Work Question Week Overflow: ADHD, Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria and Job Hunting

Hello! A question came in that Alison and I could not address in our work question collaboration this week, and since I'm the ADHD-haver, I have claimed it. 

The question: 

My job is bad. My boss is the actual worst. I have ADHD, and RSD.  So job searching goes: Something TERRIBLE at Job-> Flurry of job applications -> Single Job Rejection -> Outsize Emotional Reaction -> Hide, Cry, Etc. -> Convince Self This Job is Fine -> Repeat.  At this point even the idea of job-searching causes panic attacks.  I can’t commit to a job search. I can’t stay. Help? Pronouns are she/her/hers.

Hello frand! 

For people who don't know, RSD stands for rejection sensitive dysphoria, an outsized emotional reaction to rejection or even the fear/anticipation of rejection or criticism, which can lead to avoiding things that might cause rejection or criticism, which, well, good luck avoiding that forever. From the link, here's one way people react to RSD: 

"They stop trying. If there is the slightest possibility that a person might try something new and fail or fall short in front of anyone else, it’s just too painful and too risky to even consider. So, these people just don’t. These are the very bright, capable people who become the slackers of the world and do absolutely nothing with their lives because making any effort is so anxiety-provoking. They give up going on dates, applying for jobs, or speaking in meetings."

Bolding mine. (Also, ouch. Just @ me next time, ok?)

The doctor writing the article suggests some medications that I am not qualified to evaluate, but I will say that any anxiety that becomes so overwhelming that it interferes with daily life and stops you doing things you want and need to accomplish is worth a talk with your mental health and/or overall health team. It's possible there are treatments that can help you ride out the anxiety better so that's the first thing I'd suggest: Take this very, very seriously and make some calls if you can.

Aside from medical interventions, what can you do to make this easier on yourself? Let's talk about that. 

What I envision is a three-part problem. 

1. How can you mentally disengage from your current job while keeping your performance at a level where you can keep it as long as you actually need it? 

2. How can you create a consistent structure for applying for new jobs and reward yourself for the effort?

3. When you are feeling incredibly avoidant about possibly incurring a job rejection or reeling from getting one, how can you build in some down time to feel those feelings without judging yourself harshly or letting them totally smash your life? 

ADHD doesn't mean we can't ever pay attention, it means that we have trouble putting our attention consistently where we want it or need it to be. I know for me, it feels like I have a limited budget of attention, so I want to think of this as an attention budgeting exercise. How do we get your attention budget off of your current shitshow workplace and onto your future and your emotional well-being? 

Let's talk about # 1: Disengage. 

Remember the kids in school who figured out exactly how much work they needed to do to pull a B or B- and then did that and not one bit more? Consider that they were onto something, that striving for "excellence" is overrated when it's in service of things you don't actually care about, and consider that finding the minimum and doing that can be an important and useful life skill. How can you become that person at work? 

Imagine a person who comes in on time, leaves on time, takes all her PTO, eats a nice lunch with a book as well as taking a quick break to walk around the block at least once a day. Imagine a person who stops thinking about work the second she leaves the building and does not think about it again until she clocks in the next day. Imagine a person who does not check work email, text, or phone calls outside of business hours and definitely is not available on weekends. 


  • "Oh, I'm just trying to have better boundaries about work time vs. personal time in 2020."
  • "I've realized I'm way more focused at work when I can leave work at work, the more it creeps into my personal time the less I get done." 
  • "This will have to wait until tomorrow."

Imagine someone who does her work professionally and in a way that doesn't leave colleagues wondering or hanging but who also doesn't automatically take on the role of saving the day or picking up other people's slack. 


  • "Before I commit I need to double-check and slide some commitments around to make sure it's feasible. When do you need an answer?"
  • "I can do x or y in the time we have, but not both, so which would you prefer?" 

I don't know what you do so I'm just fan-fictioning here but here is an exercise to try. You mentioned that your boss is terrible and I want to help you let go of trying to fix the terribleness because that is energy you need for your job search. 

For the rest of week, write down everything your boss says to you or about you, especially note everything this person does that bothers you. Don't argue, comment, or answer back if you can help it, just record what happens without any particular drama (pretend you're taking meeting notes or writing down tasks). 

At the end of the week, take a piece of paper, and make two columns. 

Column 1: Shit My Boss Says                                     Column 2: Who Cares? 

Go through your record and note each problematic thing down in the left column. 

In the the right column, categorize what your boss said according to how much you actually have to give a shit about it in order to get your work done. 

