Rejection sensitivity is when someone is highly reactive to the mere hint of being turned down. It often stems from childhood, where a lack of attuned care from parents or caregivers can set a pattern for expecting rejection. This expectation primes people to misread social cues, see hostility or disapproval where there might be none, and react strongly. These overreactions can become a cycle, reinforcing the fear of rejection and negatively affecting long-term behavior. In short, rejection sensitivity ties early life interactions to how we later engage with others.
When we’re on high alert for rejection, our body’s defence mechanism kicks in, especially during intense, negative situations. This sensitivity cranks up our reactions to even the slightest hints of rejection, leading us to respond with heightened emotions like anger.
Feeling left out when you’re with friends can be a complex experience, often influenced by internal perceptions and past experiences. If you have high rejection sensitivity, you might be more tuned in to any sign that could indicate you’re being excluded or not fully accepted by the group. Here are some reasons why this might happen:
- Anxious Expectation of Rejection: If you’re predisposed to expect rejection, you might be more vigilant for signs that you’re being left out, even when the evidence is ambiguous or absent. This can make neutral or even positive social cues seem negative.
- Misinterpretation of Cues: Because of the expectation of rejection, you might misinterpret innocent remarks or actions as signs of being excluded. What might be a simple oversight or a friend being preoccupied with their own thoughts could be perceived as a deliberate act of exclusion.
- Intense Emotional Response: When you perceive these cues, your emotional response may be amplified due to the activated defensive motivational system. This can lead to feelings of sadness or anger that are disproportionate to the situation.
- Self-fulfilling Prophecy: The intense response to perceived rejection can sometimes lead to behaviors that push others away, thus inadvertently causing the rejection you feared. This can create a feedback loop where your fears of exclusion are reinforced by the reactions they provoke in yourself and others.
- Cognitive Biases: Cognitive biases like confirmation bias can lead you to pay more attention to information that confirms your fears of rejection while ignoring information that contradicts them.
How is low rejection sensitivity different?
People with low rejection sensitivity often navigate social interactions with a more relaxed and confident approach. They typically expect to be accepted and may not even consider rejection as a likely outcome. This mindset results in several differences in how they process social cues:
- Lower Vigilance: Because they do not anticipate rejection, they are less vigilant about looking for signs of it in social interactions. They may miss subtle cues of rejection that a person with high rejection sensitivity would likely pick up on.
- Benefit of the Doubt: When faced with ambiguous social cues, and low rejection sensitivity individuals are more likely to give others the benefit of the doubt, interpreting their actions as neutral or positive rather than as signs of rejection.
- Positive Social Expectations: Their positive expectations can lead to more positive social interactions, as they approach others with confidence and without the fear of rejection. This can create a self-fulfilling prophecy of acceptance and inclusion.
- Risk of Insensitivity: On the downside, individuals with low rejection sensitivity might be less empathetic to others’ fears of rejection or less aware of the impact of their words and actions, as they might not consider how something could be perceived as a rejection.
Rejection sensitivity starts early
Fear of rejection often begins in childhood, with sensitive children potentially appearing aggressive or antisocial, and struggling with peer and teacher relationships. This sensitivity forms a self-perpetuating cycle: the expectation of rejection leads to overreactions, which then provoke actual rejection from others who don’t understand the intensity of the response in what are often non-threatening situations.
Although rejection sensitivity acts as a defense mechanism to shield a person from social pain, it can become maladaptive, triggering strong defensive actions in situations where they are unwarranted, ultimately causing more harm than protection.
Rejection-prevention and the loss of self
Rejection prevention strategies, like people-pleasing, are used to avoid potential rejection, sometimes leading to adaptive behaviors (for example, remembering a birthday). However, overuse can result in a “loss of self,” where personal goals and interests are sacrificed to keep relationships intact. This can manifest in self-defeating actions, such as compromising personal values or engaging in unwanted behaviors to avoid romantic rejection, or self-silencing to prevent conflict. Although aimed at avoiding rejection, these strategies can undermine one’s identity, as individuals alter their preferences and beliefs to align with others, risking their own stability and authenticity.
Highly sensitive individuals often enter relationships eagerly, but the attachment can become anxious, shifting from pleasing behaviors to hostility upon expected rejection. This reliance on others for self-definition can lead to identity crises, especially after a breakup, prompting the question “Who am I?” The lack of a clear self-concept can fuel further self-defeating behaviors as these individuals strive to shield their fragile sense of self.
Tips on how to manage reactions better
Key to managing these reactions is the ability to shift attention away from negative cues and engage in cognitive reframing. This reflective process allows space to communicate effectively, negotiate in relationships, and maintain connections that are beneficial in the long run.
To mitigate feelings of being left out, especially for those with high rejection sensitivity, several strategies can be employed:
- Strategic attention shift: Work on redirecting your focus away from rejection cues. When you feel fixated on potential rejection, consciously choose to pay attention to other aspects of the situation. This can help lower the activation of your defensive system and allow for a more balanced perspective.
- Interpretation of ambiguity: Train yourself to distinguish between ambiguous behaviors and intentional rejection. Not all negative interactions are rejections. By making this distinction, you can lower the automatic fight-or-flight response and the need for immediate reassurance.
- What else might be the reason? When faced with a situation that feels like rejection, try to reinterpret it. For example, if a friend doesn’t call you back, instead of thinking they’re ignoring you, consider that they might be busy or have other priorities at the moment.
- Delaying gratification: Practice resisting the urge to seek immediate reassurance. You can even use a timer if it is helpful for you. Over time, you can develop the ability to wait for more appropriate moments to address concerns.
- Coping strategies and distractions: Develop a toolkit of coping strategies, including DBT skills. This could include talking to a friend, engaging in a favorite hobby, or practicing mindfulness. These strategies can provide a healthy distraction and allow you to approach the situation with a clearer mind.
Rejection sensitivity and its link to mental disorders
Rejection sensitivity, while not a mental disorder itself, can contribute to the development of various mental health issues. It is often linked to depression, anxiety, and personality disorders. People with high rejection sensitivity may have a predisposition to experience symptoms of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and certain personality disorders more intensely. This can be due to the constant stress and emotional turmoil caused by their fear of rejection.
Rejection sensitivity is particularly relevant to BPD, where fear of abandonment is a central concern. For individuals with BPD, even a slight hint of rejection can trigger an intense emotional response. Working on strategies to reduce intense reactions to rejection is a key part of therapy, including mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness. DBT can help individuals with high rejection sensitivity to better manage emotions and reduce the impact of perceived rejection.
The content of this article has been tailored for DBTSelfHelp from the initial piece titled “Why Do I Feel Rejection So Deeply?”
About the Author
Adam Horvath is a psychologist at Personal Psychology, a clinic in Sydney, Australia. With a background in clinical psychology, he has a special interest in working with adolescents and young adults with big emotions.