Individuals often develop a sensitivity to rejection from others through childhood experience (even in the uterus). Bowlby (1969) is credited with recognising that infants require a secure attachment with a caregiver. The absence of a secure attachment can give rise to fears about being ignored, rejected or even abandoned. There is some evidence that childhood emotional neglect may be key in the development of long-term rejection sensitivity (Bungert et al., 2015). A lack of confidence in one’s own identity and a stable sense of self-identity, ideally acquired through childhood, are both linked to rejection sensitivity, see Norona and Welsh, 2016. These authors suggested hostility and criticism from caregivers encourages children to develop rejection sensitivity as an adaptive self-protection mechanism that can subsequently cause difficulty in later life. Traumatic experiences may also lead to fears about rejection (e.g. actual rejection, experiences of bullying, abuse, etc.). Rejection sensitive individuals expect, readily perceive, and often overreact to rejection. Their means of processing these fearful expectations, perceptions, and experiences may in themselves make rejection more likely. Individuals may thus generate ‘self-fulfilling prophecies’ which harm their experience of relationships, and the experiences of intimate others. Ironically, this makes the feared scenarios more likely.
Rejection sensitivity is composed of two parts, an emotional part with fearful/ anxious feelings around certain others and a cognitive/ thinking part that appraises situations as highly likely to lead to rejection. Individual histories create ‘hot spots’ exacerbating anxious feelings and high expectations of rejection. These may include particular people (e.g. attachment figures, authority figures, romantic partners, parents, family members, siblings, peers, supervisors, strangers, or ‘transference’ reminders of these) and or particular issues (e.g. arguments, disagreements, upsets, requests for help, forgiveness, reconciliation, money, sex, special events such as birthdays, holidays and so on). So for some asking parents for financial help may create highly anxious feelings and an expectation of rejection, whilst others may avoid talking to their romantic partner about an increasing sense of distance or after a bitter argument, expecting them to be dismissive or worse with these fearful expectations contributing to high anxiety.
Downey and Feldman (1998) showed that people vigilant to rejection even perceived rejection in the neutral behaviour of others. Less vigilant individuals viewed the neutral behaviour of others as presenting no rejecting threat. They also showed that rejection sensitive individuals in couple relationships tended to see merely ‘insensitive’ behaviour from their partners as intentional rejection. Overall, couples where one or both partners were sensitive to rejection were more dissatisfied with their relationship than those couples where neither partner was rejection sensitive. Downey and Feldman found that the origins of relationship dissatisfaction mainly lay in the behaviour of the rejection sensitive partner. Relationship dissatisfaction was often caused by rejection sensitive partners (i) acting out jealousy with their partner, (ii) seeking to ‘protect’ oneself by reducing emotional supportiveness, and (iii) enacting hostility towards their partner. In each instance the way that rejection sensitive partners behaved (out of fear of rejection) made it more likely they would actually be rejected.
Norona and Welsh (2016) have cast light on further mechanisms by which rejection sensitivity may adversely affect relationship satisfaction. They found that the effect of rejection sensitivity on relationship satisfaction was mediated by (correlated with, caused by, carried by…) partners’ differentiation of self. Individuals high in rejection sensitivity with a poorly differentiated sense of self are at risk of low relationship satisfaction for themselves and their partner. These researchers found that causation lay in the ‘Emotional Cut-off’ element of the differentiation of self. Being rejection sensitive often led to ‘emotionally cutting-off’ behaviour, which in turn led to relationship dissatisfaction. Rejection sensitivity allied with low differentiation of self, led partners to distance themselves emotionally and behaviourally from their important other. Whilst this emotional distancing appeared to reduce opportunities for rejection, an unfortunate unintended consequence was reduced opportunities for accepting and bonding experiences which might lead to higher relationship satisfaction. People seeking to fearfully isolate themselves from bad experiences may also inadvertently isolate themselves from positive experiences, leading to a lack of emotional intimacy and relationship dissatisfaction for both partners.
Research suggests enhanced ‘executive control’ functioning (Ayduk et al., 2007) and improved self-esteem (Bungert et al., 2015) may help manage, control, and master the effects of rejection sensitivity on oneself and on relationships with others. This can make interpersonal relationships more fulfilling.