  • Bigoted comments and cruel insults can be reported to HR, maybe in bulk when you leave. If you can get your work done in spite of them? Document and then disregard for now.
  • Assigned tasks? Feedback on work? Asking you to do something differently? That's work, you have to at least appear to care. 
  • Your boss expresses bad opinions about world affairs? Your boss chews loudly? How embarrassing for your boss, but that's not your problem. File this under B-Eating-Crackers and disregard for now.
  • Your boss has bad opinions about the work that turn into directives that will cause financial, legal, or ethical damage to the company and its clients? That's a battle worth fighting, maybe with an email to your boss where you document the problem and the policy in question and politely suggest a fix. (BCC a private email address and/or print out a copy and file it at home in case you need to cover your ass someday). 
  • He has opinions about work that are like, "Wouldn't this all look better in Papyrus?"  Obviously the answer is no, it wouldn't, but what I'm actually mining for with this whole exercise is a list of open conflicts you have with your boss plus a way to categorize as many of 'em as possible under "That's not really my call" and "Sure, let's do it your way."  

From here, try to stop arguing with your boss about anything that isn't absolutely essential to getting work done. You're not giving in or becoming a doormat, you're giving him the "thanks, I'll think about it" brushoff. You are becoming a boring efficient work robot. This is not who you are or who you will be forever, this is who you need to be to survive this right now.

Also, try to stop complaining about your boss and/or your job, especially when you're not at work. I'm sure there is a lot to complain about, but it can become an automatic habit that takes up a lot of time and energy and keeps you engaged in conflict. This will likely be a process, so give it lots of tries and chances and gentleness. If you must vent, set a timer and free-write in a notebook for 10 minutes and get it out of your system. I believe you that your boss sucks and this job sucks. Fixing it will be someone else's problem someday. You're (emotionally) done now, so when the timer goes off, close the notebook and do something fun. 

#2: Create a gentle structure for seeking new employment. 

When I took a break from teaching starting last year, I thought I would do so much more writing than I was already doing. Look at all this time! I will spend it all writing!

No. It turns out there is only so much of a thing that I can do in a week, my time budget grew but my attention budget didn't and my specifically "this is how much brain you have for writing" budget didn't grow. 

People who are unemployed get a lot of messages that they should be searching for work every hour of every day and that if they aren't, there's something wrong with them. When I was unemployed, I got a lot of "Treat job-searching like a 40-hour-week job!" advice from both my parents and mentors in their generation. 

This was...terrible advice. It's not like geographically convenient jobs (or inconvenient ones, for that matter) ( in my chosen field)(that I would be a good fit for) suddenly grow out of the ground in response to either my increased need for one or increased time & determination to devote for searching, so what was I supposed to do with that other 38.5 hours? "Call employers on the phone!" "Show up with your resume, they like initiative!" No. Also no. A world of no. 

I think 4-8 hours/week, total, maximum spent on job searching is a reasonable goal for people who are unemployed and totally without significant other time commitments, and something like 1-2 hours/week is probably a reasonable goal for you to work up to eventually.* 

That's enough time to search for new postings and quickly tailor a letter and resume when you see something interesting, that's enough time to look into an online class to build a new skill or go to the odd professional networking event or meet a mentor or former classmate for coffee or research a company in off-weeks. If you feel inspired you can always do more, but I recommend starting really, really small and rewarding yourself A LOT for putting in the effort. 

That's going to be key, by the way: Rewarding yourself for consistent effort whatever the result is. Some fellow writers and filmmakers I know "collect rejections," where they save and share rejection letters about pitches from publishers and from film festivals. The rejection hurts, but it's tangible evidence that they are trying, and having a community say "Yay for you!" and "Look, I'm in the same boat!"  helps encourage everyone to keep going. Fellow rejecterinos are the best at celebrating the wins because they saw what it took to get there. Maybe you would do well with a job search accountability buddy who could also use some motivation. You could meet at the library for 2 hours every Saturday morning (your house, it's where the distractions and Reasons Not To live) to diligently work, and then you go for a lavish lunch or see a movie afterward. Treats. Give yourself all the treats. 

Part 3 (on down-time and dealing with feelings) is coming in a separate post, as Mr. Awkward is telling me I have to stop writing and eat a food, and Patreon is not the greatest at draft-saving. :)

*Edited to Add: 1-2 hours/week might honestly be way too much at first. Maybe "set a timer for 30 minutes and think about career things" is where you start. And that's what it is, Thinking About Career Things, which includes applying for jobs as they come up, but it also includes all the stuff I mentioned like research and skill-building and networking. Put in your 30 minutes, collect your treat, strive for consistency over any particular outcome at first. 

Captain Awkward released this post 3 days early for patrons.   Become a patron
By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 93 exclusive posts
By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 93 exclusive posts
Tier Benefits
Recent Posts