What Is Rejection Sensitivity?

What Is Rejection Sensitivity?

While no one likes rejection, some people are especially aversive to it.

While no one enjoys being rejected, some people are more sensitive to social rejection than others. Individuals who are high in rejection sensitivity are so fearful and aversive to rejection that it impacts their daily lives.

These people expect to be rejected all the time. And as they anxiously look for signs that someone doesn’t want to be with them, they often behave in a way that pushes other people away. It creates a painful cycle that can be difficult to break.

Signs

Individuals with high rejection sensitivity constantly look for signs that they’re about to be rejected. They tend to respond dramatically to any hint that someone doesn’t want to be with them.

Facial Expressions

According to a 2007 study that examined how individuals high in rejection sensitivity respond to facial expressions, individuals higher in rejection sensitivity showed changes in brain activity when they saw a face that looked like it may reject them.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers found that individuals higher in rejection sensitivity showed different brain activity when viewing faces that showed disapproval.

Subjects of the study did not show the same results when looking at individuals who showed anger or disgust. This was in line with individuals who do not experience rejection sensitivity.

Heightened Physiological Activity

When an individual suspects they may be rejected, they experience heightened physiological activity (more than individuals without sensitivity to rejection).

They remain on alert for more cues that they’re about to be rejected and they may exhibit fight-or-flight behavior.

Misinterpreted Behavior

Hypersensitivity to rejection will often cause individuals to distort and misinterpret the actions of others.

For example, if a friend doesn’t respond to a text message right away, a rejection sensitive individual might think, “He no longer wants to be friends with me.” Whereas someone without rejection sensitivity might be more likely to assume the friend is just too busy to reply.

Attention Bias

Additionally, individuals who rank high in rejection sensitivity often pay more attention to rejection or signs that they were rejected. This is known as attention bias.

For example, if someone high in rejection sensitivity asked 10 people on a date and 9 accepted and 1 declined, they would focus the most on that one rejection. They might then refer to their dating attempts as a “total disaster” and start to believe no one likes them.

Conversely, someone who ranks low in rejection sensitivity might view the same circumstances as a great success. That person may focus on the nine positive interactions and pay little attention to the one rejection.

Interpersonal Sensitivity

Individuals with high interpersonal sensitivity are preoccupied with perceived or actual situations of rejection. They’re vigilant to the mood and behavior of others and are overly sensitive to interpersonal problems.

They may constantly look for proof that other people are rejecting them. So despite a friend or partner’s reassurance that they’re welcome, loved, and good enough, they may still feel rejected.

They often crave close relationships. Yet, their fear of rejection can leave them feeling lonely and isolated.

While someone might experience a fear of rejection in social scenarios, they may not experience it in different circumstances. For example, an individual who is terrified of social rejection may not mind getting turned down for an online job she applied for.

If it doesn’t have social repercussions, she may be able to handle a rejection in her career differently.

Causes

Rejection sensitivity isn’t known to be caused by one single factor. Instead, there may be many factors at play.

Childhood Experiences

Early experiences of rejection, neglect, and abuse may contribute to rejection sensitivity.

Being exposed to physical or emotional rejection by a parent, for example, may increase the likelihood that someone will develop rejection sensitivity.

The rejection doesn’t always need to be direct to have an impact. Growing up with a parent who is emotionally unavailable or highly critical, for example, may cause someone to develop a strong fear of rejection in other relationships.

Rejection sensitive children are also more likely to behave aggressively. According to a 1998 study published in Child Development, children who were highly sensitivity to rejection were more likely to angrily expect rejection. They showed heightened distress following an ambiguous social interaction with a peer.

Children who feel bullied or ostracized may also grow up to fear rejection more than others. Any type of prior exposure to painful rejection can cause someone to go to great lengths to avoid experiencing that pain again.

Biological Vulnerability

It’s also thought that some people may have a biological vulnerability. There may be a genetic predisposition or certain personality traits that increase the likelihood that someone will be sensitive to rejection.

Some researchers have linked rejection sensitivity with low self-esteem, neuroticism, social anxiety, and an insecure attachment style.

Are Personality Traits Caused by Genes or Environment?

Individuals who experience high levels of rejection sensitivity experience higher degrees of psychological distress when they’re rejected—emotional pain, anger, and sadness. To ward off that discomfort, they are at a higher risk of engaging in behaviors of aggression, social isolation, and self-injury.

The Constant Need to be Liked

People who are rejection sensitive may feel the need to be liked by everyone. If they are rejected, they may work extra hard to try to win someone’s favor again.

A 2010 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that men who are high in rejection sensitivity are likely to respond by trying to become more likable.

The study found that men who were sensitive to rejection were willing to pay more money to be part of a group that rejected them. If a woman evaluated them negatively on a mock dating site, they spent more money on her during the date in an attempt to get her to like them.

Female participants exhibited similar behavior only when they were rejected by a potential romantic match with whom they had already shared personal information.

