Rejection stings for everyone, but for highly rejection-sensitive people, it can be a real showstopper. Here are five things you may not know.
Remember the first time you asked someone out? Whether it was in middle school or well into adulthood, I bet it was at least a little bit nerve-wracking. What if they say no? Worse, what if they make fun of you or show pity? What if they make it seem like it was ridiculous for you even to ask?
These hypothetical nightmare scenarios make even the bravest of us fear rejection. But in general, we don't walk around expecting people to reject us. We're also not constantly on the lookout for clues that rejection is about to happen.
For some people, rejection appears to be around every corner.
For some people, rejection appears to be around every corner. They “anxiously expect, readily perceive, and intensely react” to rejection or possible rejection. Psychologists call this “high rejection sensitivity.”
Rejection sensitivity might seem like a phase middle schoolers go through as they awkwardly navigate puberty, trying to figure out more adult-like social relationships. But it happens to adults of all ages. And it’s not the same thing as being a little shy or emotionally sensitive. There are specific ways that our brains and bodies behave when we're highly sensitive to rejection, and often very real consequences.
Here’s what neuroscientists and psychologists have learned about rejection sensitivity, including clues for how to get some relief from its grasp.
1. Your body and brain physically manifest rejection sensitivity
Like every psychological phenomenon, rejection sensitivity has a place in the brain. What might surprise you is how much and how specifically it takes on a shape in our biology.
For rejection-sensitive people, it’s not just that their brains respond more to unpleasantness in general. It’s rejection, specifically, that lights up those neural fireworks.
First, everyone's brain responds to rejection. During a brain imaging study, participants’ emotion-processing brain areas were activated when they looked at pictures showing rejection, compared to when they looked at pictures showing acceptance or abstract shapes. The brains of participants with high rejection sensitivity didn't activate the cognitive control areas as much as their peers. It's not that the brains of less rejection-sensitive people were immune to rejection cues; it's that they were better able to regulate them and keep them from running rampant.
For rejection-sensitive people, it’s not just that their brains respond more to unpleasantness in general. It’s rejection, specifically, that lights up those neural fireworks. A different brain imaging study showed that only pictures of disapproving faces, and not of angry or disgusted faces, activated their emotional threat-processing brain areas.
When it comes to how the body works, we can see that highly sensitive people are physically more on the lookout for rejection. In one study, people also looked at pictures, some of which showed rejection scenes, and then got random puffs of air in their eyes to see how much they startled. Highly rejection-sensitive people startled more right after viewing rejection images. This shows that the idea of rejection makes their bodies automatically shift into a higher defensive mode.
2. It’s associated with more than just social anxiety
When we think of people who are sensitive to rejection, we probably think of someone who's socially anxious—perhaps someone who is shy, afraid of speaking in public, or nervous about making the first move in social situations. And rejection sensitivity is indeed associated with social anxiety.
It may be less obvious that rejection sensitivity is also more common among people who have other psychological disorders including eating disorders, body dysmorphia, ADHD, borderline personality disorder, and impulse disorders like online gaming addiction.
This doesn’t mean that someone with high rejection sensitivity necessarily has these disorders. It’s just that among those who do experience these issues, rejection sensitivity seems to play a role. For example, if someone is already socially anxious, their level of rejection sensitivity can drive their irrational thoughts about their body. Those thoughts can be severe enough that they represent body dysmorphic disorder.
3. Rejection sensitivity feeds a vicious cycle that makes you more rejected
The toughest thing about rejection sensitivity is that it feeds itself. Think about this—if someone is always on the look-out for rejection and has a bigger physical and emotional reaction to rejection cues, they’re more likely to be tense, defensive, sad, angry, or withdrawn. Would you rather hang out with someone like this, or with someone relaxed and more able to have fun?
This is the vicious cycle that highly rejection-sensitive people find themselves in—the more they’re sensitive, the more they elicit actual rejection from others. That fulfills their rejection prophecy and leads to more rejection sensitivity.
The toughest thing about rejection sensitivity is that it feeds itself.
One study tested this vicious-cycle hypothesis. The researchers found that among couples, relationships involving highly rejection-sensitive people were more likely to have broken up a year later. They also found that rejection sensitive women, specifically, engaged in more negative behaviors after a relationship conflict, such as being hostile, denying responsibility, putting their partner down, or making negative assumptions about their partner. Their partners, in turn, became angrier than the partners of women who were low on rejection sensitivity. This shows how conflict can more easily escalate if one partner is sensitive to rejection.
4. For men, rejection sensitivity can drive violence
Women are not the only ones who can be highly sensitive to rejection and affected by it in relationships. But men might respond to it differently.
Men who are sensitive to rejection may try to protect themselves (knowingly or not) in two ways. Either they withdraw and become less invested in relationships, so they become less vulnerable to rejection (“I don’t care if he/she doesn’t like me”), or they become more invested in finding a partner and keeping them attached (“I'll work hard not to let them reject me.”)
Rejection sensitivity could be one piece of the puzzle explaining why some men are controlling or aggressive toward their partners.
One study involving male college students found that, among those who are sensitive to rejection, low investment in relationships predicted being more withdrawn and avoidant. But those who were both highly rejection sensitive and highly invested in relationships were more likely to engage in dating violence.
Of course, not all rejection-sensitive men who are very involved with their partners commit relationship violence. But rejection sensitivity could be one piece of the puzzle explaining why some men are controlling or aggressive toward their partners.
5. Learning to delay gratification and become mindful might help to ease the rejection sensitivity cycle
Can someone learn to overcome rejection sensitivity? In fact, we may be able to, even from a young age.
One study of children found that, even for those who were highly sensitive to rejection, their ability to delay gratification protected them from the detrimental effects of this sensitivity 20 years later. The children showed their ability to delay gratification by turning down one marshmallow now to get two later. Perhaps, if we adults practice this type of self-control, we can work the “muscles” in the brain areas that activate to regulate emotional impulses.
Also, practicing mindfulness—the state of paying attention to the here and now—may help. Research has shown that rejection sensitivity makes people more easily distracted by potential rejection cues, which may add to the vicious rejection-sensitivity cycle. Purposely working on tuning in to the present moment—without judgment —might help to break that cycle.