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.