Rejection sensitive people respond to life in a way that is meant to protect them from pain. Unfortunately, their behaviors often backfire.

Difficulty Making Connections

Their fear of being rejected causes them to unintentionally reduce the likelihood that they’ll form new connections and they often undermine their existing relationships.

For example, someone who is high in rejection sensitivity may constantly accuse a partner of cheating—which may contribute to the other person ending the relationship.

Furthermore, an individual may become angry and hostile whenever a friend doesn’t respond to their invitations in a timely fashion. Ultimately, that may cause the friend to retreat even more, which furthers the individual’s sense of rejection.

Other people with rejection sensitivity may avoid all situations and relationships where they might be rejected. Consequently, they may feel extremely isolated and lonely—which essentially leads to their biggest fears coming true.

Romantic Relationship Problems

As previously mentioned, rejection sensitivity may lead to dysfunctional relationship patterns. An individual may grow distressed and angry as soon as they perceive potential rejection.

Effect on Adolescents

This may start as early as the teenage years. Adolescent girls who rank high in rejection sensitivity may behave in ways that put them at a higher risk for victimization, according to a 2000 study published in Children Maltreatment.

Researchers found that girls who were high in rejection sensitivity were more likely to go to extremes to maintain a relationship when they felt insecure about a boyfriend’s commitment.

Even when they knew there may be negative consequences for their actions, they modified their behavior in an effort to preserve the relationship. They were more likely to engage in relationships that involved physical aggression and nonphysical hostility during conflicts—and they tolerated unhealthy behavior in an attempt to stay together.

Effect on Adults

Adults with rejection sensitivity who are in romantic relationships will likely experience ongoing relationship problems.

They may misinterpret events and reactions because they’re hypervigilant about being rejected. It may lead to irrational jealousy in relationships where the individual is terrified of being abandoned or rejected.

They might also interpret other behaviors, such as a partner being preoccupied with work, as proof that the other person is no longer in love with them.

Being in a committed relationship may be more helpful to men with rejection sensitivity than women. A 2018 study found that men are lonelier and more rejection sensitive when they’re not in a romantic relationship.

Women who rank high in rejection sensitivity aren’t likely to experience relief from being in a relationship. They may continue to feel just as lonely and fearful of rejection when in a relationship as compared to when they are not in one.

Still, both men and women who fear rejection may struggle to establish close romantic relationships. Their efforts are frequently directed towards avoidance of conflict and rejection, rather than towards establishing intimacy and growth.

Link to Mental Health Problems

Rejection is a direct threat to an individual’s sense of belonging. It can have serious consequences for mental health.

Even if someone isn’t actually being rejected all the time, if they perceive that they are an outcast or if they believe that they are being rejected, their mental health is likely to decline.

Rejection sensitivity isn’t a mental health diagnosis on its own, but it is associated with several different mental illnesses.

A 2010 study published in Behaviour Research and Therapy found that rejection sensitivity is a risk factor for developing depression, and can worsen existing symptoms.

The study found that breakups may be more likely to trigger depression as well, at least in women. College-aged women high in rejection sensitivity demonstrated increased depressive symptoms after a partner-initiated romantic break-up compared to individuals who were low in rejection sensitivity.

Other studies have found that individuals who are high in rejection sensitivity are also at a higher risk of:

borderline personality disorder
body dysmorphic disorder
loneliness (which often contributes to mental health issues like depression)
anxiety (the association was stronger for males)
Extreme sensitivity to rejection is also part of the defining criteria for avoidant personality disorder and social phobia.

Furthermore, A 2019 study found a link between rejection sensitivity and suicidal thoughts in psychiatric patients. The authors of the study found that individuals with suicidal ideation were more likely to feel like they didn’t belong and they often felt as though they were a burden to others.

Coping Strategies

If you suspect that you are rejection sensitive, recognizing the symptoms and the problems it causes you can be the first step in creating change.

Learning how to build deeper, healthier connections is key to reducing loneliness and isolation. But it can be scary to take steps to grow closer to someone because the deeper the relationship grows, the more being rejected could hurt.

Getting help could reduce your vulnerability to mental illness. And treating any existing mental illnesses may help reduce your rejection sensitivity.

If you suspect you are highly sensitive to rejection, you might start by talking to your physician. Your physician may be able to assist you with determining the appropriate next steps you could take.

The next step may involve referring you to a therapist. Cognitive behavioral therapy may be able to help you deal with the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that fuel the fear of rejection.

Couples therapy may also be helpful in some circumstances. Couples therapy could assist each partner in supporting one another’s efforts to establish a healthier, more secure relationship.

By Amy Morin, LCSW and Medically reviewed by Steven Gans, MD

Dr. Jeffrey Levine, Counseling Hartford, is a Licensed Psychologist with over 40 years of clinical experience. He specializes in treating adults in individual psychotherapy, with expertise in trauma focused hypnosis, energy transformational healing and Internal Family Systems. Therapist serving Hartford – Mansfield – Glastonbury.