How fear of rejection drives others away – a psychologist on the mental health roots of rejection anxiety in teens

  • Also called rejection sensitivity, this condition involves convincing yourself that you are unwelcome in an interaction even if that does not reflect reality
  • Every week, Talking Points gives you a worksheet to practise your reading comprehension with questions and exercises about the story we’ve written
Doris Wai |

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Instead of assuming the worst when friends don’t respond right away to your messages, try to steer away from negative self-talk and reflect on the situation. Photo: Shutterstock

When your friends don’t respond immediately to your messages, do you start thinking they are ignoring you? Have you ever wondered if your cousins secretly dislike you after discovering you were left out of a Lunar New Year gathering?

Ken Fung, a clinical psychologist at Jadis Blurton Family Development Centre in Hong Kong, explained why some of us are more prone to experiencing rejection sensitivity and how to work through the anxiety at its root.

“No one likes being rejected, but some are more sensitive to social rejection than others to the point that it impacts their daily life,” Fung said, adding that lately, he had noticed more of his teen patients showing signs of this condition.

Ken Fung is a clinical psychologist at Jadis Blurton Family Development Centre in Hong Kong. Photo: Ken Fung

According to the psychologist, people with rejection sensitivity feel extreme emotional pain triggered by the perception that they have been rejected or criticised by important people in their lives. It can also occur when they feel they have failed to meet their own high standards.

“When we experience emotional pain caused by social rejection, our brain activates regions similar to those ... [where] we feel physical pain,” Fung said.

This can include physiological responses such as headaches, sweating and tightness in the chest, which make the social rejection seem even more real.

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Fung stressed that the reality of the situation could be different from what the person might be assuming.

“Their self-esteem depends vastly on how people look at them, and it may vary from one day to another,” he said. “This entire process is wholly internal.”

He added that those who suffered from rejection sensitivity might obsess over specific interactions where they felt excluded. By running the same scenario over and over in their heads, they eventually convince themselves that they are, indeed, unwelcomed.

“Because of the fear of rejection, they may isolate or distance themselves from any possible social situations in which they could get hurt,” he explained.

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Fung pointed out that teens could be more susceptible to rejection sensitivity because of the emotional vulnerability of this stage in life. The adolescent brain is still developing, and for teens, being accepted by their peers can seem like the most important thing in the world.

The psychologist drew on an example of one of his clients who struggled to cope when his peers excluded him from a gaming session. He simply could not get over it and kept wondering if it was because of something he had said or done to offend them.

“When someone who belongs to a group does not get invited to a smaller gathering, that’s when they are more likely to experience rejection,” said Fung.

For many teens, being accepted by their peers can seem like the most important thing in the world. Illustration: Shutterstock

Rejection sensitivity is felt even more strongly by those who grow up in dismissive or abusive families. This can include teenagers who are emotionally neglected by parents who consistently ignore their needs and make them feel unappreciated.

Without family support, Fung explained that these teens could grow up with a low sense of self-worth and experience rejection anxiety much more easily. They might have difficulties forming close personal relationships because their sensitivity towards rejection increases as their relationships deepen.

Another factor that contributes to rejection anxiety is bullying, which directly causes exclusion and isolation. Victims of bullying often blame themselves, thinking negative thoughts such as, “If I wasn’t obese, people would leave me alone”.

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These ideas eat into their self-esteem, so in future social situations, they are more likely to believe they will be shunned based on bullying they experienced in the past.

These individuals interpret even the slightest perceived negative experience as a form of rejection – for example, when friends do not reply even though their WhatsApp status shows they are online.

“Teenagers ... are more prone to overcompensate for their anxiety by pushing their friends to reply in a timely manner, which will undoubtedly put them off,” Fung said.

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But this often backfires as the overcompensatory behaviour can seem controlling, which may end up pushing friends even further away. For the person with rejection sensitivity, this may worsen their anxiety, and they may not realise what exactly is driving others away.

“This is sad because they do not have the right tools to cope with their feelings at the moment of the perceived rejection,” the psychologist stressed.

The answer to this, according to Fung, is to deal with the root of the issue – anxiety.

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“We tend to think of the worst possible scenario ... when we feel anxious,” he said, adding that people needed to recognise when they were not actually being rejected.

Rather, he said people experiencing rejection sensitivity should steer away from negative self-talk and reflect on the situation instead of assuming the worst and reacting immediately on those assumptions.

However, for anyone who might think these feelings could be seriously hurting their relationships and disrupting daily life, Fung strongly recommended seeking help from mental health professionals to find other ways to cope with rejection sensitivity.

Click here to download a printable worksheet with questions and exercises about this story. Answers are on the second page of the document.

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