When Your Loved One is Highly Sensitive to Rejection

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When Your Loved One is Highly Sensitive to Rejection

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Photo: jeffjuit/pixabay


Your relationship is tumultuous. Whether it is with your partner, sibling, or friend, they seem to be extremely sensitive and quick to feel hurt by you. You know that “it takes two to tango” — you know that you need to consider your own role in this dynamic — but still, your loved one seems particularly sensitive to rejection.

As I explain in the book Bouncing Back from Rejection, people who are sensitive to rejection can show it in many ways, such as:

Overreacting. Some people expect rejection. They often feel hurt even when situations don’t seem to call for that reaction. Or they respond to small rejections as though they were Major Rejections. For instance, they might feel totally disrespected when a friend is late one time meeting them for dinner because they got caught up at work.

Being unable to move forward. Rejection-sensitive people often ruminate about having been rejected or fearing that it will happen. They simply can’t let go of repeating the same thoughts. As a result, they don’t change their behaviors or find ways to resolve their distress. A common example is when 10 years after someone had an affair, their partner is still highly preoccupied with it and yet also unable to leave the relationship.

Responding with intense anger. It is common for people to feel angry when they are rejected or ignored. And this anger often stirs more anger. Noted psychologist Paul Ekman stated in his book Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional life, that rejection-sensitive people are especially at risk for getting caught up in anger. “One of the most dangerous features of anger is that anger calls forth anger, and the cycle can rapidly escalate.”

Guarding against judgment. People who are sensitive to rejection often feel unworthy, essentially flawed, or unlovable. Simply the prospect of being judged can feel devastating. Not surprisingly, they frequently try to protect themselves from rejection by withdrawing socially or making extraordinary attempts to get others to like them. As a result, they often feel like people don’t know them and that they are alone.

Responding with an indifferent attitude. Rather than showing their vulnerability, some people try to suppress both feeling and showing their sensitivity to rejection. Still, if you pay attention, you might notice some signs that they aren’t really indifferent. For example, they might appear annoyed or restless.

Being independent and self-sufficient. Going a step beyond seeming not to care about rejection, some people are exceedingly self-sufficient. They tend not to rely on others for personal support, comfort, or encouragement. They use this emotional distancing to protect themselves from feeling vulnerable. Although they might not appear lonely, they still might feel like something is missing in their life.

As I explain in my response to a viewer of my YouTube channel, rejection-sensitive people respond in these ways to rejection, or the fear of it, because they feel deeply unworthy, unlovable, inadequate, or significantly deficient as a person. They might believe they can perform in ways that can earn love or acceptance. However, this just feels like they are being cared about because of what they do, not who they are. So they have the constant sense that they are at risk for being found out or not performing well enough to maintain that caring.

If someone you love experiences rejection sensitivity, it is important to understand that you cannot fix this for them. You can love them. You can support them. But healing ultimately needs to happen within themselves. They must learn that they have value just for being themselves.


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Important:  This article is part of the WebMD Relationships blog. The articles in the WebMD Relationships blog are for general education purposes only. They should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment, or advice. Do not delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider because of something you have read in this article.