The need to be accepted by others, to have a sense of belonging, is a profound human motivation, one that is felt in some way from birth throughout life. Our natural state is to live in communities. Belonging to a community contributes to a sense of identity and purpose.
When someone is rejected by members of a desired group, anger, loneliness, anxiety and depression often result. Rejection is not only painful but rejection that happens early in life is thought to reduce the person’s ability to cope with future relationships. When children are consistently teased and left out, they are more likely to develop interpersonal rejection sensitivity.
Interpersonal rejection sensitivity is a hyper-alertness to the social reactions of others. When someone has rejection sensitivity, they anxiously expect and rapidly perceive and overreact to rejection. Because of their fears and expectations, individuals with rejection sensitivity may misinterpret and distort the actions of others. They then react with hurt and anger. The other person is confused, doesn’t understand, or sees the rejection sensitive person as too high maintenance.
Individuals who are rejection sensitive often see rejection by others as a statement that they are unacceptable as people. They see rejection as being a judgment about their worth as a person. Unfortunately, having rejection sensitivity can mean a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you are expecting rejection it is difficult to be satisfied with or feel safe in relationships, as you will see rejection frequently and often even when it isn’t intended. When you aren’t feeling rejected, you are likely to be expecting it.
Being in relationships requires acceptance of the other person’s faults. For someone with rejection sensitivity, missteps of the other person are likely to be seen as lack of caring or judgments. Even routine decisions, likes and dislikes may be interpreted as rejection. If someone with rejection sensitivity asks a friend to meet for coffee, a refusal may be viewed as rejection. The friend may have a previous commitment or other reason for saying no, but that is difficult for the person with rejection sensitivity to believe.
Emily is a college student whose family lives many miles away. She feels alone and repeatedly asks her family members to help her with various tasks such as moving, deciding where to live, and making choices about her academics. When they are unable to travel to help her or have other issues they must attend to, she is furious that they do not value her. She rages at them for their lack of support, and tells them she feels she has no family.
A typical response to feeling rejected is to be angry. Obviously, cursing the people you believe have rejected you is not the best path to acceptance. At the same time, people with rejection sensitivity are usually willing to go to great lengths to try to gain acceptance. The cycle is a painful one.
Most people are sensitive to rejection. It is not realistic to get to the point you don’t care about the reactions of others. What can you do? The following are a few suggestions to consider:
1. Be aware of how rejection sensitivity affects you. If you believe you are rejection sensitive, then keep that possibility in mind when you are struggling with a relationship.
2. Be mindful of your reactions. Take a pause and let your emotions calm before responding to a person you believe has rejected you.
3. Consider alternate explanations. What else could be the reason for the other person’s behavior? Think of at least three options.
4. Calmly ask the person about their intention.
5. Consider the facts of the other person’s life. A mother with three children may not have time to talk on the phone.
6. Participate fully in events and activities. Get involved. Contribute to social activities and conversations. When you hold back or isolate you increase feelings of not belonging.
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Last reviewed: 27 May 2013