may have been lucky enough to have a supportive family and then get overwhelmed and develop unhealthy coping mechanisms in hyper-competitive work environments. I consider the modern separation of work and the rest of life as a symptom of the cultural disease that is usually referred to as industrialisation or technological progress.
As humans we evolved to be able to develop and maintain a healthy sense of core self in small scale collaborative groups that are capable of maintaining collaborative relationships and healthy boundaries with other groups. These collaborative, i.e. non-competitive and small scale environments minimise the need for masking, and they are conducive to healthy individual identity development, where every unique individual combination of talents and capabilities is appreciated. From a collective perspective Elinor Ostrom’s 8 Principles for Managing A Commons (http://www.onthecommons.org/magazine/elinor-ostroms-8-principles-managing-commmons) represent a useful tool for assessing the health status of institutions and multi group environments.
What I have noticed at all levels of scale, right down to individual relationships, is a level of discomfort to not only openly explore the extent of shared understanding (shared values, priorities, and wounds) based on compatible lived experience, but also to openly acknowledge and respect limits of shared understanding based on incompatible lived experience, to inform the development of healthy boundaries. Experiential differences can relate neurological baseline sensitivities, to culture, and to specific traumatic individual or collective experiences – and these components can be difficult to impossible to fully disentangle.
Identity masks are desperate attempts to survive and cope in a world that is alienating and traumatising for everyone. If we fail to develop a healthy ecology of care and mutual aid around us, which is very easy when surrounded by an atomised society that worships the invisible hand of the market, trauma and mistakes are quickly dismissed as weakness and defects. Then identity masks are no longer confined to being a tool for survival in oppressive mega scale mono cultures, and they can damage some of our closest relationships, replacing collaborative interdependence with competitive codependence.
At scale, the effects of ubiquitous trauma become visible in the challenges that occur in any successful movement building. Here is an excellent discussion on this topic: https://youtu.be/C32KGX6qP5s.
Would love to read an article about this topic but specific to “the long on-boarding” in new work environments. I am a great employee once I’m trained but getting there takes me three times as long as everyone else. Which my managers don’t expect, even when I warn them. Now I’m afraid to take on jobs that would, once I’m trained, be a good fit for me. I end up overqualified and underemployed, and I get the impression that I am not alone in this.
“Overqualified and underemployed” is the life story of so many Autistic people. No wonder, because the notion of disability in our society is underscored by a bizarre conception of “independence” https://autcollab.org/2019/11/13/celebration-of-interdependence/. So called “independence” is just as toxic as co-dependency. Unfortunately most work modern work environments are traumatising, especially for sensitive Autistic people https://autcollab.org/2019/08/05/people-management-and-bullying/.
I talked about this topic last year as part of the Design Justice Network https://designjustice.org/news-1/2021/2/23/djn-spotlight-march-jorn-bettin. Here is the recording https://youtu.be/hLUoqRarEq8.
NeurodiVenture (from https://autcollab.org/community/neurodiventures/) : an inclusive non-hierarchical organisation operated by neurodivergent people that provides a safe and nurturing environment for divergent thinking, creativity, exploration, and collaborative niche construction.
The egalitarian NeurodiVenture worker co-op model is based on a 12-month on-boarding process, followed by a 6 year period of mutual trust building and learning more about each other.
One thing about Autistic people having an especially strong core sense of self to begin with, one that is harder to kill altogether – I think that’s a big reason why a lot of us don’t become narcissistic, and why, when one does get diagnosed with that, it’s likely to be wrong and you still see some of the key components in place that prevent the trauma from becoming full-blown narcissism when you look closer Because narcissists (true narcissists) barely have an identity – it’s just a superficial “me me me” (at least for the ones who wouldn’t be considered low-grade, because low-grade ones might simply be a case of taking an exceptionally long time to mature emotionally, as I figure was the case with my dad, because I remember him behaving a lot less maturely when I was little than some years later). Though common misconceptions about narcissism mean that side effects of having an exceptionally strong sense of identity – especially one that is under heavy attack by people wanting to mold us – can be mistaken for being narcissistic, rather than being an identity that knows it’s being attacked and is fighting for its life.
And we as autistic people usually, if not always, have a sense of identity that is harder to kill. Yes, it can be heavily damaged, destroyed, or compromised because anything can be, but usually we know who we are more readily. Heck, my mom is autistic and has Alzheimer’s right now, and right now the Alzheimer’s has done little to steal her identity, even though it took a lot of her memories, her language faculties (which makes it hard to say names, naturally), her ability to read (mostly) and a lot of her motor control, so she looks less like the befuddled person with a lost identity you’d expect to see if she were neurotypical, and more like the kind of autistic person who needs a caretaker – only in this case it’s inevitable she’d have cognitive impairments too because dementia. And the memory loss that is a signature of the disease.
