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Rejection Sensitivity

Why Does Rejection Hurt So Much?

Some people experience hypersensitive responses to feelings of rejection.

Key points

  • Loss and rejection are intrinsic to human existence, yet people differ widely in their sensitivity to rejection.
  • Early experiences of rejection by caregivers may influence the development of a person's sensitivity to rejection.
  • Strategies to cope with rejection include locating support, practicing, self-compassion, and painting structure in one's life.
Source: Kulbir/Pexels

You don’t make it into the school hockey team; your partner dumps you; the college you worked so hard to get into turns you down; you can’t get a publishing deal for the book you’ve spent years writing; your child leaves home.

These sorts of losses occur throughout our lives, and they hurt. Why?

The psychoanalytic literature describes the loss, any loss, as a blow to the ego, which creates a ‘narcissistic injury’: a wound to the self that lowers our self-esteem and can result in a range of emotions, including shame, humiliation, and rage. It happens because we all have the unconscious wish to live in a world where people are not separate from each other and never disappoint or leave one another. But we learn very early in life that we are separate from others, that others often don’t fulfill our needs and wishes, and that people we care about can die. So loss and life are inextricably linked, and narcissistic injury is intrinsic to human existence.

Yet, people vary considerably in their reactions to narcissistic injury. Some may feel helpless, ashamed, or humiliated; others may feel angry or blame themselves for the loss. Some may feel mildly disappointed; others are devastated. Some get over their rejection quite quickly, while others remain permanently hurt and aggrieved: an example is Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, who stopped all the clocks in her house at the precise moment when her fiancé jilted her. How do you react?

In social psychology, a large body of research has developed around the concept of ‘Rejection Sensitivity (RS), defined as the tendency to ‘anxiously expect, readily perceive and overreact to rejection.’ People who have high RS experience greater psychological distress when they are rejected and may misinterpret the reactions of others as a result of their hypersensitivity. So if a friend doesn’t respond to a text straight away, a person with high RS might think that they no longer want to be friends, whereas someone with lower RS might assume that they’re busy.

Early experiences of rejection by caregivers are thought to be crucial in the development of RS. Critical, emotionally unavailable, aggressive, or strict parents can all be experienced as rejecting. If children’s needs are met sensitively and consistently, they develop secure mental models of themselves and their relationships, including the expectation that others will accept and support them. Conversely, when caregivers are insensitive or inconsistent, children develop insecure models which incorporate doubts and anxieties about whether or not they will be supported. So an individual growing up with rejecting caregiving experiences is likely to develop a strong fear of rejection in many situations and relationships.

An example might be the person who feels anxious during a telephone conversation, fearing that the other person thinks them uninteresting, and ends the call, thereby finishing the conversation themselves to avoid rejection.

These experiences are pervasive, with one loss or rejection tending to evoke previous losses. The writer Michele Roberts wrote Negative Capability, her diary of surviving after her publisher rejected her latest novel. The rejection felt calamitous, so bound up was her writing with her identity, and it evoked other rejections from her past, such as a lover who returned to his wife and her mother’s lukewarm attitude to her daughter’s books.

There are studies in academia, commerce, and publishing that show that people who have been rejected are reluctant to try again. One contributor to a survey of women writers commented: ‘my writing is so bound up with my sense of self that rejection bites at the very core and stops me wanting to continue.’ The same applies to rejection in relationships or any other area. Think about your own sensitivity to rejection by bringing to mind a recent rejection or loss: How did it feel? How intense were the feelings? Were they similar to the feelings evoked by other rejections in your life?

Source: Fotografierende/Pexels

If like me, you are highly sensitive to rejection, all is not lost! When my husband dropped dead out of the blue, leaving me with three teenage children, I experienced his death as a massive rejection – he promised he would never leave me, and then he did, in the most spectacular way possible. As the psychoanalyst James Frosch says: ‘death is the ultimate narcissistic injury, and there followed a long period of struggle, upheaval, and loneliness as I tried to adapt to a very different way of living.

However, my own experience and that of other bereaved people taught me that loss and rejection could be managed in ways that render it less devastating. The most important strategies for coping better appear to be locating support, maintaining a structure in your life, showing compassion and kindness towards yourself, and, for many people, engaging in physical activity.

There will be more loss and rejection to come – relationships will end, people will die. This is inevitable, and we all need to prepare for it as best we can. To quote Frosch again: ‘People who have been narcissistically injured need to accept that some wishes, however understandable and legitimate, will not be fulfilled and will need to be relinquished. And relinquishing such wishes is actually a grieving or mourning process’.


Roberts,M. (2020). Negative Capability: A Diary of Surviving. Sandstone Press.

Moore,V. (2021). Why Rejection Hurts So Much. Mslexia, 90, Jun/Jul/Aug 2021.

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