What Is Rejection Sensitivity?

In This Article

While no one enjoys being rejected, some people are more sensitive to social rejection than others. Individuals who are high in rejection sensitivity are so fearful and aversive to rejection that it impacts their daily lives.

These people expect to be rejected all the time. And as they anxiously look for signs that someone doesn’t want to be with them, they often behave in ways that push other people away. This behavior creates a painful cycle that can be difficult to break.

What is rejection sensitivity?
 Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

Signs

Individuals with high rejection sensitivity constantly look for signs that they’re about to be rejected. They tend to respond dramatically to any hint that someone doesn’t want to be with them. Because of their fears and expectations, people with rejection sensitivity tend to misinterpret, distort, and overreact to what other people say and do. They may even respond with hurt and anger. Here are the factors that influence these overreactions.

Facial Expressions

People with rejection sensitivity ofter misinterpret or overreact to various facial expressions. For instance, one study found that individuals higher in rejection sensitivity showed changes in brain activity when they saw a face that looked like it may reject them.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers found that individuals higher in rejection sensitivity showed different brain activity when viewing faces that showed disapproval.

Subjects of the study did not show the same results when looking at individuals who showed anger or disgust. This observation was in line with individuals who do not experience rejection sensitivity.

Heightened Physiological Activity

When people with rejection sensitivity fear they may be rejected, they experience heightened physiological activity—more than individuals without sensitivity to rejection. They also remain alert for more cues that they’re about to be rejected. And, they may even exhibit fight-or-flight behavior.

Misinterpreted Behavior

Hypersensitivity to rejection will often cause individuals to distort and misinterpret the actions of others. For example, when friends don't respond to a text message right away, a rejection sensitive individual might think, “They no longer want to be friends with me.” Whereas someone without rejection sensitivity might be more likely to assume the friend is just too busy to reply.

Attention Bias

Additionally, individuals who rank high in rejection sensitivity often pay more attention to rejection or signs that they were rejected. This is known as attention bias. For example, if someone high in rejection sensitivity asked 10 people on a date and nine accepted and one declined, they would focus the most on that one rejection. They might even refer to their dating attempts as a “total disaster” and start to believe no one likes them.

Conversely, someone who ranks low in rejection sensitivity might view the same circumstances as a great success. That person may focus on the nine positive interactions and pay little attention to the one rejection.

Interpersonal Sensitivity

Individuals with high interpersonal sensitivity are preoccupied with all types of rejection—both perceived rejections and actual rejections. They’re also vigilant in observing and monitoring the moods and behaviors of others and are overly sensitive to interpersonal problems.

They may constantly look for proof that other people are rejecting them. So, despite a friend or partner’s reassurance that they’re welcome, loved, and good enough, they may still feel rejected.

They also crave close relationships. Yet, their fear of rejection can leave them feeling lonely and isolated. However, it's important to note that while someone might experience rejection sensitivity in social scenarios, they may not experience it in other circumstances.

For example, an individual who is terrified of social rejection may not mind getting turned down for an online job. When a situation doesn’t have social repercussions, they may be able to handle those rejections differently.

Causes

Rejection sensitivity isn’t caused by one single factor. Instead, there may be many factors at play. Some possible causes include childhood experiences like critical parents and bullying along with biological factors and genetics. Here is a closer look at the factors that may lead to rejection sensitivity.

Childhood Experiences

Early experiences of rejection, neglect, and abuse may contribute to rejection sensitivity. For example, being exposed to physical or emotional rejection by a parent, may increase the likelihood that someone will develop rejection sensitivity. However, the rejection doesn’t always need to be direct to have an impact.

Growing up with a parent who is emotionally unavailable or highly critical, also can cause someone to develop a strong fear of rejection in other relationships.

Rejection sensitive children also are more likely to behave aggressively. According to a study published in Child Development, children who were highly sensitive to rejection were more likely to angrily expect rejection. They showed heightened distress following an ambiguous social interaction with a peer.

Likewise, children who feel bullied or ostracized also may grow up to fear rejection more than others. Any type of prior exposure to painful rejection can cause someone to go to great lengths to avoid experiencing that pain again.

Biological Vulnerability

It’s also thought that some people may have a biological vulnerability to rejection sensitivity. There may be a genetic predisposition or certain personality traits that increase the likelihood that someone will be sensitive to rejection. Some researchers have even linked rejection sensitivity with low self-esteem, neuroticism, social anxiety, and an insecure attachment style.

Impact

Individuals who experience high levels of rejection sensitivity experience higher degrees of psychological distress when they’re rejected including emotional pain, anger, and sadness. In an attempt to deal with that discomfort, they're also at a higher risk of engaging in aggressiveness, social isolation, and self-injury.

Additionally, there are two primary factors at play in people with rejection sensitivity including the constant need to be liked and the challenges they face in forming meaningful connections with other people. Here is a closer look at those two factors.

The Constant Need to be Liked

People who are rejection sensitive may feel the need to be liked by everyone. And, if they are rejected, they may work extra hard to try to win that person's favor again. This reaction to rejection can lead to people pleasing behavior as well as extensive ingratiating behaviors.

In fact, a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that men who are high in rejection sensitivity are likely to respond by trying to become more likable.

They also discovered that these men were willing to pay more money to be part of a group that rejected them. If a woman evaluated them negatively on a mock dating site, they spent more money on her during the date in an attempt to get her to like them. Female participants exhibited similar behavior only when they were rejected by a potential romantic match with whom they had already shared personal information.

