No one likes rejection. Not being invited to something, or feeling excluded. A flat out 'no' from someone you reached out to. These things hurt us all. We are fundamentally social creatures and loneliness is a literal killer.
Fortunately rejection is fairly uncommon. Social norms dictate that we are polite to each other, generally speaking. Polite to strangers, out of courtesy, or perhaps out of fear of what they'll do to us if they think we're rude. Polite to colleagues because workplace shittiness is typically career-limiting. We're even polite to people we don't like, because it's much less likely to prolong our interaction than antagonism. Politeness, and by extension, a lack of rejection, is in fact the primary characteristic of the first few psychological stages of people coming together.
Yet we've all met people who seem to experience, or perhaps experienced ourselves, a barrage of rejection. A series of rebuffs from conversations. Of whispering behind backs. Of knowledge that our conversational partners think we're being stupid or silly. Of being avoided at social events and parties. Which should beg the question, are we sometimes so repulsive that we dismantle all these deeply rooted social norms? Perhaps, but frankly it's unlikely.
If we often feel rejection, it's probably not the rejection that's the problem
Let's talk about something psychologists call 'rejection sensitivity'. Sandra Murray and her colleagues coined this term in 2003, but it's a fairly commonsense idea. Basically it refers to how conscious of the threat of rejection you are (and we are very sensitive to threats). It's a particular form of social anxiety, and it's surprisingly common.
When you're high in rejection sensitivity, you are much more vigilant for signs of criticism and potential rejection than the average. Moreover, as Sandra and her colleagues found, you're likely to be more hurt by this perceived slight for longer.
What's interesting is that rejection sensitivity is something that can come and go, and that can be more likely in some situations than others. In fact, it's very likely that you've experienced it yourself.
Let's work some examples.
Rejection sensitivity leads us to feel rejected as a person
First, it's worth identifying what's at the core of this. It's not that we feel rejected for something we did, it's that we feel rejected for who we are. It's an important distinction, and has some nasty downstream effects.
Maybe someone tells you they've already got plans when you enquire about a coffee date. Rejection sensitive people are more likely to think things like 'I knew it, they didn't want to have coffee with me', or 'they're lying, they just didn't want to tell me they don't like me'. This is quite a different kind of thought to someone who is less rejection sensitive. A less rejection-sensitive person might instead think something like 'that person is always so busy', or simply follow up by asking when would be a better time without thinking anything in particular at all.
Or, perhaps we might say to someone that their whistling is annoying or they don't like those new jeans. Rejection sensitive people will almost always take it further; from 'whistling is annoying' to 'I'm annoying, they probably don't like me anymore'; from 'those jeans aren't great' to 'I'm ugly, no jeans look good on me'. A simple rejection becomes a rejection of the whole person. And since they're feeling more hurt for longer, they tend to be even more vigilant for criticism than before. A vicious cycle. It might not surprise you that people are diagnosed as being very high in rejection sensitivity very commonly alongside depression.
Sadly, those who experience higher levels of rejection sensitivity are at particular risk in their close relationships. When close friends, family or partners make critical remarks, regardless of their relative triviality, rejection sensitive people really feel the blow. Where social supports are helpful for our mental wellbeing, rejection sensitivity can make that social support a little tricky.
Rejection sensitivity makes us mean (to protect ourselves) which makes everything worse
The seminal work by Murray and her colleagues found that when hurt, rejection sensitive people will often try to get even with their criticisers. They'll tend to act coldly and more critically towards those that may or may not have slighted them. This makes them feel protected--a sort of 'I don't need you and I can't be hurt' type of attitude. Which leads to… more rejection. Which in turn proves to the rejection sensitive person that they really are being rejected.
It's a vicious cycle within a vicious cycle.
As a slight aside, high rejection sensitivity is very closely connected to another psychological construct 'hurt proneness' coined by Mark Leary and his colleagues. Basically hurt-prone people or 'touchy' people interpret the other peoples' behaviours as dismissive and cold, thinking things like 'I don't matter' and 'they don't care'. They think the world is a hurtful place and more than that, don't really understand how they could be encouraging that suffering. It overlaps with rejection sensitivity, although not always.
Rejection sensitivity happens for all sorts of reasons (and at any time)
The typical reasons a psychologist will list are things like:
Childhood Experiences: Early experiences with rejection, like
bullying, parental neglect, or exclusion by peers, can lead to the development of rejection sensitivity later in life.
- Attachment Style: An insecure attachment style, from inconsistent or unreliable caregiving in childhood, might encourage it.
- Low Self-Esteem: People with low self-esteem may be more vigilant and sensitive to signs of rejection as they may view themselves as less worthy or less likable.
But these are all core and long term reasons to be sensitive. What's also true is that rejection sensitivity can be transient. It can happen to us only at specific times in our lives. So, for example:
- Previous Rejection Experiences: Experiencing significant rejection events like breakups, job loss, or social ostracism, can heighten our sensitivity to future rejections.
- Significance of the Relationship: If a relationship holds particular importance for us, like a serious romantic relationship or a sudden increase in the closeness of a friendship,the fear of losing that connection may intensify our sensitivity to potential rejection.
- Past Trauma or Betrayal: Prior experiences of betrayal, abandonment, or trauma within a relationship can lead to hypervigilance for signs of rejection in future relationships that resemble the past in some way.
- Insecurity in the Relationship: When there's a lack of security or stability in a relationship, it might lead to increased fears of rejection. So if our partner is behaving inconsistently, not communicating clearly, or we feel an imbalance in their level of commitment relative to ours.
- Unresolved Conflicts: Ongoing or unresolved conflicts in a relationship might cause us to be more sensitive to rejection, fearing that the conflict could lead to a breakdown in the relationship.
- Perceived Power Imbalance: And a big one---if there's a perceived power imbalance in the relationship, like one person feeling less control (a big deal in relationships) or feeling more dependent, we might feel more sensitivity.
It's essential to recognise that rejection sensitivity not only influences our perceptions but also our behaviours. Every gesture, word, or even a well-meant silence can be misconstrued into an anticipated rejection or a confirmation of our perceived worthlessness. This hyper-awareness often leads us to preemptively reject others before they can reject us, to withdraw social bids, or to display passive or even overtly aggressive behaviors in an attempt to safeguard what little self-esteem we feel we have left.
Ironically, these self-protective mechanisms can alienate others, and in doing so, actually manifesting the rejection we were worried about.
So, if we're feeling like the uncommon experience of rejection is becoming common, we want to do a couple things:
- Work out if it's actually a rejection of us, or just a rejection of something we're doing. The difference is enormous, and empowering.
- Try to cultivate a sense of self-worth that's about our opinion and not so reliant on others. What do we like about ourselves? Let's optimise that.
- Seek out supportive and understanding friends or relationships. In particular, tell them what's going on, so they're a little more cautious. The kinds of supportive experiences this can provide can often help de-sensitise us to perceived rejections.
- And, it's never a bad idea to work with a therapist to unpack and address the underlying issues that drive our rejection sensitivity.
After all, getting to the heart of why we feel so raw about rejection might just be the key to moving past it.