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Why Some People Are So Sensitive to Rejection

What is rejection sensitive dysphoria, and what can you do about it?

Key points

  • Some people are highly attuned to the experience of rejection, which they feel more intensely than others.
  • Rejection sensitivity can interfere with relationships in several distinct and significant ways.
  • Psychotherapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy can help moderate the effects of rejection sensitivity.
CC0 / MaxPixel
Source: CC0 / MaxPixel

Imagine: You’re dating someone new, and you’ve been exchanging fun, flirtatious texts for a while. You’ve just written back to them — something especially clever, you hope — and you press "send." And then… nothing. There’s no immediate response. You wait, and wait, and wait — for hours, or days, or maybe just minutes that seem like days. And as you wait, you start to wonder. Are they not writing back because they aren’t interested? Or is something else going on? Have they lost interest? Are they silently judging you?

For some of us, situations like this are merely uncomfortable, whether or not they turn out to be significant. But for others — people with a condition known as rejection sensitivity or rejection sensitive dysphoria — waiting for a response like this can be agonizing.

Defining Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD)

People with RSD are likely to experience a heightened physiological arousal that is much greater than the negative emotions of others. The notion that someone might not like them, or might be ready to move on, end a relationship, or just disappear, creates fear and aversion intense enough to noticeably affect their daily lives. Even small hints of dismissal or criticism feel overwhelming, and can generate a similarly disproportionate response: Those with RSD may distort or misinterpret others’ actions, or assign catastrophic significance to a small offense. Afterward, people with rejection sensitivity will ruminate on what they might have done “wrong” or how they could have been responsible for the abandonment they've undergone: They have great difficulty moving on.

People with rejection sensitivity may also share these traits, in no particular order: a propensity for extreme emotional outbursts when feeling hurt or rejected; anxiety in social settings; ease of embarrassment; the belief that they must live up to impossibly high standards; and low self-esteem.

Although the DSM-V does not isolate rejection sensitivity (or RSD) as a separate disorder, it has been recognized as a meaningful cluster of symptoms, or a cognitive syndrome, since 2019. Some studies indicate that rejection sensitivity can activate the same regions of the brain as real physiological pain, and can thus be experienced as something akin to a physical injury. Rejection sensitivity has also been found to occur much more frequently in people with ADHD.

RSD and Relationships

It’s not easy for rejection-sensitive people to participate in close relationships, as much as they can crave intimacy: Paradoxically, as they grow closer to another person, their fear of rejection by that person may increase in proportion. They may harbor such a powerful, ever-present need to be liked, and to avoid rejection or abandonment, that they become likely to second-guess their partners’ innocent or neutral actions.

Reassurance can become a kind of relationship currency, in that people with RSD may repeatedly seek clarity and certainty that their partners still care for them, which their partners may feel forced to provide. Nevertheless, despite any degree of genuine reassurance, the rejection-sensitive may keep looking for signs that their partners are about to abandon them. That may be why some people with RSD can become excessively controlling of their partners: They see their partner’s freedoms as a threat to the relationship, and they overcompensate.

People with rejection sensitivity may also, when uncomfortable, decline to share their real feelings, which they fear will be seen as inappropriate or unacceptable. This, in turn, can make it difficult to forge intimacy in the first place. Alternately, as a recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology noted, they may end up stuck in a rut of people-pleasing, approval-seeking behavior. In all of these cases, rejection sensitivity may lead to a kind of feedback loop, in which a person’s efforts to overcome fears of abandonment generate conflicts that cause partners to retreat from the relationship, which in turn trigger even more intense efforts to soften the sting of being rebuffed.

Recovery From RSD

Recognizing the symptoms of rejection sensitivity, if you have them, can help you find a way to change. Developing your capacity to self-regulate, as one can do in regular psychotherapy, may help. This style of treatment involves gaining insight into your triggers and automatic responses, and understanding the circumstantial factors that can predispose you to an RSD reaction. You can learn to monitor your behavior, and thus to rein in any reflexive responses that might cause conflict or damage your relationships. You may become better able to reflect on your impulses, in moments after you’ve felt spurned, disliked, or abandoned, so that you can choose what you’ll do next. In cognitive-behavioral therapy, you may also learn to consider alternative explanations for what you’ve observed, and to test out these hypotheses in your mind before assuming that your worst fears have come true.

Overall, in rejection sensitivity, as in many other chronic or personality-related conditions, the ability to interpose thought and consideration between your feelings and your reactions is a crucial part of positive behavior change.

Facebook image: Burdun Iliya/Shutterstock

References

Bonior, A. (2019, July 25). What Is Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/friendship-20/201907/what-is-re…

Gyurak A, Ayduk O. Defensive physiological reactions to rejection: The effect of self-esteem and attentional control on startle responses. Psychol Sci. 2007;18(10):886–892. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01996.x

Healthline. ND: What Is Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria? Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/rejection-sensitive-dys…

Morin, A. (2021, August 23). What is rejection sensitivity? Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-rejection-sensitivity-4682652

Romero-Canyas R, Downey G, Reddy KS, Rodriguez S, Cavanaugh TJ, Pelayo R. (2010). Paying to belong: When does rejection trigger ingratiation? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(5): 802–823.

Watson, S. (2020, September 13). What is Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria? Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/add-adhd/rejection-sensitive-dysphoria

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