When you are sensitive to rejection, you might start seeing it everywhere. This creates a cycle where you begin to feel rejected all the time.
Everyone feels rejected sometimes. In fact, your brain is wired to detect rejection as a way of “protecting” you from it. That said, some people are more prone to feeling rejected than others. This is known as having high rejection sensitivity.
Whether it’s a romantic breakup, an absent parent, or being left out of a social group, rejection hurts — and it can plant the seed of self-blame, ultimately hurting your mental health.
But what if most of your feelings of rejection are unwarranted? Sometimes, simply changing your perspective about a situation can help you through it.
Humans have a fundamental need to connect with others. Social belonging and support are critical for our well-being and physical health.
In fact, a brain imaging study from 2011 showed that social rejection activates similar brain areas as physical pain.
But often, our feelings of rejection are unfounded. This happens when we assume another person’s moods and behaviors are about us and we fail to consider other likely interpretations of what could be happening.
For instance, have you ever seen someone you know in public, waved at them, and they don’t wave back? Are you more likely to think, “They probably didn’t see me or recognize me,” or do you immediately think, “Oh no, what did I do wrong? Are they mad at me?”
And even if you resolve that they didn’t see you, you may still have an oddly painful feeling about the whole scenario.
A study from 2012 shows just how sensitive we are to whether others — even strangers — acknowledge us or not.
The research took place along a popular campus pathway. As passersbys approached, an experimenter did one of three things:
- made eye contact with the person
- made eye contact and smiled
- looked right “through” the person
Then, a few seconds later, a second experimenter stopped the targeted passerby and asked, “Within the last minute, how disconnected do you feel from others?” The findings show that those who had received eye contact — with or without a smile — felt less disconnected.
This experiment reveals just how sensitive we are to the acknowledgment of others. It also shows how easily we can feel disconnected from others even when the other person’s behavior isn’t about us at all.
If you’re naturally sensitive and overly concerned with rejection, you may have a psychological trait known as rejection sensitivity. This means that your brain prioritizes detecting and quickly responding to any potential threats of rejection.
People with rejection sensitivity can develop maladaptive coping strategies — for instance, they may become hostile, socially withdrawn, or overly accommodating to protect themselves from rejection. It can make establishing and maintaining relationships feel overwhelming.
Rejection sensitivity is a trait found in several mental health conditions, including:
You might also be more prone to rejection sensitivity if you experienced rejection in childhood from family, friends, or children at school.
So, though it intends to keep us safe, rejection sensitivity has very unhelpful effects. It can lead to a self-perpetuating cycle of interpersonal problems and distress.
Psychotherapy can significantly help if you’re living with rejection sensitivity. Therapy can help you process and manage your feelings so they’re less overwhelming. It can also help you identify unhelpful thinking patterns and replace them with more realistic and helpful thoughts.
Rejection hurts, but there are ways to work with the pain. If you’re feeling rejected, consider these tips:
1. Practice acceptance
First, see if you can step back, take a deep breath, and work on accepting the situation that made you feel rejected. Before we can work through our feelings, we have to recognize them.
One way to do this is to write down what happened and how it made you feel. You can even write a “letter” to the person who you feel rejected by, even if you don’t intend to give it to them. This helps you get out your feelings and journaling can be a powerful therapeutic tool.
2. Recognize that the rejection might not be about you
It can help to try not to take rejection personally. There are likely many factors at play – the person who made you feel rejected may be having a difficult time, they may have read the situation in a different way than you, or you may simply want different things.
3. Consider that you may not be a good match for the person or situation
Breakups, losing an election, not making the team — these are often due to a mismatch in personalities, skills, or traits.
Imagine you’re a casting director, and you’ve got to choose between your two favorite actors for the leading role. You’d simply go with the one that best matches the character, even though the “rejected” actor has much to offer, too.
4. Reconsider your expectations
A good portion of the pain in rejection comes from unrealized hopes and dreams.
Let’s say you were eyeing a job promotion. You might start imagining how it would feel to have that role and how much the extra money could help you. When you build up a mental image of the benefits, you might feel a powerful loss if you don’t get it.
It can help to recognize that a lot of the pain is from not getting what you expected, rather than from the perceived rejection itself.
5. Respect others’ boundaries
As much as rejection hurts, trying to make another person change their mind is often ineffective and can cause more harm than good. If someone has set a personal boundary with you, it’s important to respect that — even if it hurts. Moving on is a form of self-respect that can help you gain more confidence.
6. Ask yourself if there’s a lesson to be learned
When you’re dealing with a painful social situation — whether a romantic breakup or exclusion from a group — try to ask yourself: “What is this situation/person trying to teach me? What can I learn from this?”
For instance, if someone ghosts you after two dates, you might it an opportunity to practice self-compassion and forgiveness.
If you’re highly sensitive with a strong fear of rejection, your brain may have wired itself to detect and “protect” you from rejection. The fear of rejection may lead to proactive anger, social withdrawal, or bending over backward for other people.
These behaviors can then result in a self-perpetuating cycle of rejection.
If this describes your situation, consider reaching out to a mental health professional. Therapy can help you work through difficult feelings and identify any harmful thought and behavior patterns that are perpetuating the rejection cycle.
Want to learn more about starting therapy? Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help.