Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why Some People Are So Sensitive to Rejection

Understanding the fear is the first step to overcoming it.

Key points

  • Rejection sensitivity, can become a major hindrance in close relationships.
  • New research shows the value of a simple nine-item scale to measure this quality and understand its meaning.
  • Attending to rejection anxiety and expectations can improve mental health and relationships.
Source: Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Do you ever have the feeling that you’re not accepted and supported when you’re in the emotional doldrums? Suffolk University’s Kayla Lord and colleagues define this state of mind in a recent paper (2022) as “rejection sensitivity (RS)” or “the predisposition to defensively expect, readily perceive, and react strongly to interpersonal rejection." In addition to making individuals susceptible to a variety of psychiatric disorders, high rejection sensitivity is associated with a lower sense of well-being.

Even if this doesn’t apply to you, is there someone you know who fits this description? Perhaps you have a cousin whom you’re very fond of, but whom you try to steer clear of nevertheless. This cousin makes planning for family events very difficult, if not awkward. It’s generally understood in your extended family that formal invitations for such events are hardly necessary. Yet, this cousin sends out what seems to be an endless stream of texts to make sure that she really is welcome. Why, you wonder, must you constantly have to reassure her that the standing invitation is still standing?

What’s Behind Rejection Sensitivity?

As potentially trivial as your cousin’s behavior may seem to be, if it’s part of a larger pattern of chronic worry over being left out of things or uncared for, hypersensitivity to rejection may be an indicator of a more serious approach to relationships. Over time, people high in RS may behave in ways that not only perpetuate but heighten the actual rejection experiences they encounter. Thinking about that cousin, isn’t it possible that you’re tempted to drop them from the family get-together list just to avoid having to deal with all those demands for reassurance?

In the “cognitive-affective-processing” framework outlined by Lord and her fellow authors, RS takes on a self-perpetuating quality for the very reason that constant demands for reassurance can become a turnoff for those in the individual’s social network. As a “self-maintaining defensive motivational system,” RS builds on itself in response to actual rejection experiences that generate the individual’s expectation that future rejections will inevitably continue to occur. This expectation generates behaviors such as anger or withdrawal that paradoxically make those future rejections more likely.

If people are to avoid having their RS spiral out of control, this cycle of expectations leading to behavior must somehow be broken. The first step to achieving this break in the process is to come up with an accurate way to measure an individual’s level of RS.

The 9-Item Questionnaire

Developed by Gettysburg College’s Kathy Berenson and colleagues (2009), the Rejection Sensitivity Questionnaire for Adults (A-RSQ) contains nine scenario-based questions that tap into an individual’s ways of reacting to potential types of rejection. Although the questionnaire was previously published and available in the literature, Lord and her fellow researchers believed that it needed further testing to determine its validity. In particular, its so-called “factor structure” was not previously well-established, and so the meaning of a total score was not completely clear.

This lack of clear meaning of total scores is also problematic given that RS is intended to relate to such negative outcomes as poor relationship satisfaction as well as to other interpersonal sensitivities, such as insecure attachment style. Furthermore, if RS is to be regarded as distinct from such personality traits as high neuroticism and submissiveness, the status of the A-RSQ as a standalone measure needs to be further documented.

With this background, it’s time to take a look at the A-RSQ to see how you would rate yourself. Each of the nine items describes a different scenario in which you would get a positive response from someone else. Your responses would fall into the two categories of (a) being concerned or anxious about the other person’s responses and (b) expecting to be given support or help, with both on a 1-to-6 scale:

  1. You ask your parents or another family member for a loan to help you through a difficult financial time.
  2. You approach a close friend to talk after doing or saying something that seriously upset him/her.
  3. You bring up the issue of sexual protection with your significant other and tell him/her how important you think it is.
  4. You ask your supervisor for help with a problem you have been having at work.
  5. After a bitter argument, you call or approach your significant other because you want to make up.
  6. You ask your parents or other family members to come to an occasion important to you.
  7. At a party, you notice someone on the other side of the room that you'd like to get to know, and you approach him or her to try to start a conversation.
  8. Lately you've been noticing some distance between yourself and your significant other, and you ask him/her if there is something wrong.
  9. You call a friend when there is something on your mind that you feel you really need to talk about.

In the initial scoring for the A-RSQ, each item’s score equaled the product of concern multiplied by expectation. On average, participants in the initial sample involved in the scale’s development received a score of about 9 (indicating moderate RS), and scores above 12 on an individual item would be considered above average.

The researchers examined the A-RSQ’s validity by comparing these combined scores with the results of an analysis examining concern and expectancy as separate factors. They also examined its relationship to theoretically relevant constructs including social anxiety, depression, stress, attachment style, and personality as a way of assessing the measure’s so-called “convergent” validity. If the measure is valid, it should line up with these similar (but not equal) features of people’s insecurities in general, mood, and ability to establish close and secure relationships.

The findings supported the A-RSQ’s validity in terms of these connections to other concepts. Importantly, however, the authors found that on a statistical basis, the measure held up better when scoring concern separately from expectancy. rather than using a total score. Additionally, expectancy was associated specifically with lower positive affect, including lower extraversion scores. Concern scores were related to higher levels of negative affect, including scores on distress. As the authors concluded, “rejection sensitivity is a clinically relevant transdiagnostic phenotype that influences symptom manifestation and psychosocial functioning” (p. 1069).

How to Manage High Rejection Sensitivity

This strong conclusion on the part of the Suffolk U. authors suggests that RS is an important quality indeed to be able to identify in yourself and others. Moreover, separating out the expectancy that someone will turn you down from concern about rejection seems to provide a worthwhile distinction.

From a therapeutic perspective, identifying high levels of RS could provide a useful starting point for helping individuals manage their behavior, thoughts, and feelings in close relationships. As the authors suggest, such management could include mindfulness training, where individuals learn to attend to their defensive tendencies regarding acceptance by others. Additionally, because RS can lead to antagonistic behaviors in interpersonal relationships, skill training could also have merit.

To sum up, this simple nine-item measure could provide you with significant knowledge about what keeps people, such as that cousin of yours, stuck in chronically difficult interpersonal situations. Understanding that their behavior is a reflection of a deeper cognitive-affective set of qualities can provide a path away from concerns and expectations of rejection into more healthy and fulfilling relationships.

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock


Berenson, K. R., Gyurak, A., Ayduk, O., Downey, G., Garner, M. J., Mogg, K., Bradley, B. P., & Pine, D. S. (2009). Rejection sensitivity and disruption of attention by social threat cues. Journal of Research in Personality, 43(6), 1064–1072.

Lord KA, Liverant GI, Stewart JG, Hayes-Skelton SA, Suvak MK. An evaluation of the construct validity of the Adult Rejection Sensitivity Questionnaire. Psychol Assess. 2022;34(11):1062–1073.

More from Susan Krauss Whitbourne PhD, ABPP
More from Psychology Today