Rejection sensitive people respond to life in a way that is meant to protect them from pain. Unfortunately, their behaviors often backfire.

Difficulty Making Connections

A rejection sensitive person's fear of being rejected causes them to struggle to form new connections and to undermine their existing relationships. For example, someone who is high in rejection sensitivity may constantly accuse a partner of cheating—which may contribute to the other person ending the relationship.

Furthermore, a rejection sensitive individual may become angry and hostile whenever a friend doesn’t respond to their invitations in a timely fashion. Ultimately, that may cause the friend to retreat even more, which increases the sense of rejection.

Meanwhile, others with rejection sensitivity may avoid all situations and relationships where they might be rejected. Consequently, they may feel extremely isolated and lonely—which essentially leads to their biggest fears coming true.

Romantic Relationship Problems

People who struggle with rejection sensitivity often interpret rejection as proof that they are unacceptable in some way. To them, rejection is a judgment of their worth and value as a person. And, in relationships, this belief system can be disastrous.

When someone is expecting rejection, it's hard to feel safe in relationships. Even if they aren't being rejected at the moment, they're always watching for it, expecting it to happen at any time.

Consequently, minor missteps are seen as a total lack of caring or as cruel judgments on their worth as a person. In the end, the rejection sensitive person may grow distressed and angry as soon as they perceive a potential rejection. Here's a closer look at how rejection sensitivity can impact relationships.

Effect on Adolescents

Rejection sensitivity may start as early as the teenage years. Adolescent girls who rank high in rejection sensitivity may behave in ways that put them at a higher risk for victimization, according to a study published in Children Maltreatment.

Researchers found that rejection sensitive girls also were more likely to go to extremes to maintain a relationship when they felt insecure about a boyfriend’s commitment.

Even when the girls knew there may be negative consequences for their actions, they still modified their behavior in an effort to preserve the relationship. They also were more likely to engage in relationships that involved physical aggression and nonphysical hostility during conflicts—and they tolerated unhealthy behaviors in an attempt to stay together.

Effect on Adults

Adults with rejection sensitivity who are in romantic relationships will likely experience ongoing relationship problems. They often misinterpret events and reactions because they’re hyper-vigilant about being rejected.

These behaviors may lead to irrational jealousy because the individual is terrified of being abandoned or rejected. They also might interpret other behaviors, such as a partner being preoccupied with work, as proof that the other person is no longer in love with them.

For men with rejection sensitivity, being in a committed relationship may be more helpful to them than it is to women. One study found that men are lonelier and more rejection sensitive when they’re not in a romantic relationship.

But women who rank high in rejection sensitivity aren’t likely to experience relief from being in a relationship. They may continue to feel just as lonely and fearful of rejection when in a relationship as compared to when they are alone.

Still, both men and women who fear rejection may struggle to establish close romantic relationships. Their efforts are frequently directed toward avoiding conflict and rejection rather than establishing intimacy and growth.

Link to Mental Health Problems

Rejection is a direct threat to an individual’s sense of belonging and can have serious consequences for mental health. Even if someone isn’t actually being rejected all the time, if they perceive that they are an outcast or if they believe that they are being rejected, their mental health is still likely to decline.

However, rejection sensitivity isn’t a mental health diagnosis on its own, but it is associated with several different mental illnesses. For instance, rejection sensitivity is a risk factor for developing depression, and can worsen existing symptoms.

One study found that breakups—and the rejection associated with them—may be more likely to trigger depression in women.

For instance, college-aged women with high rejection sensitivity demonstrated increased depressive symptoms after a partner-initiated break-up compared to individuals who were low in rejection sensitivity.

Other studies have found that individuals who are high in rejection sensitivity are also at a higher risk of:

Extreme sensitivity to rejection is also part of the defining criteria for avoidant personality disorder and social phobia. Furthermore, researchers discovered a link between rejection sensitivity and suicidal thoughts in psychiatric patients.

The researchers found that individuals with suicidal ideation were more likely to feel like they didn’t belong and they often felt as though they were a burden to others—things that people with rejection sensitivity often experience.

If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Coping Strategies

If you suspect that you're sensitive to rejection, recognizing the symptoms—and the problems rejection sensitivity causes—can be the first step in creating change. Getting help could not only reduce your vulnerability to mental illness, but with appropriate help and intervention, also could improve your relationships.

In fact, research suggests that self-regulation, which involves monitoring and controlling one's emotional and behavioral responses, may be the key to coping with rejection sensitivity. For instance, when you perceive a potential sign of rejection, it may help to stop and reflect on the situation rather than responding immediately. One way to do this is to look for alternative explanations for the behavior instead of assuming the worst. If you're unable to make these changes on your own, you may need to enlist the help of a counselor.

Start by talking to your physician, who can assist you with determining the appropriate next steps. Many times, cognitive behavioral therapy can help you deal with the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that fuel the fear of rejection. And if you're already in a relationship, couples therapy could help both of you work to establish a healthier, more secure relationship.

It can be scary to take steps to grow closer to someone because the deeper the relationship grows, the more being rejected could hurt. But learning how to build deeper, healthier connections is key to reducing loneliness and isolation.

A Word From Verywell

Rejection sensitivity is not something you should ignore. In fact, symptoms often worsen over time if they're left untreated. Consequently, if you're prone to overwhelming emotional reactions including intense anger, anxiety, and sadness when you feel criticized or rejected, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. Learning to address your sensitivity and respond more appropriately to rejection is the key to improving your overall quality of life.

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