“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate.
Give in to it. Joy is not made to be a crumb.”
Mary Oliver (poet)
How rejection sensitivity & people pleasing impact dating as a neurodivergent person
What is rejection sensitivity?
Let’s start by saying that nobody likes to be rejected, and certainly not by someone they like.
Rejection Sensitivity Disorder (RSD) is a particularly strong emotional reaction to negative judgments, exclusion, or criticism beyond what most people feel. This is far more prevalent among neurodivergent (ND) people and especially those with ADHD. This article states 1/3 of adults with ADHD report severe reactions to rejection.
Generally, those with RSD are seen as overly perfectionistic, over-sensitive, or overly reactive to even minor criticism. (There is considerable overlap with PDA, but let’s keep this simple for now.)
Unsurprisingly, when someone with this hypersensitivity repeatedly experiences rejection from other people, it encourages protective behaviours. Often these include either pushing people away (if I reject you first then you can’t reject me) or being a people pleaser (if I bend over backwards to give you everything I think you want then you’ll like me and not reject me). This article offers a personal experience of living with RSD.
Where does it All start?
Many neurodivergent people struggle to read the tone of others, may miss subtle yet important social cues, and take people literally. As children, this combination of qualities can be unfamiliar and uncomfortable to neurotypical kids. Consequently, a lot of neurodivergent children are rejected by their peers from a very early age.
From this, many fall into one of two categories as children. Either they’re hyper-compliant, which means they’ve learned to mask well very early on, or they’re hell-raising rebels. Both groups are misunderstood and underestimated. (If you want an understand of what this trauma does to the body, I recommend this talk by Judith Blackstone.)
If you identify more with the first group, you probably felt that nobody ever really got you or understood you when you were younger. You were accepted and even praised for being someone who you knew, deep down, you weren’t. This has probably left you with grief or bitterness, or both. In contrast, if you were a trouble child, you may have shined in the spotlight and been very talented, even though you felt like you made masses of mistakes. This is likely to have made you feel judged and misunderstood, leaving you angry and resentful.
How does this impact dating?
When we date, we aim to show the prospective partner the best of us. In that sense, you could say that all of us mask our true self to some degree when we date. For general ND dating tips, try this article.
For some, this means wearing our best clothes or taking them to our favourite cafe. We’re still ourselves, just our best self.
For others, it’s crafting a whole new personality pieced together from the fragments of information we’ve gathered from what we know of the other person. We can’t really say if we’re ourselves or not as we’re a jigsaw of our most socially successful personality traits. (If you’re ND and struggle to work out who you are when you’re not masking, this article could really help you.)
If this fragmented jigsaw sounds bananas to you, welcome to the neurodivergent world of masking.
What's masking like in real life?
When talking to neurodivergent clients about dating, especially those with RSD (and PDA) the phrase I hear most often is, “When I learned to…”. Here are 3 direct quotes of how clients have completed that sentence:
“wear short skirts and have my hair down, I could kiss any boy I wanted to”
“giggle and smile but not talk, everyone wanted to get in my pants”
“play my guitar and look moody, girls flocked to me”.
In real life, this means that these people approached dating like a scientific experiment. Through observing their peers and trial and error, they mastered the methods that got the end results they wanted.
Let’s see how this plays out in real life. You meet someone and you’re masking, as you do in all social situations. You start dating and the uncertainty increases making you anxious. To hide your anxiety, you mask more. Now your double dosing your masking. The person you’re dating has absolutely no idea who you actually are but they love the person you’re pretending to be.
You continue to date and you pretzel yourself into being your idea of their perfect partner. You work really hard at being a people pleaser so that your new partner doesn’t reject you. And, just like that, we’re back to those hyper-compliant and hell-raiser kids – misunderstood and not really known or seen by those they love most.
Masking and mental health crises
As a side note, in my experience, some ND people with RSD will significantly increase their masking when having mental health crises or are in extreme distress. For example, rather than displaying common sign of depression, such as not washing or failing to attend appointments, they may look very presentable, be punctual, and appear to function “normally”.
This doesn’t mean they’re not struggling. Rather, they’re pouring the last of their energy into masking as it’s the one thing that’s kept them safe in life so far. It’s genuinely heartbreaking how many clients have told me that they’ve told healthcare professionals that they were suicidal, only to be told they seem to be coping fine.
Talking about sex and RSD
Maybe I have a skewed perspective because of my work, but lots of people find talking about sex awkward and uncomfortable. Imagine how much harder this is if you already know you like non-mainstream sexual experiences. I’m not even talking kink or group sex, just different sensory input.
Although it’s a sweeping generalisation, it seems ADHD lovers need far more intimate sensory input and are very sensory seeking. This can lead to wanting rougher or louder sex and having higher than average level of masturbation. If this sounds like you, you might enjoy body slapping.
In contrast, a lot of autistic folks are more easily and quicker to be overstimulated. Many need very light and more precise touch. This can make it difficult to orgasm. Consequently, they can avoid arousal or orgasm altogether as the sensations are too strong. This sensitivity can include not enjoying being in the presence of other people’s arousal too.
For those with dual diagnosis, it can be a real odyssey to work out and achieve the Goldilocks level and type of stimulation. Read this article to better understand your sensory sensitivities.
Add to the mix the fear of rejection, and it’s not surprising that it becomes almost impossible for people with RSD to explain to partners what they enjoy and how they like to be touched.
People Pleasing and RSD
If you’re an ND adult with RSD then you already know how challenging it can be to try to establish and maintain intimate relationships. This article offers some great tips for dating with RSD. There’s often the added shame of feeling like, or being told, you’re emotionally unstable or too inconsistent, or an emotional coward.
This happens because, sooner or later, the overachieving people pleaser hits burnout and has to stop. Often, this leads to the partner feelings disappointed and confused. Where did my perfect partner go?
Unfortunately, the ND person is often in meltdown and overwhelm, so is unable to explain what’s happening. Sadly, this tends to lead to the relationship breaking down, as neither partner can understand or navigate through what’s happening. This leaves the ND person feeling heartbroken, resentful, ashamed, and rejected, yet again. This creates a cycle of hopeful and intense masking > people pleasing > burnout > breakdown/breakup = reinforces RSD.
Surely, dating doesn’t have to be this hard and painful?
It can be joyful!
Please don’t feel this is the only way to date! And don’t worry, just because this has happened to you in the past doesn’t mean it has to happen again. Let me reassure you, you can have much happier dating experiences.
Although each person and their situation is different, every client with RSD I’ve worked with has found ways to improve their intimate life. This therapeutic work can include:
- Noticing and tracking the individual’s RSD triggers
- Exploring current coping mechanism as well as trying new techniques when appropriate
- Rehearsing and scripting conversations to build confidence
- Working on self-esteem & self-worth due to damage caused by past rejection
- Cultivating healthy emotional boundaries to reduce people pleasing
- Presenting a more balanced and authentic version of yourself to potential and current partners.
If you would like help dating with RSD, please get in touch.