Are people always shutting you down? This might be why (and the reason might surprise you) cover image

Are people always shutting you down? This might be why (and the reason might surprise you)

Dorian Minors • February 20, 2015

No one likes rejection. Not being invited to something, or feeling excluded. A flat out 'no' from someone you reached out to. These things hurt us all. We are fundamentally social creatures and loneliness is a literal killer.

But rejection is fairly uncommon. Social norms dictate that we are polite to each other, generally speaking. Polite to strangers, out of courtesy, and possibly out of the fear of an unknown reaction. Polite to colleagues because our forward thinking tells us it's not smart to sour a relationship we need to put up with over the long term. And polite to our enemies, not just because "we keep our enemies closer" but because most people don't appreciate a life of constant antagonism.

Yet we've all met people who seem to experience, or perhaps experienced ourselves, a barrage of rejection. A series of rebuffs from conversations. Of whispering behind backs. Of knowledge that our conversational partners think we're being stupid or silly. Of being avoided at social events and parties. Which should beg the question, are we sometimes so repulsive that we dismantle all these deeply rooted social norms? Perhaps, but frankly it's unlikely.

If we often feel rejection, it's probably not the rejection that's the problem

Let's talk about something psychologists call 'rejection sensitivity'. Sandra Murray and her colleagues coined this term in 2003, but it's a fairly common sense idea. Basically it refers to how conscious of the threat of rejection you are. It's actually one kind of scale of social anxiety--the higher you are, the more socially anxious you are in that way. Social anxiety, as you may know, is one of the most common forms of Clinical Anxiety (something more than 1 in 10 Australians suffer from). As with any form of anxiety, it's a matter of perception: some people are made anxious by things that other people are not. And some people are made more anxious by that thing that their anxious peers.

When you're high in rejection sensitivity, you are much more vigilant for signs of criticism and potential rejection than the average. Moreover, as Sandra and her colleagues found, you're likely to be more hurt by this perceived slight for longer. Let's work an example.

Rejection sensitivity leads us to feel rejected as a person

Maybe someone tells you they've already got plans when you enquire about a coffee date. Rejection sensitive people are more likely to think things like 'I knew it, they didn't want to have coffee with me', or 'they're lying, they just didn't want to tell me they don't like me'. This is quite a different kind of thought to someone who is less rejection sensitive. They, instead, might more quickly think along the lines of 'that person is always so busy', or simply follow up by asking when would be a better time without thinking anything in particular at all.

A couple more. Perhaps we might say to someone that their whistling is annoying or they don't like those new jeans. Rejection sensitive people will almost always take it further; from 'whistling is annoying' to 'I'm annoying, they probably don't like me anymore'; from 'those jeans aren't great' to 'I'm ugly, no jeans look good on me'. A simple rejection becomes a rejection of the whole person. And since they're feeling more hurt for longer, they tend to be even more vigilant for criticism than before. A vicious cycle. It might not surprise you that people are diagnosed as being very high in rejection sensitivity very commonly alongside depression.

Sadly, those who experience higher levels of rejection sensitivity are at particular risk in their close relationships. When close friends, family or partners make critical remarks, regardless of their relative triviality, rejection sensitive people really feel the blow. Where social supports are helpful for our mental wellbeing, rejection sensitivity can make that social support a little tricky.

Rejection sensitivity makes us mean (to protect ourselves) which makes everything worse

The seminal work by Murray and her colleagues found that when hurt, rejection sensitive people will often try to get even with their criticisers. They'll tend to act coldly and more critically towards those that may or may not have slighted them. This makes them feel protected--a sort of 'I don't need you and I can't be hurt' type of attitude. Which leads to… more rejection. Which in turn proves to the rejection sensitive person that they really are being rejected.

It's a vicious cycle within a vicious cycle.

As a slight aside, high rejection sensitivity is very closely connected to another psychological construct 'hurt proneness' coined by Mark Leary and his colleagues. Basically hurt-prone people or 'touchy' people interpret the other peoples' behaviours as dismissive and cold, thinking things like 'I don't matter' and 'they don't care'. They think the world is a hurtful place and more than that, don't really understand how they could be encouraging that suffering. It overlaps with rejection sensitivity, although not always.

Rejection is uncommon. Don't forget that.

Rejection sensitivity is a bad place to be and it leads to worse things down the track. If this article clicked for you or someone you know of, it might be time to start searching. Get some help and find someone to talk to. It's serious, it's a problem and because of the cyclical nature of it, it often gets worse. Check out for example this site for more, or go to classics - Beyond Blue, Lifeline, or for those of you in other countries, your national health institutes. Start talking about it. It'll help. Rejection isn't common, and we shouldn't have to feel so inadequate. And for those of us lucky enough to know rejection for what it is--an uncommon experience--try to be sure that we're communicating that fact to those around us by being more open, inclusive, and clear. A compliment goes much further than you think.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.