Have you been rejected? Do you know how it feels?
How about feeling rejected all the time, day and night, during every interaction? How would your life be if your brain interpreted every question, every hint, and the body language of everyone around you as a statement of their dissatisfaction, criticism, and, yes, rejection?
This has been my life for the past thirty years. “I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you,” a friend would say, and my brain would interpret this as, “I don’t want to spend another minute with you.” This can make communication with people rather cumbersome. You pull away, you try not to get hurt. Or you get angry or sad, bewildering your loved ones, who can’t see a reason for your overly emotional reactions.
Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria resembles Borderline Personality Disorder, and sometimes the two coexist, although RSD, I’d think, is more widespread in some way or form. Most people can understand to some degree the symptoms of RSD, and they can relate to the insecurities that produce it and stem from it. This is not what happens with BPD: in my experience, BPD is so exotic that most people just don’t get it. They keep bringing logic into the mix, not getting that reason is simply not accessible to the person having a borderline episode and that the faulty wiring in their brains can’t be circumvented by sheer willpower, calming down, and logical thinking.
My own experience with RSD is that I consistently skew the world around me to fit the self-negating convictions that got cemented in my brain early on. I don’t know what caused this: I do exhibit some borderline traits, but they’re mild, all things considered, even if they look rather intense to the layman. My mother, loving though she was, was also critical and concerned with appearances. I was a very emotional child, and this was discouraged. Don’t react like that! People see you! she’d say. In short, heed others, don’t heed your own needs. I learned to be ashamed of myself early on.
The perception of others’ rejection fuelled by one’s own bad self-image is hard to beat. If you feel unworthy, then pretty much everything others say or do can be warped to mean something negative. Even if someone says, “You’re nice and I like you,” as soon as you say something you perceive as dumb ten minutes later, you think, “Ah, that’s over. They’ll hate me now.” It’s a very unhealthy way to be in your brain. And I lived like that for ever.
This was compounded by my academic life. The PhD and then post-doc life is a string of people finding themselves in new environments, quickly building support systems, then going on their way to their next academic appointment. I never partook in all of this because I was literally unable to live on my own. Due to mental health problems, I’ve never been truly independent. I had my husband, who was there to provide a safety net. He still is, now that I’m officially taking care of my and my family’s mental health. My occupation right now is, strictly speaking, ‘housewife’. So I didn’t really enter the student communities I found myself in to the degree others did. I did, however make friends, some of whom stayed in my life in some form or other even when they moved away, and some of whom just didn’t. My default way of thinking was: people don’t keep in touch. People abandon me. When I made friends with other post-docs, I was careful to have low expectations: people just aren’t like me. They don’t devote a lot of their time or mental and emotional energy to the friends in their life. I’m just not as important to them as they are to me. Which, if you think about it, is another form of rejection.
Let us not dwell right now on how devoting too much mental and emotional effort to friends can break you in unique ways. The point is: was my assumption true? Does everybody leave me?
I had a long hard look at my relationships these past couple weeks. What I found when I approached the matter with as much objectivity as possible is the following:
I have three good friends in Greece. There were more with whom I tried to keep contact through the years, but they weren’t responsive. I don’t know why. Life? We’re all busy, I suppose. If you asked them, they might tell you they love me and truly want to catch up when I’m in Athens. But I don’t see any effort on their part. The way I think about it, you can’t claim to love someone and not send them a text in ten years. But: there are three people who I consider close friends. That’s a lot. There are also some with whom I reconnected after years, and I daresay some of those I might end up meeting again. Also nice. All in all, not as negative as I pictured it to be. Those three friends I trust completely, and I’m not exaggerating.
There are some from my Germany and France years, not all of them close, but nevertheless keeping sporadic contact. And then, there are some I’ve met through social media, and who are now important in my life. Of those, I talk with three pretty much every day, although two of them are in the States and I’ve never met them in person, and there are a couple more I’m fond of. The most important among those people is Dimitra, who’s been in my life for eight years and was the one that guided me through the long, drawn-out process of healing after my breakdown, mental-health-wise. I’m talking almost a decade of care here. What does this say about my claim I’m always being rejected or abandoned? Most people don’t have a free personal life coach on call, someone who loves and cares for them this much.
And then, there are the people I lost touch with. If I see this objectively, it wasn’t really always their fault. I’ve told you before: I’m a difficult person. Often, I’ve outgrown people (maybe they’ve outgrown me, it’s all relative). I don’t care to connect with them anymore. This happens. It happens to others, too. Just because I have a knack for perceiving lack of communication as rejection, it’s not necessarily true. Just because I always give (too much!) energy to many people outside my family, it doesn’t mean that it’s right. I did crash badly last year, after all. The burnout was definitely exacerbated by my tendency to help everyone with everything, even offer help when I was already too busy.
Well, I’m not doing that anymore.
In short: Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria makes you see the world in a warped way that doesn’t really correspond to the objective reality–or what could pass as objective reality in a world where everything is relative. Humans also have the tendency to gloss off wins but focus on losses. Minimising loss is the main focus of our brains (I recently read “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Kahneman, which explains, among other things, how our brains perceive loss–wonderful book!) and it’s also the mother of several fallacies.
I don’t know if this helps you in any way. This was a personal account of what happened in my life. I’ve only been able to recognize the truth after serious help from loved ones and therapists. I don’t have a recipe to treat RSD. The only thing I can say for sure is that it needs time. After three decades of this, I’m still learning.
“That, my friends, is a great book.” –Rebecca Hefner, author