Rejection Sensitivity can be measured using the Rejection Sensitivity Questionnaire developed for use with Adults (A-RSQ). Average scores above 10.25 on the nine scenarios provided on this questionnaire were considered ‘clinical’, indicating ‘high rejection sensitivity’. Research at this service showed the following changes for clients presenting with ‘high rejection sensitivity’. As at May 2020 for 22 clients starting with high rejection sensitivity after an average of fourteen sessions these clients were experiencing on average a non-clinical level of rejection sensitivity:
As described above, Rejection Sensitivity is considered to be composed of two parts, an emotional part, the fearful/anxious feelings around others, and a cognitive/thinking part, the expectation/ evaluation of the likelihood of rejection. Working together, the feelings and thoughts, both create the Rejection Sensitivity that drives the behaviour that paradoxically often results in the feared scenario of rejection. Research at this service to May 2020 shows that both parts of Rejection Sensitivity can improve. Firstly, for 23 clients with heightened fears (feelings/ emotions) around rejection, after an average of 14 sessions were on average experiencing non-clinical fears of rejection:
Secondly, to May 2020 for 16 clients with heightened expectations (cognitions/ thoughts) of rejection, after an average of 16 sessions were on average experiencing non-clinical expectations of rejection:
Following is a description of how the feelings and thoughts about rejection sensitivity work together in the human brain:
Executive control has been described as ‘the ability to override habitual, automatic reactions in favour of less dominant but situation appropriate responses in a voluntary and effortful manner’ (Ayduk et al., page 153) and is regulated by parts of the brain called the left prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia. Executive control (the ‘cool system’) may be used to regulate ‘hot’ reflexive emotions, arising in the limbic system, especially the amygdala. Enhanced executive control can improve differentiation of self, especially emotional reactivity and emotional cut-off, and the emotional and cognitive aspects of rejection sensitivity. Beginning in the 1960s Walter Mischel (2014) has spent a professional lifetime studying the mastery of self-control and has identified skills associated with improved executive control which centre on the principle of ‘cool the now and heat the later’; using Executive Control to cool hot feelings in the present and hot reflexive feelings to warm feelings in the future. For example, with habitual problems such as smoking, to cool the desire for a cigarette here and now and heat up the fear of dying of lung cancer in the future. Executive control skills include ‘if… then… implementation plans’ which seek to make self-control habitual (e.g. if I feel angry, then I’ll count down slowly from one hundred before saying or doing anything), using a future focus (e.g. I’ll count down slowly from one hundred because I want to happily celebrate my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary), using cognitive reappraisals (e.g. my partner gets angry with me because they want to feel securely attached to me and this is ‘an attachment protest’) using distraction (different to avoidance, I know I’m anxious about the party and if I focus on what I’ll do afterwards then I won’t focus on worrying), self-distancing (I’m looking at what bodily feelings a person has when they feel fearful), self-soothing (breathe deeply, imagine the troublesome feeling floating away, using healthy activities to make myself feel pleasure, relaxation, happiness and so on) and self-acceptance (e.g. ‘it’s just one more time of making that same mistake’, rather than self-directed anger ‘what is it with me?’).
Susan David’s recent (2016) book ‘Emotional Agility’ provides the perspective of a Harvard Medical School academic researcher and consultant to international organisations on methods to manage feelings (Emotional Reactivity) and maintaining a sense of self (I-position).
Changing behaviour such that fear of rejection does not manifest itself in maladaptive behaviours (hostility, aggression, anger or withdrawal) can improve relationship satisfaction (Bungert et al., 2015). Improving self-esteem and a sense of personal power helps also helps with rejection sensitivity and self-differentiation.
Another Harvard academic, Amy Cuddy, at Harvard Business School writes (2016) about skills which enhance the differentiated self, in particular the ‘I-position’ and ‘Fusion with Others’ parts. Cuddy is reputed to have the second highest viewed TED talk in history (you can click here to view). Techniques such as power-posing may strengthen the sense of self, independence from others and resilience to fears about rejections. Feeling good about yourself, enhanced self-esteem, is self-protective (sometimes referred to as ‘the psychological immune system’) and can mitigate the ill effects of bad experiences (e.g. Mischel, 2014).
Ayduk, O., Zayas, V., Downey, G., Blum Cole, A., Shoda, Y., and Mischel, W. 2007. Rejection sensitivity and executive control: Joint predictors of borderline personality features. Journal of Research in Personality, 42, pp.151-168.
Bowlby, J. 1969. Attachment and Loss. London: Hogarth.
Bungert, M., Liebke, L., Thome, L., Haussler, K., Bohus, M., and Lis, S. 2015. Rejection sensitivity and symptom severity in patients with borderline personality disorder: Effects of childhood maltreatment and self-esteem. Emotion Dysregulation, 2(4), pp.1-13.
*Cuddy, A. 2016. Presence: Bringing your boldest self to your biggest challenges. London: Orion. (available as an audiobook)
*David, S (2016)., Emotional Agility: Get unstuck, embrace change and thrive in work and life. London: Penguin. (also available as an audiobook)
Downey, G., and Feldman, S. 1998. Implications of rejection sensitivity for intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(6), pp.1327-43.
Khaddouma, A, Coop Gordon, K and Bolden, J. 2015. Zen and the art of dating: Mindfulness, differentiation of self and satisfaction in dating relationships. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice 4 (1), pp. 1-13.
*Mischel, W. 2014. The Marshmallow Test: Understanding self-control and how to master it. London: Corgi. (also available as an audiobook)
Norona, J., and Welsh, D. 2016. Rejection sensitivity and relationship satisfaction in dating relationships: The mediating role of differentiation of self. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 5(2), pp.124-35…