At our core, we all yearn to belong, to find spaces and connections where we feel safe and valued. While this need manifests itself differently depending on the person, we all want to have meaningful connections with other people. Creating and maintaining these connections can require us to be vulnerable – especially as we enter adulthood where there may be fewer opportunities for relationships and friendships to organically form. And even though we all crave and need connection, an intense fear of and heightened awareness for rejection can hinder us from forming or sustaining friendships and relationships. When we experience rejection sensitivity, we may find that we anticipate and even look for rejection, even in interactions, friendships, and other relationships where we are not experiencing true rejection.

The emotional toll of rejection – even perceived rejection – can be comparable to physical pain. Research has shown that the brain reacts to rejection in the same areas associated with physical pain, highlighting both the depth of our need for social acceptance and the distress that can be caused when we do not get it.

7 Signs of Rejection Sensitivity

If you suspect you may have a heightened sensitivity to rejection, knowing some of the signs that point to rejection sensitivity is a great starting point to finding ways of coping that can help you find areas where you may be able to implement coping strategies.

1. Ruminating thoughts

You may notice that you fixate on a perceived rejection and try to make meaning out of it. For instance, you texted your friend, a day has passed, and they haven’t responded. You have now convinced yourself that they are mad at you, they have forgotten about you, they don’t want to be your friend. Concluding that someone is upset at you or disinterested in you based on one action or inaction can indicate the impact of rejection sensitivity on your thought patterns.

2. Magnification

This involves seeing the perceived rejection or criticism as much bigger than it actually is. If you spend a lot of time thinking about the event, experience, or emotion linked to the perceived rejection, you may notice that the “act” of rejection feels like a bigger deal than it did initially.

3.  Hyper-Reactivity

Individuals with rejection sensitivity often react dramatically to any perceived sign of potential rejection. This can manifest as intense emotional responses, hurt, anger, or counter-rejection.

4. Fight-or-Flight Behavior

The fear of rejection triggers a primal response, leading to a fight-or-flight reaction. This can manifest in impulsive actions, lashing out, or extreme anger or withdrawal as a protective mechanism.

5.  Feelings of anxiety when you feel disliked or not accepted by others

Being rejection sensitive can leave you feeling like you are unable to move past the negative emotions associated with not being accepted. Instead, you may find yourself experiencing heightened levels of anxiety or depression when not feeling accepted.

6.  Social withdrawal

If you find yourself pulling away from people or avoiding social opportunities due to anxiety that you may not be accepted, you may be experiencing rejection sensitivity. It can be normal and acceptable to withdraw socially from time-to-time as you experience different life events and seasons, but if you find that this seems to be a pattern for you, pay attention to why you may be pulling away. 

7. Aiming for perfection

Many who would describe themselves as perfectionists are also deeply sensitive to rejection. Striving for perfection becomes a way to try to avoid the pain of rejection. You may seek to do, say, and execute things perfectly as a way to gain acceptance.

5 Strategies for Coping with Rejection Sensitivity

Being on high alert for the next time you will be rejected can be an exhausting way to go through each day. Spending time analyzing every interaction you have or don’t have is not a productive way to foster healthy relationships with others and your own personal well-being. Below are five strategies that can help you cope with rejection sensitivity.

1. Consider facts

This one is hard, but it can be liberating! I will often ruminate over a “weird look,” a *dry* text message, a terse “hello” in passing. Before I know it, I have created an entire narrative in which the person who I am feeling slighted by absolutely hates me, and I find myself racking my brain for what I could have said or done to warrant their rejection. 

In situations like these, it can be very helpful to take a step back and consider only the facts without interpreting those facts through emotions. For instance, if someone’s response to my text is “lacking emotion” or someone’s “Hi” to me in a hallway didn’t “feel warm,” I can choose to ruminate, or I can choose to consider that that “lack of warmth” and the “dry” message are my interpretations of this person’s words and intentions. These are not necessarily true. 

