Overcoming rejection sensitivity

RS is the tendency to anxiously expect, readily perceive and overreact to social rejection.

A teen rejected by her friends (illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
A teen rejected by her friends (illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Jay enters his classroom at the university and sees his best friend, Bob – who doesn’t say hello, or even look at him. Jay thinks to himself that maybe he did something to make Bob angry. He racks his brain and remembers he did not call Bob back two nights ago as he said he would; he is sure that Bob is angry and doesn’t want to be his friend anymore.
In reality, Jay could check this out with Bob by speaking to him and getting some clarification.
But Jay is too afraid to approach Bob, since Jay is quite confident he must have made Bob angry.
Jay often obsesses about whether he has offended people – close friends, family members, work friends or even new acquaintances. He is unable to shut off these worries, and as a result is vulnerable to repeated bouts of self-doubt and depression.
Sue never speaks at social gatherings. When her husband asks why she is so quiet, she responds that she just doesn’t believe she has anything important to say; her views are not as interesting as that of others.
In actuality, Sue is very intelligent but avoids any public discourse that will put her in the spotlight.
Sue has been like this most of her life. She remembers kids making fun of her when she was young; in childhood, she was quite tall for her age and had a slight stutter when she spoke.
Both Jay and Sue are suffering from what psychologists have labeled rejection sensitivity.
RS is the tendency to anxiously expect, readily perceive and overreact to social rejection. It affects almost everyone to some degree, but what make RS problematic is how often it occurs, and how this impacts on feelings and behavior.
Some people seem very resilient to rejection; it’s as if rejection gestures by others simply roll off their backs. For Jay and Sue, it is quite a different story – they can’t shut off their hypersensitivity to rejection. Instead, as in the case of Sue, they avoid social interaction; or mistakenly react to those they perceive as rejecting them by avoiding contact, as Jay does; or get angry at the so-called “rejecter.”
The net result is setting into motion a self-fulfilling prophecy in which their reactive behaviors to a faulty perception of rejection makes them feel worthless, angry/depressed and often lonely.
Psychological, biological and environmental factors seem to play a part in the development of RS. For example, children who have a secure attachment to a nurturing parental figure seem to have an emotional buffer that can prevent it. Insecure and anxious children very often develop a subjective emotional view that people are not reliable or trustworthy, making these individuals more vulnerable to RS.
Another childhood factor is bullying and other forms of peer rejection. When children are consistently teased and left out, they are more likely to develop interpersonal rejection sensitivity.
Parents as well as teachers should be aware and on the lookout for children who have difficulty fitting into their social group. Perhaps early intervention could have prevented Sue from becoming rejection sensitive.
A few other types of psychological dysfunction found to be associated with stronger RS include people with narcissistic personality disorders, borderline personality disorders and bipolar disorder.
Additionally, people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are also known to have high degrees of RS. These individuals are biologically wired in a way that makes it very difficult to shut off both the perception of rejection from others and the painful reactions that follow – such as anger, withdrawal and depression.
Diagnosed ADHD youth and adults should be given appropriate treatment, including the use of counseling and stimulant medication, to help them gain control over their hypersensitivity.
SOME TIPS or advice for RS sufferers:
1. Be aware of whether rejection sensitivity affects you; many people are unaware they have this problem. Are you very sensitive to other people’s behaviors, often feeling very hurt, angry, rejected and/or depressed as a result?
2. Be mindful of how another person has hurt you. What effect does it have on your feelings and behavior? Don’t react, first try to calm down; deep breathing relaxation can help here.
3. Consider alternative explanations for the person’s behavior. For example, in Jay’s case, maybe Bob did not complete an assignment and is afraid the instructor will find out and reprimand him, or he had an argument with his girlfriend. In other words, don’t be so quick to personalize what you perceive as a rejection; it may really have nothing to do with you.
4. Confront your fear. Realize that most likely, your hypersensitivity and vulnerability re blocking you from seeing the other person in a more realistic way. You are just looking for the rejection and in fact, it may not at all exist. I would tell Jay to push aside his negative beliefs and go up to Bob, smile and say hi. Bob will likely smile back or maybe he will not, but will tell Jay something troubling him that is not related to Jay. It’s the best way to check your thinking about the matter, helping you to see the situation more realistically.
5. Try to figure out why you are so vulnerable to rejection beliefs in the first place. This is often a good time to get some professional help to evaluate the source of your RS – be it psychological, biological and/or environmental.
6. Research clearly supports the efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy. Sometimes, antidepressant medication can be a useful adjunct in treating RS.
The writer is a marital, child and adult cognitive- behavioral psychotherapist, with offices in Jerusalem and Ra’anana; he also provides online videoconferencing psychotherapy. www.drmikegropper.weebly.com, drmikegropper@gmail.com