Of course, everyone is sensitive to rejection—who likes being cast aside or spurned, after all? —so what does it actually mean to be “rejection sensitive?” That seems to be a legitimate question especially since many daughters who have less-than-optimal or downright toxic relationships with their mothers are often told that their emotional responses are just a function of their being “too sensitive.” I can absolutely remember my mother telling me exactly that whenever I’d object to something nasty or demeaning she’d said about me; I didn’t realize it until later but calling someone “too sensitive” is just a way of blame-shifting and justifying your abuse.
So what’s the deal here exactly? Let’s look at the science.
Some people are actually more rejection sensitive
Perhaps a better term might be “alert to rejection” because that’s what people with an anxious-preoccupied style of attachment are: They are on constant watch or alert for signs of rejection. Their anxiety about rejection causes them not only to be easily triggered but to misread and to read into social situations they encounter. Let’s say you walk into the kitchen area of your office to grab a cup of coffee and see a few of your colleagues talking; do you immediately assume that they’re gossiping about you when they appear to go silent when they see you? Or perhaps you see a colleague or acquaintance on the street on the weekend and you wave and he or she doesn’t wave back; is your immediate thought that you’re being snubbed or do you just assume he or she didn’t see you? Do you feel rejected when two people you know make plans without including you even though you have no interest in actually doing what they’re doing? Do you fret about the order in which people are invited to a gathering and feel rejected when you learn someone else was invited first?
Rejection sensitive people tend, by and large, to assume that they are being slighted or outright rejected for many reasons or none at all.
And, no, “high alert” isn’t a metaphor either
That’s precisely what a 2007 study conducted by Lisa J. Burklund and others discovered with a small sample. Being able to “read” facial expressions and react to them is part of our safety system, including being able to tell friend from foe which enables the flight or fight responses. But what about facial expressions that aren’t flat-out threatening but aren’t welcoming either; what about facial expressions that convey a sense of disapproval? Using MRI imaging, the researchers found that, indeed, people high in rejection sensitivity showed more intense neural responses to disapproval meaning that their anticipation of rejection is happening at a physical level.
Rejection sensitivity and the creation of interpersonal drama
Her hypervigilance makes many social interactions hard—asking for a favor or help becomes fraught with meaning, hearing a demurral or an outright “no” releases strong emotions—and has the unfortunate consequence of creating emotional turbulence, especially in intimate relationships. That’s what research by Geraldine Downey and others confirmed; ironically, the emotional response to perceived rejection may actually, over time, cause a partner to exit the relationship. One man, “Tim,” I interviewed vividly described how exhausting being in a relationship with someone like this was:
The real problem was that no amount of reassurance was ever enough. She would become anxious if I got home an hour late or if I didn’t answer a text. She’d take it personally if I were in a meeting and I couldn’t pick up my phone. It didn’t matter if she knew about the meeting ahead of time; she’d start spinning like a top and then she’d get hugely angry and accusatory. We tried a few sessions with a therapist but, at the end of the day, she wore me out. I just couldn’t do the drama anymore.
I have heard this story many times. It’s often very difficult for the rejection sensitive daughter to see herself clearly; alas, she’s more likely to believe her faulty perceptions than her partner’s reassurances.
Do you tend to become anxious when your partner is late in calling or forgets to text as promised? Do you worry about his fidelity or his commitment constantly? Does your anxiety escalate into anger?
Acknowledging your rejection sensitivity
Working with a gifted therapist is the best route but there are some things you can do for yourself if you believe you are rejection sensitive. These ideas are drawn from my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
- Think about the source of your sensitivity
If you display an anxious-preoccupied style of attachment, understanding how you were treated in your family of origin and how it affected you can go a long way to identifying what triggers you in the present.
- Work on identifying those triggers
Figuring out what kinds of situations are likely to trigger your rejection sensitivity is key. Is it more likely to happen when you’re in groups or does it happen just as often when you’re one-on-one with someone? What kinds of things set you off? Knowing your typical reactions ahead of time can help you deal with over-reactions.
- Use Stop. Look. Listen.
This is a technique a therapist taught me many years ago to deal with over-reactivity and I’ve made it a part of the recovery steps I outline in my book Daughter Detox. When you start to feel your emotions ratchet up, give yourself a mental time-out and, if possible, actually withdraw physically from the situation or confrontation that is triggering you; this is the Stop part. Then you need to Look at the situation and ask yourself whether you are reacting reasonably or over-reacting and reading in. Finally, you need to Listen to your thoughts as well as to the words the person has spoken and make sure you are responding to the true context.
Rejection sensitivity insinuates itself into all your interactions and relationships but it can be dealt with. Be proactive.
Photograph by Priscilla du Preez. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Burkland, Lisa J, Naomi I. Eisenberger, and Matthew D. Leiberman. The Face of Rejection: Rejection Sensitivity Moderates Dorsal Anterior Cingulate Activity to Disapproving Facial Expressions. Social Neuroscience, 2007, vol.2 (3-4), pp. 238-253.
Downey, Geraldine, and Scott I. Feldman. Implications of Rejection Sensitivity for Intimate Relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1996, vol. 70(6), pp.1327-1343.
Downey, Geraldine, Antonio L. Freitas, Benjamin Michaelis, and Hala Khouri. The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Close Relationships: Rejection Sensitivity and Rejection by Romantic Partners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1998, vol. 75(2), pp. 545