“We Need To Talk” and Other Things Not to Say to Neurodiverse Loved Ones

A while ago I heard a the term Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria and it was a revelation! Years of criticism about what I was not doing right in school, and judgement in my first marriage left me overreacting to criticism and seeing judgement when none was there. When I shared this post by René Brooks of Black Girl Lost Keys, the overwhelming response showed me I was not alone!

I felt like I had it pretty well under control, but between financial stress, day job stress and my family stress, I’ve felt like I’m failing in every facet of my life even though I know objectively this is not true and I have some really cool possibilities coming up in my future. This has left me with heightened anxiety and that a feeling that I’m both too much in some settings, and overall not doing enough.

As I reflected on my own feelings of rejection sensitivity, I posted this thought on Twitter:

#neurodiversesquad What are some of your Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria trigger phrases? Some of mine include:

~ Any form of “We need to talk” with no context about what.

~ “It’s easy”

~ “You didn’t know that?”

Based on the fact that this post has kept me in constant Twitter notifications for the last three days, it clearly resonated with people! For a full exploration of responses, you can see the original post here. As I read through the responses, I picked up on some overall themes I’ll share here, starting with more context for the ones I shared.

“We Need To Talk” and Other Things Not to Say to Neurodiverse Loved Ones

“We need to talk.” Any and all forms of this can put me on edge. Even the most benign, “I have something to talk about” or “I wanted to tell you something” with no context, from someone who has never given me reason to think the worst, will leave me feeling anxious. Sometimes it’s as simple as a creative idea they want to share, or something personal about themselves that has nothing to do with me. Without a little hint about what we’ll be talking about though, my mind inevitably goes to something I might have done and if I can’t come up with anything specific, it turns to a general feeling of anxiety.

“It’s easy.” As someone who is statistically very smart, but finds some of the most basic things a challenge, this phrase really gets my goat. I know these things are easy for other people but often they are not easy for me. Especially when it comes to things like cleaning, or organizing a lot of information in a coherent way. I’m a big picture person who has difficulty with details. I have excellent reasoning skills, but often the basics elude me.

“You didn’t know that?” On that note, I may remember obscure things that others don’t, but forget the word “elephant.” Whether I retain something or not depends partly on the emotional connection and context, and partly on the state of my brain at the time I try to recall it. Also, my family was pretty out of touch with pop culture, so things that “everyone knows” are not always things that I know. Fortunately my spouse id from Germany so between culture and language differences neither of us take for granted what the other one knows.

Along with the above phrases, I noticed some other common themes in the responses that I could relate to as well. I share my personal take on why they bother me for perspective, but keep in mind everyone’s reasons are quite personal. There have been a ton of responses, but these are some of the overall themes:

“Calm down!” When has saying “calm down” ever actually calmed someone down? Seriously? I’m sure I’ve caught myself saying something along these lines to my kid but honestly the only thing those words are likely to ever do is aggravate a person who’s already agitated. In my family the best thing I’ve found for this is to be proactive and recognize the things that might trigger an agitated response and when it happens remind myself why. Preparing ahead with tools that might help, and agreements on how to respond can be extremely helpful as well.

“Try harder” or “you’re not doing enough.” I had no idea how much of a trigger this was for me until I heard it directed at my kid. I cried and then made sure we got him the help I never had in school by pursuing his diagnosis of ADHD. For me, in elementary school it was a really bad educational fit with authoritarian teachers and as I got into the gifted program in 5th grade things improved, but then in 10th grade they tried to kick me out of the program for underachievement. Somehow they missed the fact that it’s the underachievers that need the support more than the kids who will perform wherever they are. This led to a lot of resentment because I knew I was smart, but did not know why I didn’t seem to keep up with my peers.

“You accomplished this, so you must be doing alright.” I managed to squeak through to a good liberal arts college, but then struggled when I had to really work hard to pass for the first time. I was tested for learning disabilities and I scored so high the evaluator said, “Well you got into this school, you must be doing OK.” What he didn’t really acknowledge was that although most of my scores were extremely high, there was a 50 point gap between my visual processing and my significantly lower auditory working memory. Rather than acknowledge that that kind of difference might have a significant impact, my issues were dismissed and I ended up dropping out of that school.

“It’s not a big deal” or “you’re too sensitive.” Messages of being some how “too much” or “too sensitive” are an ongoing theme in my Embracing Intensity Podcast. Over the years these messages have led us to tone ourselves down and tune ourselves out. But when we start to ignore or dismiss our own sensitivity then we lose touch with our often very accurate sense of intuition.

Silence or sudden change in tone or body language. Finally, one huge theme that came up was not a phrase, but in fact not saying anything at all. Silence can be equally deadly as saying the wrong thing. When someone goes silent, our imaginations go into overdrive with worst case scenarios. A sudden change in tone or body language can have the same effect. This can be a catch 22 when we don’t want to overreact, but going silent can cause even more problems than responding. For those closest in my family, we’ve figured out individually what type of communication is best if we need time to process.

For me, part of my own RSD was not having accurate information about how I think and learn. Some of this came through trial and error, and some didn’t come to me until my Masters and Educational Specialist Degree as a School Psychologist. So often when we have areas of strong strengths, our challenges get dismissed. This is why I’m working on refining my Educational Assessment and Consultation practice to help outside the box thinkers understand how they tick.

October is ADHD Awareness month and RSD is especially common with individuals with ADHD. In honor of that, I’ve shared three special episodes this month with remarkable professionals with ADHD on the Embracing Intensity Podcast. This week, Clinton Fetters of Distractonaut shares a tool to help you set goals when you are experiencing fear around your goals. Our last interview episode was with Dr. Anita M Jackson on Celebrating the Duality of Life and I share a conversation on Motivation with René Brooks of Black Girl Lost Keys.