Do You Create the Rejection You Fear?

March 19, 2018

It’s safe to say that no one likes to be rejected, but for some individuals, the fear of being rebuffed becomes an overwhelming preoccupation. This sensitivity to rejection is most likely to occur in close relationships, where you feel the most vulnerable, but if it’s strong enough, can spread to all areas of your life.

Perhaps you’re running into problems with a boss who makes constant demands on you but, due to your fear of rejection, you simply accede to each new request, no matter how unreasonable. There’s more than just an irrational fear, you might argue, given that your boss could always fire you for insubordination. You feel the anger building inside you, and you hope it doesn’t show, but perhaps it does and despite your best efforts, that job won’t be yours for much longer.

A comparable set of circumstances can make your relationships just as fraught with anxiety about the possible outcomes of standing your ground. The more you fear your partner’s rejection, the more you give in to requests of both an emotional and practical nature.

Indeed, you may become quite adept at anticipating your partner’s requests, so that by now it’s not even necessary for your partner to ask outright for favors or extra work around the house, much less give in to his or her side during an argument. Still, you fume inside and  it seems to be poisoning even the good times you feel you used to be able to enjoy.  Long Island University’ Kevin Meehan and colleagues (2018) believe that people who are high in the quality of rejection sensitivity, in their efforts to not become rejected, paradoxically push other people away, creating “a self-perpetuating cycle of negative relational outcomes” (p. 109).

According to the LIU researchers, rejection sensitivity is “a cognitive-affective disposition to anxiously expect, readily perceive, and intensely react to rejection,” leading to maladaptive responses such as becoming overly ingratiating, withdrawing emotionally, or acting in irrationally hostile ways (p. 109).  When you’re high in rejection sensitivity, then, you’re essentially programmed to misperceive other people as unsupportive and uncaring.  With this emotional chip on your shoulder, your worst fears will come true because you then become a difficult relationship partner.

To study the continuous interplay between personality and situations, Meehan and his collaborators used a daily diary approach in which they asked a sample of 240 undergraduates (74% female) to provide ratings of their interactions over a 7-day period. Participants didn’t have to record every single brief encounter, but instead focused on 3 interactions lasting 5 minutes or longer. They provided these ratings on electronically presented diagrams they could call up right on their smartphones. The diagrams showed 2 dimensions, crossing in the center of a circle.

The two dimensions were agency (dominance to submission) and communion (cold to warm). After rating themselves and their partners on these interpersonal dimensions, participants then rated their own perceived affect and that of their partner on a similar wheel-like grid, but now along the dimensions of arousal (active to passive) and valence (happy to sad).

Imagine, then, that you rated each of your own interactions and your feelings after those interactions, as well as those of your partner. You’ve just had a little tiff over who should clean up the dinner dishes. If you’re high in rejection sensitivity, you’ll most likely give in to your partner’s wishes, causing you to rate yourself as submissive and your partner as dominant. You’d probably rate yourself as passive and your affect as sad, but see your partner as active and probably happier than you are.

To measure rejection sensitivity, the authors asked participants to imagine themselves in situations such as the dinner dish scenario according to how they would feel after making such a request (such as anxious and concerned) and whether they thought the other person would reject their request. People scoring high in rejection sensitivity expected to be rebuffed and were highly concerned about this outcome.

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