Back in the 1990s, researchers developed a construct related to the heightened sensitivity that some individuals feel around the experience of being rejected. Downey, Bonica, and Rincon (1998) described adolescents who suffer from this condition as feeling the following three emotional responses:
- Defensively expecting to be rejected.
- A tendency to perceive others’ behaviors as rejection.
- Experiencing intense negative reactions to romantic rejection.
The authors were specifically exploring the experience of adolescents and noted that a youth’s background and life circumstances can play a significant role in the development of this unique sensitivity as well as how they handle its eruption.
As is the case in a host of dysfunctions that arise during youth, early unhealthy family situations are a likely contributor to hypersensitivity to rejection. If your early caregivers failed to respond positively to your bids for acceptance and affection, it makes sense that you’d grow up assuming rejection was the likely response to your efforts to establish a relationship.
This tendency may also show up as a lack of self-confidence, which plagues more people than the highly self-confident might believe. Women tend to be “allowed” to lack self-confidence or suffer from “low self-esteem” in our culture, whereas men are expected to be strong, confident, and sure of themselves in any situation. The socially insecure may present themselves so poorly – due to their own self-doubt – that their expectations of rejection shape the reality they create. Even today, when new cultural messaging encourages sensitivity in men, it seems that the sensitivity must be projected and enacted from within an armored suit of strength and power. Not an easy task for those who do not naturally wear the mask of male potency and virility.
Yet “rejection hypersensitive” males experience something more intense than just a lack of self-confidence in romantic pursuits. They don’t bring even a hint of optimism that a potential partner’s equivocal response to their romantic interest could lead to a possible future acceptance; they interpret anything beyond a resounding “yes” to mean a flat-out rejection. No one is advocating that anyone should be encouraged to keep pushing for a "yes" when a "no" has been given; rejection-sensitive individuals, though, assume that any attempt at connection will be met with rejection.
When you’re expecting to be rejected, it can be logical to make faulty assumptions about others’ behaviors even if an intended relationship partner is communicating “hang on,” not “get lost.” We do learn what we live and if we’re left adrift by our families of origin, then we may tend to assume that the world is an inhospitable place fraught with rejection and hostility. Some of us may have had devoted and loving caregivers, yet a pessimistic temperament might lead us to assume rejection where reflection or time to consider is the response we are receiving from a potential partner. This is where the line between “normal” and "abnormal" reactions is drawn.
If your Response to Rejection Isolates You Further, You May Have a Problem
Lastly, the degree to which a person responds to rejection is a strong indicator of whether they have a problem or not. Humans are undeniably highly social creatures – just like dogs are pack animals who need their fellow pack members, humans need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance by people that matter to them. However, if your reaction to rejection is behavior that is likely to garner even stronger or more widespread rejection, that’s a sign of hypersensitivity to rejection.
Rejection Reactions: Gender Might Matter
Being rejected never feels good in the moment, no matter how lucky you might feel about the “near miss” a week, a year, or a decade later. However, there’s a gender difference in cultural expectations regarding acceptable responses to rejection. Men and women respond differently in culturally normative ways: Males tend to take rejection as a challenge to their masculinity or an insult to their perceived place in the social hierarchy. Women are likely to feel emotionally hurt by a rejection and to assume that there is something lacking in them that warranted the rejection or blame the person who did the rejecting but use self-soothing to get over the insult rather than lashing out as males might do. Women are encouraged to “get over it,” but men often feel the need to “get even.”
Research shows that when we are socially rejected, we are more likely to lower our standards in pursuit of a sense of belonging and acceptance. We are also likely to be more submissive to others than we typically are, in order to achieve social acceptance. This is one reason “everyone looks good at closing time.” When our goal is a social or sexual connection, the desire to achieve that end may result in the lowering of our initial expectations; the drive to couple up can be just that strong. However, when a man’s pride and sense of self is focused on conquering one particular romantic quest, the need to take action can result in violence.
Males tend to have three dominant and demanding roles in life:
- Prove Their Power.
That’s a lot on anyone’s shoulders in a world of competition for scarce resources, in tandem with the presumed status that power can bring. Individuals with limited ability to call on inner self-regulating resources or to rely on intrinsic rewards can lash out with unhealthy bids for power and dominance through violence and vengeance.
Men who have witnessed violence or have been victims of violence are more likely to see violence as an acceptable means to an end. In their eyes, life is a battleground that supports only two types of warriors: winners and losers. Being branded a “loser” can be a blow to the sense-of-self that individuals with fragile egos – or hypersensitivity to rejection – simply cannot withstand without one of two responses: shame or out-of-proportion retaliation, such as the tragic pattern of adolescent males turning to homicidal violence in response to rejections that seem too big to handle.
That’s where caregivers, parents, support systems, and helpers must step up and step in. Somewhere along the line, we’ve got to change the way personal power and social standing are measured and judged for young people just beginning to figure out their place in their social schema. Everyone needs to feel that they belong to something beyond themselves and it’s essential that we learn to recognize and attend to the ones among us who are unable to easily find their tribe. And we need to find a way to ensure that neither gender blames another for their own failings in the future. When there’s a movement based on identifying as being rejected by an entire gender, such as the Incel Movement, there’s cultural warfare that must be addressed at every level from infancy through adulthood.
Furman, W., Brown, B., & Feiring, C. (1999). The development of romantic relationships in adolescence. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Reid JA, Richards TN, Loughran TA, Mulvey EP. The Relationships Among Exposure to Violence, Psychological Distress, and Gun Carrying Among Male Adolescents Found Guilty of Serious Legal Offenses: A Longitudinal Cohort Study. Ann Intern Med. 2017;166:412–418. doi: 10.7326/M16-1648