We’re all sensitive to rejection. It’s hardwired into us. The brain instantly picks up on the interpersonal climate before we’re even aware of it. Neuroscience demonstrates that perceived rejection activates the same part of the brain as when we’re punched in the stomach. Likewise, studies have even found that taking a non-narcotic pain reliever can help alleviate feelings of rejection.

The good news is that we may not be getting rebuffed as much as we think. Many of us misread social situations and incorrectly perceive deliberate rejection or unfriendliness when it’s not true. This can cause needless angst. Even worse, believing we’re being rejected when we’re not can be self-fulfilling and, ironically, actually create the rejection we fear. For example, withdrawing can make you more invisible to others — making it more likely that you will be left out. And being unfriendly in response to perceived rejection can make other people feel rejected and then they may, in fact, reject you.

When we believe we’re being rejected, it can make it come true. Noah, 22, felt abandoned by his dad, David, and did harbor some anger. But David’s guilt over breaking up the family primed him to see his son as rejecting in the first place, precipitating the negative spiral between them.

Noah and his dad had been close but, following the divorce, his dad rarely initiated contact. Noah primarily reached out to him when he needed bailing out, contributing to his dad’s conviction that Noah didn’t want a relationship and was just using him for money. In their conversations, Noah was short with his dad, and his dad was impatient and critical with Noah. Still, these interactions provided some connection for Noah and a way to affirm that his dad cared about him. And, for David, in spite of the downside, this was an easy and relatively safe way for him to engage with his son. (Especially since it didn’t involve talking about what was really going on.)

This isolating dynamic continued until David became open to considering his possible role in the problem, and the power he had to change their relationship. He agreed to try another approach. David decided to take an interest in Noah’s business ideas, and initiated spending time together to work on a business plan. To David’s surprise, Noah responded positively and was receptive to collaborating with him and sharing ideas.

David’s self-doubt, combined with his difficulty understanding emotions in himself and others, led him to misinterpret his son’s reactions. Caught up in his own feelings of rejection and resentment, he neglected to recognize Noah’s attachment to him and hurt feelings. Instead, he took his son’s behavior literally and responded by being detached and unsupportive, reinforcing Noah’s feeling that his dad didn’t care about him and unwittingly perpetuating their mutual experience of rejection.

Why we think we’re being rejected when we’re not

A common cause of unwarranted feelings of rejection is taking people’s moods and behaviors personally and neglecting more likely interpretations of what could be happening. This can occur even more easily over text and email. The absence of cues such as facial expression, body language and tone of voice lead people to use their imaginations to interpret what’s going on, projecting their fears and uncertainties onto the communication.

Recognizing the true meaning and intention of a communication can be obstructed by issues such as: insecurity, fear of rejection, anxiety, depression, egocentrism, and inadequate emotional/psychological/social intelligence. These issues have in common the failure to recognize other people’s perspectives or step into their shoes. Whether caused by anxiety or general difficulty understanding how our own and others’ minds might work, looking at situations from a narrow lens obscures reality and can lead to the erroneous conclusion that people are intentionally rejecting us.

Taking perspective: reading your own and others’ minds

The first step in learning to read interpersonal situations is noticing that we’re having a strong reaction and stepping back from it. This separates us from our reactions so we can observe ourselves rather than let our feelings and repetitive internal dialogues take over.

The next step is to explicitly ask ourselves what may be going on with the other person, running through a list of possibilities. When we factor other people’s point of view into the equation we gain perspective. The effect is similar to looking at something from a slight distance — opening up a wider view and letting in more information — as compared with the more restricted range when we look at something from very close up.

Madison, 14, had a strong reaction to finding out that some of her friends got together with other girls and she was not invited. She feared this meant she was going to lose her friends to the other girls, and acted distant and hurt. On another occasion, she had complained flippantly about how annoying and unreasonable her friend, Adam, was for sulking when she didn’t include him in the selfie she took with another friend while they were all at the mall. When Madison used her own experience to understand what Adam was feeling, she was able to be more empathic to him. Significantly, she also realized that she, too, might be overfocusing on her friends’ actions, taking things personally and exaggerating their meaning based on her fears.

What to do: A positive example

Madison learned to recognize her sensitivity to “rejection.” She noticed her automatic reactions and reminded herself that people can have other friends, have a lot going on, and still like her. By recognizing her feelings as feelings and not facts, and continuing to act friendly, she helped maintain a positive momentum in her relationships.

Rather than feel helpless and dejected, Madison learned to approach relationships from a position of strength, with greater awareness of herself and others. In situations where she continued to feel uncertain about whether a friend was mad at her, instead of acting on her insecurity and asking, “Are you mad at me?” — she would say, “You seem like you’re in a bad mood or upset about something. Are you okay? “ With this strategy if someone is, in fact, mad and not telling you, making it explicit that you notice his or her feelings will likely either put an end to it or give him or her a chance to tell you what is wrong so you can resolve it.

How we view things can make other people friendlier toward us

How we think about and approach perceived rejection can either empower or deflate us. Reflecting on our own and other people’s reactions with greater awareness and confidence is likely to lead to a more optimistic, as well as accurate, assessment. Also, giving others the benefit of the doubt feels better, affects the way we come across, and shapes people’s reactions toward us in a positive direction.

Tips for the Rejection-Sensitive:

  • Consider whether the relationship is important to you or whether you’re simply caught up in needing approval from others. If it’s the latter, shift your focus to being curious about what your feelings are about the other person.
  • Assume that person who seems distant, or hasn’t responded to your text or email, might be preoccupied.
  • Ask yourself what the evidence is that you are being rejected. Come up with at least two alternative explanations that could also explain it. Common ones to consider: the other person was distracted, unaware of or unable to consider your feelings, in a bad mood, feeling rejected or hurt by you, or caught up in his or her own world.
  • Get out of your head by taking action to reestablish a connection. Offer to do something for him or her, ask how she or he is doing, or comment that she or he seems, for example, unhappy, distracted, or like something is wrong. This is different than asking someone if they are mad at you or accusing them.
  • Practice mindful, nonjudgmental awareness of feelings such as anxiety, insecurity, and fear. Observe your feelings from a distance and allow them to pass through you without judgment. Remind yourself that feeling states are temporary when you don’t intensify them by being afraid of them, ruminating, acting on them, or trying to banish them.
  • Notice feelings in your body (where they live). Reduce the intensity of your visceral reaction by imagining your feelings with a barrier around them. Or imagine zooming out and making them smaller and smaller.

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