One of the lasting legacies bequeathed many unloved daughters is the carry-over from that early and devastating blow: Being rejected by the very person, your mother, who’s supposed to love and support you. Mind you, all humans fear rejection; all hearts break when scorned, all eyes flood with tears when abandoned. We all fear loss in all of its forms.
But the securely attached—those who have grown up well-loved or well enough in childhood—don’t believe that rejection is imminent every moment. In fact, they’re more likely to anticipate being liked, being welcomed into the fold, and being accepted. That permits them to recover more easily from blows that seem anomalous—the friendship lost, the marriage on the rocks, being fired or any other rejection.
That’s not true of the unloved daughter with rejection sensitivity. Rejection sensitivity is, alas, quite different from the response to rejection a securely attached person has.
What is rejection sensitivity?
People with an anxious/preoccupied style of attachment are always on alert, scouring the horizon for signs that their lovers or intimates are about to leave or reject them. This causes them to focus on and ruminate about small details (“Why didn’t he call me at 11 like he said?”), read meaning into situations where there might be none (“She never responded to my email. She must be angry with me or something.”), and to overreact and misread perceived slights (“I saw my work colleague on the street and I waved and she never waved back. I guess she doesn’t like me after all.”) Because her unconscious assumption is that she will be rejected (because she’s unworthy, unlovable and the like), her behaviors often reflect her assumption, not what’s actually going on. It doesn’t occur to her that her boyfriend or husband got busy which is why he didn’t call at 11, that her friend simply didn’t think the email needed answering, or that her colleague didn’t see her. Instead, her unconscious default settings recast whatever happens in terms of rejection.
It won’t surprise you that being this sensitive to rejection actually increases the likelihood of being rebuffed by a lover or friend. Not everyone is willing to be in a relationship with constant drama, being on call for reassurance 24/7, or being made to walk on eggshells. Many will choose to get off the merry-go-round which, for the unloved daughter just seems to confirm what she believed all along.
But learned behavior can be unlearned and the first step is to recognize both your rejection sensitivity and to stop it in its tracks.
How to become less rejection sensitive
Research suggests a number of strategies that can help you begin to function differently without all the baggage rejection sensitivity entails.
- Know and identify your triggers
Rejection sensitivity functions unconsciously and one way to stop it from running and ruining your life is to bring it into consciousness. Years ago, a therapist told me to STOP. LOOK.LISTEN. when I was about to go into emotional free fall. When you feel yourself become reactive to something that been said or done (or the absence of something you expected to be said or done), STOP. LOOK. LISTEN. Force yourself into an emotional time-out and make yourself look objectively at what you’re reacting to. Are you reading in? Misreading? Try to figure it out. Over time, you’ll get better and better at knowing what’s likely to set you off.
- Reappraise the situation and reframe
Cognitive reappraisal allows you to think about the situation as less threatening, less make-or-break than it appears to be emotionally. This is a cognitive process that allows you to regulate your emotions in times of stress. Let’s say you’re in an argument with someone you care about and all your emotional bells are ringing and you’re defensive, agitated, scared, and maybe angry at once. Cognitive reappraisal allows you to turn down the volume— “He’s not walking out the door this second. He’s just frustrated”—and allows you to focus on situational cues (“His body language isn’t saying closed off. He’s making eye contact”)—which permit you to see what’s going on more clearly.
- Examine your beliefs about personality and the self
Do you believe that personality and character traits are fixed? Or do you believe that both are malleable and can change over time?
This isn’t a philosophical question because your answer, as the work of Carol Dweck has shown, influences your behavior, the degree to which you are sensitive to being rebuffed, and how well you recover from setbacks, especially rejection. People who believe personality is fluid and can change over time can apply themselves to difficult tasks longer, recover from missteps with greater ease, and get over rejection faster. Those who believe that personality is fixed are much more affected by rejection because they believe being spurned reveals a core truth about themselves. Those who believe that personality is malleable are able to see rejection as an experience offering the possibility of growth in the self; those who see it as fixed suffer longer and more intensely and tend to edit the failed relationship out of their lives because revealing the story might encourage others to reject them too by looking for those fixed flaws.
Rejection sensitivity can put you in a loop of failed relationships that are self-fulfilling prophesies but if this has been the predominant script of your life, it need not stay that way.
Dweck, Carol S. “Can Personality Be Changed? The Role of Beliefs in Personality and Change,”Current Directions in Psychological Science (2008), vol. 17, no. 6, 391-394.
Howe, Lauren C. and Carol S. Dweck, “Changes in Self-Definition Impede Recovery from Rejection,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (2016), vol.42 (1), 54-71.
Photograph by Roger Keller. Copyright free. Unsplash.com