Understanding rejection trauma

Trauma comes in all shapes and sizes, and you don’t need to have lived through a natural disaster or war to experience the pervasive impact of trauma. Trauma can also come in subtle forms with some potentially major ramifications for our wellbeing. Regarding the latter, because humans have an inherent need to belong to a social group for survival, rejection trauma is a particularly important yet relatively invisible consideration in any wellbeing journey.

It’s highly likely that at one time or another, everyone has experienced some form of rejection. Earliest experiences of rejection can include children whose parents are overtly critical, abusive, negligent or absent, as well as those with parents who are emotionally absent or unavailable (through parental mental health issues, stress etc.). Outside of family of origin, areas such as school are additional sources of rejection, for example, bullying or even everyday social interactions (e.g., everyone feared being the last kid picked for the team!).

While rejection experiences impact everyone differently, they have to potential to cumulate into forms of rejection sensitivity which can be identified by a constant hypervigilance for rejection in relationships. When someone perceives a risk of rejection, they may experience pervasive feelings of jealousy, loneliness, hurt feelings, shame, guilt, social anxiety, and embarrassment. As such, someone with a heightened sensitivity towards rejection may experience these painful and paralysing feelings on an ongoing and daily basis.

To avoid these unpleasant emotions, people who are sensitive to rejection tend to focus on avoiding conflict and rejection rather than building intimacy and growth. In the case of someone expecting rejection, some protective mechanisms may include avoidance of social situations and other behaviours such as aggression, excessive people-pleasing, needing to be liked and going to extremes to maintain a relationship. While these behaviours may seem counterintuitive because they are likely to lead to further instances of rejection, responding aggressively (for example) before the instance of rejection serves to push people away before the opportunity for rejection arises. Often this leads to a painful cycle of rejection, which can provide major barriers to relationships and social wellbeing.

Several therapies are available for addressing rejection sensitivities; one of which is Internal Family Systems (IFS). IFS is an evidence-based psychotherapeutic modality which is helpful for visiting, witnessing, and welcoming those parts that are holding the distress of early rejection. Doing so can give these parts the opportunity to release unhelpful beliefs (e.g., I am unlovable); enabling protective parts to soften back; and relieving the tension between parts needing to avoid rejection and those wanting to engage with others. As well as therapy, maintaining physical (e.g., exercise, nutrition, supplementation) and psychological health (e.g., self-care) is an important preventative measure in the meantime to reduce vulnerability to triggers that may signal potential rejection.

Author: Dr Sarah Sorensen, PhD
Internal Family Systems Informed Therapist
Mind/Body Practitioner for Dr Kathleen & Team