It’s safe to say that no one likes to be rejected, but for some individuals, the fear of being rebuffed becomes an overwhelming preoccupation. This sensitivity to rejection is most likely to occur in close relationships, where you feel the most vulnerable, but if it’s strong enough, it can spread to all areas of your life. Perhaps you’re running into problems with a boss who makes constant demands on you, but due to your fear of rejection, you simply accede to each new request, no matter how unreasonable. It’s more than just an irrational fear, you might argue, given that your boss could always fire you for insubordination. You feel the anger building inside you, and you hope it doesn't show, but perhaps it does, and despite your best efforts, that job won't be yours for much longer.
A comparable set of circumstances can make your relationships just as fraught with anxiety about the possible outcomes of standing your ground. The more you fear your partner’s rejection, the more you give in to requests of both an emotional and practical nature. Indeed, you may become quite adept at anticipating your partner’s requests; by now it’s not even necessary for your partner to ask outright for favors or extra work around the house, much less to give in to his or her side during an argument. Still, you fume inside, and it seems to be poisoning even the good times you once enjoyed. Long Island University’s Kevin Meehan and colleagues (2018) believe that people who are high in the quality of rejection sensitivity, in their efforts to not become rejected, paradoxically push other people away, creating “a self-perpetuating cycle of negative relational outcomes” (p. 109).
According to the LIU researchers, rejection sensitivity is “a cognitive-affective disposition to anxiously expect, readily perceive, and intensely react to rejection,” leading to maladaptive responses, such as becoming overly ingratiating, withdrawing emotionally, or acting in irrationally hostile ways (p. 109). When you’re high in rejection sensitivity, then, you’re essentially programmed to misperceive other people as unsupportive and uncaring. With this emotional chip on your shoulder, your worst fears will come true, because you then become a difficult relationship partner.
To study the continuous interplay between personality and situations, Meehan and his collaborators used a daily diary approach in which they asked a sample of 240 undergraduates (74 percent female) to provide ratings of their interactions over a seven-day period. Participants didn't have to record every single brief encounter but instead focused on three interactions lasting five minutes or longer. They provided these ratings on electronically presented diagrams, which they could call up via their smartphones. The diagrams showed two dimensions crossing in the center of a circle. The two dimensions were agency (dominance to submission) and communion (cold to warm). After rating themselves and their partners on these interpersonal dimensions, participants then rated their own perceived affect and that of their partner on a similar wheel-like grid, but now along the dimensions of arousal (active to passive) and valence (happy to sad).
Imagine, then, that you rated each of your own interactions and your feelings after those interactions, as well as those of your partner. You’ve just had a little tiff over who should clean up the dinner dishes. If you’re high in rejection sensitivity, you’ll most likely give in to your partner’s wishes, causing you to rate yourself as submissive and your partner as dominant. You’d probably rate yourself as passive and your affect as sad, but see your partner as active and probably happier than you are.
To measure rejection sensitivity, the authors asked participants to imagine themselves in situations such as the dinner dish scenario and rate themselves according to how they would feel after making such a request (such as anxious and concerned), and whether they thought the other person would reject their request. People scoring high in rejection sensitivity expected to be rebuffed and were highly concerned about this outcome.
Meehan and his team then subjected the daily interaction and affect data to an analysis that allowed them to observe how the ebb and flow of behaviors and feelings in social relationships varied by the rejection sensitivity of the participants. The highly rejection sensitive, as they predicted, were less likely to detect positive cues in their interaction partners than were those students low in rejection sensitivity. For example, in an interaction high in agency (i.e., where your partner is actively involved), you would react at an equally highly energetic level if your rejection sensitivity is low. If your rejection sensitivity is high, though, you’ll withdraw. As the authors note, “individuals high in rejection sensitivity may have difficulty engaging in mutually dominant interpersonal exchanges overall” (p. 113). They'll retreat into their shell when their partner seems to be taking the lead, rather than responding in kind.
Along the affect domain, those high in rejection sensitivity only reacted positively if they perceived their interaction partner as warm. If they perceived their partner as quiet and subdued, they retreated. This finding reinforced the view of the highly rejection sensitive as “hypersensitive to distant and negative stances by others out of fear that it portends rejection” (p. 114).
With these approaches to their relationships, it’s no wonder that the highly rejection sensitive in fact have poorer interactions with others and more negative affect. People essentially don’t like being around you if you’re constantly fearful, withdrawn, and overly dependent on others being nice to you. Your defensive stance causes the very situations you most fear.
If you recognize your own relationship patterns in these findings, there’s hope that you can in fact develop more satisfying relationships with others. The model of personality the LIU researchers adopted predicts that you’re not fated to spend the remainder of your life stuck in this maladaptive view of relationships. Once you realize you’re high in rejection sensitivity, you can experiment with being more agentic (i.e., not being pushed around) and also try to feel less slighted if you think other people aren’t being nice to you. From your work life to your love life, more fulfilling relationships may start to emerge as you become less afraid of losing the people you care about the most.
Meehan, K. B., Cain, N. M., Roche, M. J., Clarkin, J. F., & De Panfilis, C. (2018). Rejection sensitivity and interpersonal behavior in daily life. Personality and Individual Differences, 126109-115. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2018.01.029