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When ‘no’ feels like too much: How rejection sensitivity gets in the way

September 26, 2022 - 13 min read

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What is rejection sensitivity?

Recognizing rejection sensitivity: signs and symptoms

What causes RSD?

Experiencing rejection in the workplace

How can leaders offer support for RSD?

Moving forward: Is there any treatment for RSD?

Rejection happens in all areas of your life. It could happen in social situations, professional settings, or romantic relationships. Some rejection stings more than others, too.

Even though rejection happens to everyone, perhaps you find that you have rejection sensitivity, which is rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD). Lots of people experience the symptoms of rejection sensitivity. It's an emotional reaction that doesn't allow you to see the positives in things. 

But the good news is you're not alone and don't have to let these overwhelming feelings of rejection control you. At first, it might seem difficult to confront your rejection sensitivity and fear of rejection, but it's an investment in your well-being for the future.

But what is rejection sensitivity, how does it impact you at work, and how can you recognize and treat it? Let’s find out to help your mental health thrive.

 

What is rejection sensitivity?

When you have rejection sensitivity, it helps to know what rejection sensitive dysphoria is. It's not something that's formally diagnosed, as it's not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). But it's the name of an overwhelming and intense feeling of being rejected. You might also feel this way when you receive criticism as well. 

It doesn't matter whether it's a real or perceived rejection if you still feel an overwhelming emotional response. Anything that tells you "no" or stops you from doing something qualifies.

Maybe your manager has tried giving you feedback on a project, but you took it as criticism and now you feel upset. Even though your manager didn't intend to make you feel rejected and saddened by their feedback, you still perceived it as very negative. 

Although RSD isn't exclusively associated with any specific conditions, it's important to note that it's common among people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). About 99% of teens and adults who have ADHD are more sensitive to rejection than those who don't have ADHD. Plus, one in three people with ADHD said it's one of the most difficult things to live with. 

But rejection sensitive people are everywhere. Learning the signs of RSD helps you understand it better and eventually learn how to manage it.

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Recognizing rejection sensitivity: signs and symptoms

RSD and mental health are very much connected. It's challenging to pinpoint RSD because it resembles other conditions and sometimes is a symptom of other conditions.

Here's a quick list of other mental health conditions that RSD might be confused for:

One thing to remember when trying to identify RSD is that it happens in short but intense instances. It may not linger, but it's still present.

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To help you recognize RSD, here are a few signs to look out for:

  • Low self-esteem and self-confidence
  • People-pleasing behavior and attitude
  • Negative self-talk
  • Emotional outbursts and defensiveness 
  • Social anxiety and withdrawal from social situations
  • Fear of failure and leaving your comfort zone
  • Fearing that other people automatically don't like you
  • Avoiding situations that have a possibility of rejection 

What causes RSD?

​​As you learn the causes of RSD, you'll quickly pick up on the various factors at play. Previous experiences of rejection might be enough to make you feel overwhelmed but not impact others. Whatever your cause may be, it requires you to be vulnerable when reflecting on your feelings and experiences.

Most causes of RSD go all the way back to your childhood. Research has found that children's relationship with their parents or caregivers influences their sensitivity levels. If you experienced a lot of neglect or rejection from your parents as a child, you could carry that sensitivity into adulthood. This impacts how you act in your other relationships and how you interpret challenges you encounter. 

Maybe your parents were really hard on you about your school grades when you were young. Perhaps if you didn't achieve a certain grade on your report card, they were critical and less loving. Now that you're an adult, you put a lot of pressure on yourself at your job to excel. If you don't perform as well, you become overwhelmed by your rejection sensitivity.

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Trauma also causes RSD. Your trauma negatively impacts your well-being and often sticks with you for years. Even if what you're experiencing in the present isn't rejection, you might still feel like it is because of your past trauma. 

Your inner critic might consume your thought with unprompted negativity. For example, a friend of yours might cancel going to dinner with you, and even though they have a valid reason, you take it as rejection. You could fear it’s because they don't like you.

Experiencing rejection in the workplace

Your rejection sensitivity might impact you the most is at work. You'll never be consistently perfect at your job, and rejection will happen throughout your career. But for people with RSD, even the mildest of interactions upset them. 

Research has found that rejection sensitivity negatively affects job performance and boosts feelings of loneliness. And since rejection sensitivity connects to social anxiety, it could cause social segregation. These individuals may avoid others at work, leading to less collaboration and poorer working relationships.

They won't seek guidance or help, even if they really need it. This decreases their work performance and makes them feel like they must do their tasks alone. 

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Here are some experiences of rejection at work for you to review:

  • Job rejection while looking for a new job causing low self-esteem and self-worth
  • Not receiving a promotion you thought you'd achieve
  • Being singled out in front of your coworkers for mistakes you made
  • Someone canceling their meeting with you
  • Losing a great work opportunity or sale to someone else
  • Not being chosen to lead a project or be part of a team
  • Having your manager identify some mistakes or errors you made in your work

How can leaders offer support for RSD?

As a leader at work, you want to learn how to deal with rejection sensitive dysphoria. It ensures that every employee feels comfortable around others, continues to grow their skills, and is comfortable sharing their feelings. 

If a leader ignores employees with RSD, they could be giving them a reason to leave their job. The rest of the workplace might also struggle if the team can't work effectively. And self-aware leaders usually lead happier teams. 

People with RSD might feel they're difficult to work with or less skilled than other employees. But they'll flourish with a leader who empowers them and takes the time to work with them through their rejection sensitivity.

One way for leaders to support their employees is to create an environment that values listening rather than talking over people all the time. It allows them to be supportive and encourages open communication. Employees will feel like their work environment is a safe space to talk about their hypersensitivity and feelings of rejection. 

It also helps to practice more mindfulness. Make an effort to be mindful of your word choice when offering criticism or feedback and emphasize how you value their time and communication. Understand that their feelings of rejection might be caused by things out of your control, but you’ll still support them. 

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Another way to support rejection-sensitive individuals at work is to set up and stick to routines. It'll help people know when to expect feedback or new assignments. Employees with work anxiety who become worried when they're surprised with feedback will adjust to a more predictable routine. Structure is key.

Normalizing when you give people critiques also prevents them from building up. Rather than share several critiques all at once, which is overwhelming, you might share a couple at a time. This makes it more manageable and digestible for employees to hear.

Moving forward: Is there any treatment for RSD?

You might be wondering if there's any rejection sensitive dysphoria treatment available. No universal treatment will take your rejection sensitivity away, but you can learn to manage it. You might find that one recommended method doesn't work well for you, so remember to have be open-minded when trying various strategies. 

Here's a quick list of ways you can manage RSD and help your mental health:

But don't be afraid to seek help from a mental health professional if you find that other strategies aren't working. Your friends and managers may do their best to help you, but a professional will address your specific needs and create a plan that works for you. Asking for help means you're dedicated to living a healthy life and prioritizing your well-being, and it's nothing to be ashamed of.

For your RSD in general, don’t think of it as something you need to hide. It's part of who you are and isn’t automatically a weakness. Don't hesitate to talk through your problems and ask for help in the future.

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Published September 26, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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