Feeling rejected by a friend, family member, or romantic partner is a universally painful experience. Some individuals, however, feel the sting of rejection much more acutely than others and also have an exaggerated fear of being rejected by those around them. These people are said to be high in a trait known as rejection sensitivity.
Someone high in rejection sensitivity will often interpret benign or mildly negative social cues—such as a partner not answering a text message immediately—as signs of outright rejection. They may disregard other more logical explanations, as well as reassurances on the part of the supposed rejector. Paradoxically, such behavior may actually push others away, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Sensitivity to rejection isn’t just “in someone’s head.” Evidence suggests that in people high on this trait, feeling rejected triggers physiological changes, including the fight-or-flight response. Brain imaging studies have also indicated that when rejection-sensitive individuals see disapproving facial expressions, they show heightened activity in areas of the brain that influence blood pressure, decision-making, and emotions.
The highly sensitive person feels deeply about, for example, emotions and physical sensations. But if you are a highly sensitive person, it does not necessarily mean that you suffer from rejection sensitivity. However, the HSP does often take interactions personally, and can ruminate over perceived rejection with too much enthusiasm.
The exact causes of rejection sensitivity are unknown, but childhood experiences—such as feeling rejected by a parent or primary caregiver—may increase such sensitivity later in life. Also, some evidence suggests that genetic factors may play a role. People high in this trait may also suffer from a weak sense of self-identity.
Recently, some clinicians and psychologists—particularly in the ADHD community—have proposed that especially high levels of rejection sensitivity be classified as rejection sensitive dysphoria or RSD. Certain mental health conditions, including ADHD, are associated with high emotional reactivity in general; it’s theorized that RSD frequently co-occurs with ADHD for this reason. For some adults with ADHD, their rejection sensitive dysphoria is thought to be so severe as to interfere with daily life and the formation of healthy relationships.
Though it can be challenging to overcome high rejection sensitivity, there are certain strategies that have been shown to be beneficial.
Treating co-occurring mental health conditions such as ADHD or depression may provide relief for RSD. And in some cases, simply being aware of an increased sensitivity to rejection can help a person cope more effectively.
People whose self-esteem is closely tied to being in a romantic relationship will be especially sensitive to the breakup of that relationship. If such individuals react poorly to a breakup, they are more likely than others to experience intense obsessions about their partners. This scenario in some cases leads to stalking.
While there are no empirically quantifiable criteria, these characteristics may help spot a person who is overly sensitive to being dissed:
- High sensitivity about the possibility of rejection
- Overly high standards for oneself
- Feeling easily triggered toward guilt or shame
- Isolating oneself in a preemptive strike not to be rejected
- Aggressive or rageful behavior toward those who have been perceived to have slighted the person
- Frequently feeling an uncomfortable physical reaction due to "not fitting in" or being misunderstood
- Self-esteem that is entirely dependent on what others think, and rises and falls accordingly
- Frequent and intense ruminating after an interaction