Focusing only on the facts present in an interaction doesn’t protect us from rejection if it does happen, but what it does do is it releases me from taking ownership of and responsibility for the words, thoughts, and actions of others. So, perhaps that person’s “Hi” was a bit terse. It could be true that they are in a hurry, have a lot on their mind, or simply didn’t realize they came across as less-than-friendly. The ability to separate oneself from fixating on making meaning out of someone’s words (or lack thereof), tone, facial expressions can help us to focus less of our time and mental energy focused on rejection that may not even be there.

2. Challenge the urge to shut down

When you sense yourself starting to shut down or pull away as a result of perceived rejection, consider recognizing and challenging this response. Dr Reichmann provided advice on a recent post that encourages those who are feeling the urge to shut down in response to perceived rejection to question the impulse to pull back or shut down, and that this is a protective measure, but not one that always serves us. While you may “save yourself” from having to face the rejection of that person or group, you may find that you – in turn – end up isolating yourself from people in general.

3. Decouple response time with level of care

Another suggestion Dr. Reichmann included in her post is to try to decouple response time with level of care. If you are starting to feel anxious or upset about someone not responding to a text message, DM, phone call, etc, try to pause and think through the emotions that are being triggered. Consider why you are attributing response time to the level of care that someone has for you, and think about if that is a realistic standard to hold each other to as humans. 

A lot of my own rejection insecurities will start manifesting themselves when I text or reach out to someone and don’t get a relatively quick response. In a time where most people do have their phones with them almost constantly, it can be hard to wrap our minds around why someone would not respond to a text message or phone call right away.

However, if I step back and think of my own level of communication, I realize that I am not always great at responding to people right away. And my lack of response is not because I don’t like the person who reached out; sometimes I am busy, sometimes I am overwhelmed, sometimes I am in the middle of something and then forget to come back to that message. Bottom line: when I am the one who is “slow at responding,” it’s not an indication of how I feel about the other person, so it would be unfair to assume that someone else’s response time and habits are an accurate indication of their feelings about me. 

4. Talk about it

Instead of making assumptions about others’ intentions, communicate openly and honestly. This may look like reaching out to the person you are feeling rejected by, sharing how you are feeling, asking questions. If this is something you decide to do, it may be outside of your comfort zone, or it may initially feel awkward, but keeping an open line of communication with people who you care about can help prevent the unnecessary breakdown of a relationship. Your friends are likely unaware that you’re questioning the strength of your connection.

5. Remember that your value is not dependent on someone else’s acceptance

 Coming from a rejection sensitive person who still very much struggles to not make meaning out of every action, inaction, odd look, text message that feels like it could be rejection, I can say that what often ends up helping is remembering that even if the worst case scenario that is playing in my head about someone’s behavior is, in fact, their way of rejecting me, that my value is not dependent on their acceptance. 

While our emotions and thoughts often try to convince us otherwise, there is not an ounce of your value that is dependent on another person’s level of acceptance. Your inherent value remains unchanged in the face of both acceptance and rejection from others.

Overcoming Rejection Sensitivity for Deeper, Authentic Connections

Rejection sensitivity can be debilitating. And while there is no shame in being someone who is sensitive to rejection, it can rob you of the joy you could be experiencing in the friendships and relationships you have and desire to build. Being able to identify if and when you experience this tendency can help you pinpoint coping strategies that can help you work toward finding a balance between a helpful response to perceived rejection and one that doesn’t serve you or the relationships you are trying to form or maintain. So, for my fellow rejection sensitive folks, I hope that, in the coming days, weeks, and months, you can move closer to feeling the freedom from rejection sensitivity in a way that allows you to build deeper and more authentic connections with those around you.

By: Erika Muller, Assistant for Wildflower Therapy LLC

All images via Unsplash and Pexels

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If you’re looking for someone to come alongside you to help you unpack and approach the the complex set of emotions that come up when experiencing rejection sensitivity, our therapists in Pennsylvania are honored to help!  In fact, you can get to know a little bit more about them here and book a free consultation here.

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