Naturally, of course, there’s very little medical understanding of these comorbidities, because according to the way a lot of ableist researchers view things, we apparently magically grow out of it. So there is zero research in how Alzheimer’s affects autism (though it makes sense that it goes for your cognitive weaknesses first, and for neurotypicals that’s identity, which they need extra help to form solidly, and for us that’s things like speech and motor control, which kid of makes me wonder if the Alzheimer’s had been attacking my mom’s motor skills longer than we thought, and it wasn’t just post-polio syndrome – which is another thing that attacks motor abilities, however its presentation).
Thanks for raising such an important topic. It really hits home for me and it’s helpful to hear any kind of open, honest discussion about it.
How disconnected we are from our core self and how difficult (or easy) it might be to reconnect probably has something to do with the stage of development at which we got disconnected. For some of us, it happens extremely early. My sense is that a big part of my psychological development is still held up at the 6-months-and-under stage where all we can really do is wait for someone to pick us up, hold us, smile, and speak sweetly to us. I don’t know if current therapies can help much when a person has that primal of a disconnection. I suspect we’re not quite there yet. (It might be the injured, despairing 6-month-old in me saying that; but he might also be right.) Other people, whose disconnections happen later in life—even just a few years later—might have many more psychological resources from which to draw on in the healing process. My point is that there are probably many variables that determine our prospects for healing—or for simply coping as best and as honestly as we can, as the case may be.
the visuals hit home hard, I identified /related to every part of this excellent series. These graphic explanations take us from the roots to the revelation and understanding in easy to follow information regarding and extremely complex subject. I have already shared with numerous groups and people, and my daughter has shared it with her psychologist/ psychiatrist counselor , who was wowed! Extraordinary resource of readily understandable information.
From here comes deep appreciation and admiration. This is going to become a classic reference for those needing tools to teach and help others understand this complex dynamic.
As always, I enjoy and appreciate your work. There is a lot of value to be found in this article.
However, I feel it is really important to question your implication that RSD is linked to codependency and dissociation from core identity. While this correlation may be true for some, it is not true for all. Correlation is not causality.
To my knowledge, RSD is not a formal diagnosis, and as such does not (yet) have diagnostic criteria. It is used (and misused) frequently to refer to a set of intense responses to rejection (real and perceived). For many, experiencing frequent instances of systemic and personal rejection (as a result of ND characteristics) may lead to RSD. As a result, RSD is sometimes considered a trauma response, (and an understandable one at that). But suggesting that the experience of RSD leads to codependency and dissociation from core identity is not only reductive and invalidating, but factually inaccurate as well.
For many of us under the ND umbrella (for me it’s a cocktail of ASD/ADHD/EDS/CPTSD, among other things), rejection has been a traumatic reality of our lived experience. Much of the work our ND community faces in society is the unpacking of bias based on misinformation. It requires education, solidarity and better PR.
Thank you for your comment, but this article begins with a disclaimer that this does not apply to everyone and words like “could” and “might” and “often” pepper every paragraph to further drive home that this is not about every person who experiences RSD.
Thank you SO MUCH for posting this… the realness of this article is making me cry because of how much I relate to it 🙁 I strongly appreciate this information so I can begin working with my therapists to guide me to a better place of connecting to my core self and forming more secure relationships!
Thank you so much for this, from the bottom of my heart. I felt incredibly *seen* reading through this. Truthfully, I’ve struggled with RSD for easily more than a decade now. I’m 27, so I’m still fairly young, but coming to understand these things about myself feels like my opportunity to take my life back for myself—not for the sake of others, or for my masks.
The first step I took to find my own Core Self was coming out as trans, and figuring out what that really meant to me. Not even my fear of rejection could keep me from doing what I needed to do for myself. With that in mind, sometimes I feel silly for being unable to do the same with the little things. Something as simple as choosing what music to play while I give someone a ride in my car feels daunting, but I’ve already done so much more than that! It feels like such a bizarre paradox, and in my most difficult moments, I feel a great deal of shame about it.
It’s a work in progress, but the roots of who we are and who we’re becoming run far deeper than the walls we’ve built to protect ourselves. Brick by brick, I’ll allow myself be seen, summoning the courage to be authentically myself. What once served and protected me can finally be set down in favor of boundaries and true empathy.