No one likes being rejected, whether by a friend, a love interest, or even a stranger. But have you noticed that people are sometimes overly sensitive to rejection, interpreting what might be an ambiguous action as a personal snub? Being sensitive to rejection can initiate a self-fulfilling prophecy by leading people to respond to perceived slights with unwarranted hostility or avoidance, thereby pushing others further away and increasing the amount of pain in their life. Why do different people have such different sensitivities to social rejection?

Our research suggests that people’s basic temperaments, along with their early social experiences, are keys to understanding why they differ in rejection sensitivity.

Psychologists have studied how life experiences can lead people to become unusually sensitive to rejection. People who are high in rejection sensitivity tend to expect that others will reject them and are highly anxious about being rejected. Numerous studies have shown that experiences of rejection from close caregivers and friends can shape people’s expectations about rejection in future social situations and relationships. We wondered whether personality characteristics, specifically the tendency to experience negative emotions, also might play a role.

People with higher levels of negative emotion—which psychologists often call “negative affectivity”—frequently experience anxious, angry, or sad moods, tend to perceive themselves negatively, and react more strongly to stress than people who are low in negative affectivity. We thought that the tendency to experience negative emotions may make people high in negative affectivity vulnerable to developing rejection sensitivity.

To examine this possibility, we conducted a study that tested whether negative affectivity, along with social experiences, in childhood were related to rejection sensitivity in adolescence. As part of the ongoing Stony Brook Temperament Study, children, their parents, and their teachers reported on various social experiences and personality characteristics of the children when they were 6, 9, and 12 years old.

At age 6, variables related to the kids’ social experiences were measured, such as the degree to which their parents were accepting or rejecting, the quality of the parents’ relationship, and how much social support their parents got from other people. We also measured the children’s negative affectivity.

When the children were 9 years old, the social-experience variables of parents’ relationship quality and parental acceptance/rejection were measured again, along with the degree of support children felt from their peers and how much the children were excluded by other kids at school. The children’s negative affectivity was also measured again when the kids were 9 years old. Then, children’s rejection sensitivity was assessed when they were age 12.

Our results showed that children whose parents had better relationships with each other when the kids were 6 and 9 years old and children who had greater support from their peers when they were 9 tended to be lower in rejection sensitivity at age 12. Conversely, children with higher negative affectivity at both ages 6 and 9 tended to be higher in rejection sensitivity when they were 12.

Further analyses showed that the children’s reports of the support they received from their peers at age 9 and their negative affectivity at age 9 were most centrally related to rejection sensitivity at age 12. These results highlight that both personality and social experiences contribute to the development of rejection sensitivity, with negative affectivity contributing to rejection sensitivity and peer support appearing to buffer against its development.

These findings can help people who recognize these tendencies in themselves understand why they often expect to be rejected, and this knowledge can then help them decide how to manage their expectations of rejection. If you sense that someone may be rejecting you, try to zero in on the person’s specific behaviors that you interpret as rejecting. On one hand, you might find that indeed the person dislikes you and that you should move on to greener pastures. But, on the other hand, you may find that the person’s behaviors actually are ambiguous, allowing a more benign interpretation and saving you needless worry.

In other words, the next time you are feeling like you might be rejected or that you have just been rejected, take a moment to reconsider what might not be a rejection after all.

For Further Reading

Araiza, A. M., Freitas, A. L., & Klein, D. (2019). Social-experience and temperamental predictors of rejection sensitivity: A prospective study. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(6), 733-742.

Feldman, S., & Downey, G. (1994). Rejection sensitivity as a mediator of the impact of childhood exposure to family violence on adult attachment behavior. Development and Psychopathology, 6(1), 231-247.

Downey, G., & Feldman, S. I. (1996). Implications of rejection sensitivity for intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(6), 1327-1343.

London, B., Downey, G., Bonica, C., & Patlin, I. (2007). Social causes and consequences of rejection sensitivity. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 17(3), 481-506.

Ashley Araiza is a doctoral student in Social and Health Psychology at Stony Brook University. She studies how social/personality processes relate to health goals and behaviors.

Antonio Freitas is Associate Professor of Psychology at Stony Brook University. He studies motivation, self-regulation, and goals.

Daniel N. Klein is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Stony Brook University. He studies the development of internalizing psychopathology.