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Few things in life sting as much as the pain of being rejected, whether it’s by a romantic partner, a friend or even a member of your family.
While almost everyone feels upset and disappointed after being rejected, some people take the pain and frustration of rejection harder than others. These people may be fearful about rejection and develop irrational anxiety about situations that could involve being rejected.
People who are sensitive to or fearful about rejection are often referred to as having a high level of rejection sensitivity.
Rejection sensitivity can affect your thinking, feelings and some aspects of your behavior. When you’re severely rejection sensitive, it may cause you to misinterpret what other people say or do and interfere with your ability to form friendships and romantic relationships.
The good news is that rejection is something that you can cope with, usually with new methods of thinking and forms of treatment such as psychotherapy.
Below, we’ve explained what rejection sensitivity is, as well as the factors that may cause you to feel overly sensitive about potentially being rejected. We’ve also looked at the link between high rejection sensitivity and mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
Finally, we’ve shared some evidence-based approaches that you can use to deal with rejection sensitivity and prevent it from having a negative impact on your life.
As social creatures, we humans are motivated to seek acceptance from other people and form close, meaningful relationships. Being rejected, whether it’s by a new friend or someone you’re romantically interested in, can be a hurtful experience.
Rejection sensitivity, or RS, is a psychological trait that describes a person’s level of sensitivity to signs of social or romantic rejection.
People with rejection sensitivity are prone to anxiously expecting rejection, perceiving the signs of rejection and reacting to potential cues of rejection when they appear.
For a person with high rejection sensitivity, verbal or non-verbal signals that are either neutral or mildly negative might be interpreted as clear, unambiguous signs of social rejection.
For example, imagine your partner goes out to the supermarket to pick up groceries. When you call them to ask for something, they don’t answer your call. When you text them, they read your message but take a little longer than expected to send a reply.
For a person with a normal level of rejection sensitivity, this isn’t a concerning situation. After all, they were probably busy grocery shopping and simply didn’t have time to send back a message right away.
However, for a person with high rejection sensitivity, this situation might be interpreted as a sign that they’re not wanted, or that their relationship isn’t going well.
Other simple things, such as certain facial expressions or behaviors, may also be interpreted as signs of rejection. Over the long term, this can lead to feelings of anxiety and jealousy and have a negative effect on people’s relationships.
Researchers don’t think that there’s a single factor that causes someone to feel sensitive about rejection. Put simply, there doesn’t appear to be a single “rejection sensitivity gene” or life event that causes rejection sensitivity to develop.
Experts believe that a range of factors, including a person’s genes and events that occur in their childhood or adolescence, may play a role in their level of rejection sensitivity.
Many personality traits and mood disorders are at least partly genetic. For example, researchers believe that genetic factors play a role in the development of certain anxiety disorders and major depressive disorder (MDD).
Although experts have yet to identify specific genes that cause rejection sensitivity, findings from some studies suggest that certain genes may be related to support-seeking behaviors and other behaviors that are involved in relationship forming and social affiliation.
These genes may have some effect on a person’s level of rejection sensitivity. Extreme levels of rejection sensitivity are also linked to borderline personality disorder (BPD), a potentially serious mental health disorder that’s likely caused at least in part by genetic factors.
However, there currently isn’t any high-quality scientific research that looks at the possibility that high levels of rejection sensitivity run directly in families.
High levels of rejection sensitivity could be related to negative experiences that occur early in a person’s life, such as during childhood or adolescence.
For example, people might feel more sensitive to the signs of rejection if they were rejected by a parent or other family member, if they were rejected by other children or if they have a history of childhood maltreatment.
Although scientific research on the effects of childhood experiences on adult rejection sensitivity is limited, some studies have found a link between the expectation of rejection and high levels of distress when exposed to ambiguous behavior from other people.
For example, a study published in the journal Child Development found that children who angrily expected rejection from others showed more intense levels of distress after ambiguous rejection from their peers.
Other research suggests that people’s level of sensitivity to rejection may become entrenched in adolescence in response to challenging social situations.
People may be more likely to feel sensitive to social cues of rejection if they lack a strong sense of self-identity. A person’s self-identity, or personal identity, is their sense of self, as defined by their own unique psychological, interpersonal or physical characteristics.
A large variety of factors may affect your sense of self-identity, including your moral and political attitudes, your relationships with other people, your appearance and factors out of your personal control, such as your ethnic background, socioeconomic class or height.
Research has also linked rejection sensitivity to other personal traits, including neuroticism, low self-esteem, social anxiety and an insecure style of attachment.
Rejection sensitivity can have a serious impact on your well-being, including your mental health and ability to form and maintain relationships.
If you have a high level of rejection sensitivity, you may find it hard to develop relationships with other people. You may over-respond to social stimuli such as social threat cues, preventing you from enjoying certain moments and connecting with other people.
Sometimes, a high level of rejection sensitivity may cause you to behave in a self-defeating way that harms your romantic relationships and/or friendships.
For example, researchers believe that people high in rejection sensitivity tend to become overly sensitized to the possibility of future rejection by their romantic partners, then feel motivated to protect themselves from perceived future relationship damage.
This can involve being overly prepared to defend against threats of rejection, or interpreting the signs of negativity in others while ignoring the signs of positivity.
This type of thinking can produce an environment in which it’s difficult or even impossible to feel secure in a relationship, with the possibility of rejection lingering in the background of just about every interaction and creating an emotional response.
Over time, this can create a vicious circle in which fear of rejection and the defensive behavior it produces leads to further concerns about being rejected, harming the relationship.
Rejection sensitivity is also closely linked to an increased risk of developing some mental health disorders.
For example, a meta-analytic review published in the journal Clinical Psychology Review found associations between rejection sensitivity and loneliness, anxiety, depression, body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) and borderline personality disorder.
Sensitivity to or fear of rejection is also part of the diagnostic criteria for social anxiety disorder, or social phobia — a common anxiety disorder.
Many of these are serious mental disorders that may develop over time and have a significant negative effect on your health and wellbeing.
If you have a high level of rejection sensitivity, it’s important to be aware of the potential impact that it can have on your mental health.
If you’ve recently felt anxiety or depressive symptoms and think that they could be related to a fear of or sensitivity towards being rejected, it’s important to seek out help, whether this means talking to a trusted friend or getting expert help from a mental health professional.
You can do this by asking your primary care provider about a mental health referral, meeting a mental health provider in your city or by connecting with a licensed mental health provider from home using our online mental health services.
High rejection sensitivity may improve with psychotherapy, or talk therapy. This type of therapy involves identifying and changing the thought patterns and emotions that contribute to negative and self-defeating behaviors.
When high rejection sensitivity causes relationship anxiety, taking part in couples’ therapy with your partner may help you to develop strategies for coping together.
Sometimes, just talking to someone about your rejection sensitivity and becoming more aware of it may improve your ability to cope.
We offer online talk therapy, allowing you to talk directly to a licensed counselor when you feel like you need help, all from the privacy of your own home.
It’s normal to feel worried about being rejected from time to time. However, if fear of rejection dominates your thinking and has a noticeable effect on the way you behave, you may have a high level of rejection sensitivity.
It’s important to seek help if fear or anxiety about rejection starts to have a negative impact on your life, especially if it interferes with your ability to develop relationships.
You can access help using our online mental health services, or learn strategies for dealing with anxiety, depression and other common mental health issues using our free online mental health resources and content.
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Dr. Vicky Davis is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over 20 years of experience in clinical practice, leadership and education.
Dr. Davis' expertise include direct patient care and many years working in clinical research to bring evidence-based care to patients and their families.
She is also an active member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners.