Many children who grow up with emotionally unavailable or controlling or even abusive parents are often told that they are “too sensitive,” which is one way a parent can rationalize verbal abuse. My mother told me that all the time, especially when I challenged her.
Of course, all humans are hurt by social rejection—we’re creatures who need to belong—and studies show that the pain of social rejection engages precisely the same neural circuitry as physical pain. It turns out that the word “heartache” is more literal than not. That said, people with an anxious-preoccupied style of attachment are much more likely to have high degrees of rejection sensitivity, which works to shape their behavior in complicated ways.
Understanding the anxious-preoccupied style of attachment and its roots
Children who grow up with an attuned, loving, and supportive parent or parents develop a secure style of attachment; they thrive on close emotional connection, have a strong sense of self, and forge relationships that promote emotional growth. Children who grow up in homes where their emotional needs are either not met at all or met inconsistently develop one of three styles of insecure attachment: dismissive-avoidant, fearful-avoidant, or anxious-preoccupied.
While the fearful-avoidant can also suffer from rejection sensitivity, it takes center stage when someone displays an anxious-preoccupied style. These people need to be in a relationship to feel validated because they have a low opinion of themselves and a high opinion of others; at the same time, they are always in a state of high alert, on the lookout for possible signs of rejection or betrayal. They need constant reassurance but will react explosively when they think that there’s a threat of rejection. Being in a relationship with them can be incredibly wearing and intense.
Understanding rejection sensitivity
The term “rejection sensitivity” immediately calls to mind romantic rejection—that exquisite pain when someone you love leaves you—but in fact, that’s just one component. This sensitivity affects a person on many different levels, influencing her expectations about interactions large and small and eliciting complex behaviors.
The scale developed by researchers Geraldine Downey and Scott Feldman for use in experiments with college students covered a broad range of situations involving the potential for rebuff, ranging from the relatively benign (e.g., asking to borrow a classmate’s notes, asking your parents for extra spending money, asking a professor for extra help in a course) to ones that involve more personal rejection (e.g., asking someone you don’t know for a date, approaching a close friend to talk after you’ve upset him by saying or doing something, asking a friend for a favor) to situations that, should they end in rejection, could really pack a wallop (e.g., asking your lover to move in with you, asking your boyfriend if he really loves you, asking someone close to talk to you after a bitter argument).
Again, these examples were developed for college students, but they can be adapted for adult life in most cases. The respondents were asked both how worried they were about how the other person would respond and how they thought the other person would react. Needless to say, all of these scenarios were more fraught for those high in rejection sensitivity than those who worried less about rejection.
Other studies have tracked the effect of rejection sensitivity on intimate relationships. One by Geraldine Downey, Antonio Freitas, and others hypothesized that people high in rejection sensitivity would actually get tangled up in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Their focus on possible rejection would elicit outsized and combative reactions to the slightest hint of it, and that, in turn, would make lovers and friends head for the hills. And that’s exactly what the researchers found.
Is this you? Recognizing the signs of rejection sensitivity
If your relationship history tends to be filled with drama and volatility—and that could be in the realm of friendship or romantic connection—or you’ve come to realize that perhaps you are too sensitive, here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Can you trace your sensitivity back to childhood experiences? Were you ignored, marginalized, or made to feel that love and support were transactional and conditional?
- How do you feel about yourself when you’re on your own and not in a relationship? Does that make you feel like you’re “less than” other people?
- If there’s drama in the relationship, how much of it is instigated by you?
- Do you tend to be drawn to people who make your anxiety more acute? Do you often find yourself in the “pleaser” role? Or on the defensive?
- How often do you fight with friends and partners? Do you see a pattern?
- What kind of reassurance do you demand of your partner when you’ve been triggered? Do you escalate your demands?
- When someone doesn’t call you as promised, do you think he or she got busy or distracted, or do you start to panic?
How to deal with and change your behavior
The best solution is to work with a gifted therapist so that you can get out of your own way. Self-help techniques, such as identifying the situations that trigger you and learning to tamp down your reactivity, giving yourself a mental time-out and shifting your perspective to that of a third-party, and learning how to calm yourself down, will also bolster your progress. The ideas suggested are fully explored in my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life , from which this post is adapted.
Copyright© 2017, 2020 by Peg Streep.
Campbell, Lorne, Jeffry A. Simpson, Jennifer Boldry, and Deborah A. Kashy. Perceptions of Conflict and Support in Romantic Relationships: The Role of Attachment Anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2005, vol. 88(3), pp. 510-531.
Downey, Geraldine, and Scott I. Feldman. Implications of Rejection Sensitivity for Intimate Relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1996, vol. 70(6), pp. 1327-1343.
Downey, Geraldine, Antonio L. Freitas, Benjamin Michaelis, and Hala Khouri. The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Close Relationships: Rejection Sensitivity and Rejection by Romantic Partners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1998, vol. 75(2), pp. 545-560.