In my work as a psychologist, sometimes clients ask me how to become less easily offended. They say that they are too easily hurt by others and it bothers them. They might also struggle to let go of hurt feelings which show up, linger about, and take away the light and enjoyment of life.
Many of these clients deeply desire to increase their emotional resilience and find it genuinely difficult not to see the world around them as threatening and themselves as vulnerable. They may also find it a challenge not to rehearse, over-interpret and extrapolate on the significance of situations, even when they know this increases their vulnerability. There can be a real struggle to differentiate real situations (that have actually occurred) from the hypothetical situations (they fear may happen). Over time this creates an attention bias, whereby they unknowingly pay more attention to a perceived rejection and miss other important and mitigating information.
Sensitive types may find themselves behaving differently in the presence of others, in these ways:
- Looking out defensively for signs they will be rejected;
- Restricting their engagement with others, retreating or avoiding social situations;
- Coming across to others as awkward, confrontational or indifferent;
- Ruminating about ways they feel they have been rejected in the past;
- Misinterpreting the facial expressions of others as disapproving;
- Feeling more anxious or agitated in their bodies.
While it is true that no-one actually enjoys feeling rejected, for some of us, a sensitivity to rejection can become more than the sum of its parts – it can become a mechanism for social isolation and chronic mental health issues. If this is your experience, understanding the components that have come together to create your sensitivity is an important place to start.
When applying a psychological framework, we see that rejection-sensitivity can occur for a range of reasons. In fact it is often the case that there is no one reason alone, but rather an interplay between childhood or family experiences, personality traits and possible clinical symptoms.
Let’s explore some of these ‘why’ factors now.
- Early experiences of rejection or neglect in a person’s important relationships can contribute to sensitivity developing. This can be subtle and not immediately apparent – often when clients first describe their families it does not appear that there are any attachment injuries or vulnerabilities. However feeling ostracised by a sibling, or criticised by a parent can create a pattern of fear and avoidance that becomes entrenched over time. Additionally, if a parent has modelled fear or withdrawal when feeling hurt, a family culture will have been shaped to some extent.
- At a trait level, personalities can be highly sensitive and prone to noticing all the verbal and non-verbal information in interpersonal situations. This level of perception can be exhausting and load heavily on a person’s resources for self-management. While sensitive types are usually highly perceptive and empathetic, they are also susceptible to feeling the pain, agitation or frustration of others. If it interests you, check out the information on mirror neurons, it’s very interesting!
- Finally, there may also be an overlay of clinical symptoms (and if you think this is the case for you, I encourage you to seek therapeutic support). It is possible that if this sensitivity affects your enjoyment across different domains of your life and causes you distress, you may also be experiencing the lens of depression (and if clinically severe, Major Depressive Disorder). Sometimes clients are often surprised that they qualify for a diagnosis because they feel their mood responds temporarily to positive life events, and as a result, they don’t seek support. Mild depression, as opposed to moderate or severe depression, may include symptoms such as an increased appetite, increased sleep and fatigue, heaviness of the limbs, increased irritability, and rejection-sensitivity.
If you have read this far, you may now be wondering what can be done about rejection-sensitivity. Here are some suggestions you can work on yourself:
- Recognise that your personality and/or background are contributing to your rejection-sensitivity and practice acceptance of yourself, especially if you are engaging in a lot of self-criticism. Praise yourself for letting things go when you are able to.
- Create alternative interpretations of a situation. If you usually personalise or catastrophise, make a quick mental list of three other possible alternative explanations. This will involve taking on an alternative perspective and stepping away from your attention bias. It will also help you cultivate a healthy curiosity for interpersonal dynamics.
- Take a step back from the mental commentary. Say to yourself ‘I notice I’m having the thought that (person of interest) looks unhappy with me’. This gives you a space to reflect and choose whether you interpret your thoughts as an unequivocal truth, or a function of your sensitive orientation.
It can sometimes be very difficult to do the deep work and shift these tendencies on one’s own. A good therapist will use evidence-based treatment and a collegial approach to problem-solving with you. If you are struggling with sensitivity, why don’t you try making some of these changes?