To belong, and be connected to others, is for most of us an essential part of life. Believed by many to have a strong evolutionary component (we were much more likely to survive when we could share the tasks of hunting, fighting, and caring for the babies) close relationships, and being part of a social network is intimately tied with happiness and self-worth.
In today’s society however, when we are often half a world away from our family, and when more and more people live alone, many do not have the connection they desire. This can lead to sadness, loneliness, and at times depression and hopelessness.
When exploring this loneliness with clients and friends, different avenues for increasing time with others is inevitably discussed. Due to the ever rising number of single adults there is an equally growing number of avenues to meet others. Whether that be through websites such as Meet Up or internet dating sites, or through joining clubs and sports teams there is a common barrier; fear of rejection.
Research suggests that when we are rejected the same part of our brain that responds to physical pain is activated. And as with physical pain, we become anxious about the experience. This elicits the well known fight or flight response which can result in us avoiding or responding with anger to situations where we perceive or fear rejection.
Now at times others genuinely reject us; we cannot be liked by everybody. In these cases it hurts, and depending on our make up, previous experiences, and supports we get through this experience. Fear of rejection however can lead to responding as if we have been rejected long before this actually occurs.
Researchers at Columbia University talk about “rejection sensitivity” (RS), which they go on to say influences “attentional and perceptual processes that underlie the processing of social information”. In other words, those who were shown to be high in RS, those the most scared of rejection, would process others behaviours and emotions in a biased way. In a conversation with a friend recently (who has given me permission to share her story) she was anguishing over whether to see the man she had been dating again. Her story started with “He’s not that keen on me…” quickly backed up with ‘evidence’ of “he said he was really busy this weekend, so clearly he doesn’t want to see me”. As she dissected the conversation she went on to share that she had woken to a message from him saying good morning, wishing her a wonderful day, and ending with a multitude of kisses. Her fear of rejection however had caused her to focus in on the information that signaled danger (rejection).
There are a number of factors that contribute to the development of heightened sensitivity to rejection, however there is not room to discuss that here. What is, I hope, of more interest and value is what you can do about it.
Firstly listen to the story you are telling yourself about why it is likely you will be rejected. Often people describe themselves as to ugly, boring, or just not good enough. Stop and ask yourself if you would speak to your sister, daughter, or best friend that way. Try and use compassionate language towards yourself. Be kind.
Secondly, try and delay your response. When the flight or fight response kicks in we tend to want to run (cancel dinner plans, end a relationship) or attack (make accusations, yell, or give the silent treatment) which can be damaging, and elicit the very rejection we were scared of to begin with. People often experience a strong impulse to act in a way that is not actually in line with their goals or values. Spend time doing something soothing that also makes it difficult to act on your fight or flight urges. If you want to send an angry text have a shower and give yourself a head massage. Direct your attention to the facts and context, rather than focusing solely on how you are feeling and what you are scared of. If you need help to see things objectively, try running the situation past a trusted and level headed friend. My friend, with the combination of time, perspective, and a good laugh was able to respond to her new beau in a way that was positive and open.
Reassuringly, research also suggests that when people with a strong fear of rejection are in supportive relationships this fear does reduce over time. Seek close friends and partners who are able to be supportive of you, and help you feel safe and secure.
If your fear of rejection is stopping you from seeking close relationships, or continues to get in the way of maintaining your connection with others it may be useful to talk to a psychologist. A combination of cognitive-behaviour therapy, and learning strategies to manage your emotions can help you to cope with and over time change your fear of rejection. You can then respond positively to those who you seek to connect with.
Deborah Newburn is a Melbourne based Clinical Psychologist. She has significant experience helping individuals manage their anxiety and fear of rejection.