What is rejection sensitivity?
A frequent conversation that I have with parents and young people who have had a neurodiverse diagnosis (or are awaiting diagnosis) is the challenges that they can have with rejection sensitivity. This is most often symptomatic of those with ADHD or ADD. Rejection sensitivity occurs where the actual or perceived rejection of another person causes a fearful or extreme response. This rejection can occur in many ways, such as:
- receiving negative feedback
- receiving criticism
- receiving constructive criticism
- having outcomes which were not expected
- friends not being able to spend time with them
- friends not answering a call / text
- delays to invitation responses
- not being invited to something
Rejection sensitivity means that someone expects to be rejected all the time. This can lead to quite dramatic or out of context responses when they feel that they MAY be rejected. Even if this is not the reality. It therefore affects their ability to read the person or sometimes the room. Rejection sensitivity can be triggered by many things, such as facial expressions, comments, interactions, not having a text or message responded to, seeing things online, not being invited to an event etc. This can mean that they misinterpret, distort or dramatise a situation, which means that a simple situation can easily be blown out of proportion, and they often find it very challenging to accept their role in this as to them it is a justified response.
In rejection sensitivity, the individual is always LOOKING for signs that they are being rejected, often meaning that they miss signs that they are wanted, included or appreciated. This means that they will always fixate on what does not go right and often miss all the positives in their friendships or relationships. The default is to always look for evidence that they are being rejected. In any event that something does not go to plan, or they do not receive the attention that they want/need they will instantly default to rejection, which creates an emotional response in their bodies. In many ways, this becomes a safety gauge, that they use to keep themselves protected from rejection – but in reality it means that they push people away, or lose friendships because the other person struggles with their reactions or behaviours.
The individual with rejection sensitivity may react in many ways, which will be unique to them, including:
- pushing people away
- ignoring people
- ghosting on others
- fixating on a comment or situation to justify pushing people away
- saying offensive or hurtful things
- refusing to take responsibility and blaming someone else
- getting angry
- becoming distressed
- pushing people away and then flooding them with contact
- starting arguments or fights
This can also mean that when they perceive a rejection that they may push the person away or cut them off before they have chance to reject them to protect themselves. This can create huge challenges as inadvertently the child or teenager (or adult) may end up cutting off friendships or relationships for the wrong reasons and cause themselves a great deal of pain which was avoidable.
Examples of scenarios
Examples of everyday scenarios which may be affected by rejection sensitivity include:
- A friend not replying to a text straightaway
- A friend not being able to attend an event
- A friend having other friends who they spend time with
- A friend not responding to a text or email
- Seeing photos of a friend at an event where they were not invited
- A partner being busy or having plans
- A partner not answering their phone
- A friend or partner needing some downtime alone
- A teacher giving constructive feedback
- A friend of adult highlighting a weakness or mistake
Signs of rejection sensitivity:
Signs can include:
- Assuming that noone likes them
- Being angry or irrational if criticised
- Intense responses of anger if someone hurts them
- Irrational responses to being told someone is not free
- Becoming angry when someone does not reply
- Becoming aggressive if there is a perception of being rejected
- Extreme jealousy if someone has other friends or plans
- Ignoring responses or explanations, being fixed on their own interpretation
- Being anxious in attachments with friends or partners
- Being avoidant in attachments with friends or partners
- Being fixated or stuck on any negative feedback someone has given them
- Being fixated on finding evidence that someone has ‘hurt them’
- Being stuck in thoughts about someones comments – unable to listen to other ideas
- Misinterpreting small cues or harmless responses such as jokes, comments etc
- Fixating on when someone is not available, not on memories they have
- Cutting people off with no explanation
- Avoiding someone, or spending time with others, but blaming the other person
- Being angry at someone being unavailable, but not balancing this with their own commitments
- Fixating on anything someone does that can be perceived as negative
- Bypassing any positive interactions or memories with a friend, in favour of negatives they can find
- An appearance of double standards, such as being angry if someone criticises them, but criticising others and feeling that this is acceptable
Is it what they want?
Anyone with rejection sensitivity will crave close relationships, but due to the miscommunication between the behaviours that are actually happening and their interpretation of them, they can become stuck in a belief system that noone wants them. Inevitably, for many with rejection sensitivity, who do not recognise this, they can find themselves feeling isolated and lonely, and even jealous of those who have more relaxed interactions.
Those with rejection sensitivity frequently have a need to be liked, which means they can try too hard to be liked, or default to people pleasing behaviours, and when they perceive being rejected they may push them away, sometimes angrily and then pursue them with vigour to bring them back again. This can create a push-pull sensation in friendships and relationships, which can cause great distress to both sides. To the individual with rejection sensitivity, they desire the connection, to the person on the receiving end, they can feel hurt and be negatively impacted by the interactions.
In later adolescence and adulthood, rejection sensitivity can cause accusations of friends or partners of not liking them, cheating or leaving them, despite there being no actual evidence of this. This perception and constant hunt for evidence can mean that a late reply to a message or a photo which is misread can lead to conflict, or trying to initiate a response to prove that their fears are true. Rejection sensitivity, with age frequently lends itself to avid jealousy, and time spent seeking out evidence that they are going to be abandoned. The smallest mistake can easily be interpreted as rejection and cause conflict.
In some cases, where a perception of rejection has been created, the individual will seek out other connections and this will lead to the breakdown of connections
Where a friend or partner is on the receiving end of the rejection sensitivity, they can often retreat for their own self-care which further exasperates the feelings of rejection and the cycle continues, in some cases escalating and in others leading to breakdown.
Can anyone have rejection sensitivity?
Whilst rejection sensitivity is often seen in those with ADHD or ADD and evidence has been seen in ASD, others can experience rejection sensitivity. It is considered to be created by a biological vulnerability. However, traits can be seen in those who have experienced trauma, abuse and neglect, as well as those with social anxiety.
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