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Sensitivity to rejection

Do you sometimes wonder if people really like you? Do you worry when a friend seems curt with you? Do you fret over your not being included in a group? Do you ruminate over a possible slight?

Well, you’re not the only one! Our DNA has made us prone to be sensitive to slights as a possible indication of a potential rejection. In our dim past, being part of a small group meant survival and ostracism meant death. Being left alone to fend for ourselves and fighting predators was certain demise.

Our anxieties about acceptance and rejection are rising, according to New York psychologist Robert Leahy. We have become a performance-based culture, to wit, all the TV shows that emphasize being in the spotlight, whether singing, dancing, telling jokes, touting inventions, winning a race, or being the last survivor in the jungle. Just 200 years ago, most of us lived in a stable society, living in the same town all our lives. We now have become a mobile society, living in a variety of neighborhoods, states, and even countries. This means we have to learn the ways of the new strangers, looking for cues of acceptable behaviors, wary of possible misinterpretations and thus rejection. Not only do we move more, but our families are frequently either not intact or blended, which leads to insecurity.

Insecurity leads to uncertainty, which makes us more vulnerable to depression. And all of the above increases the chance that we become more anxious about possible rejections.

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According to Leahy, major depression, which is linked to rejection-sensitivity, is on the rise among all age groups except for the elderly, for we were born before the disrupted families and fragmented societies began to take root.

Some people are so sensitive to any possible slight that those around them have learned to tip-toe in their presence, increasing the potential of picking up negative cues where none were meant.

The only way around getting over being rejection-sensitive is to form the kind of friendships that can withstand the constant demand for reassurance. There is a genetic component to being overly sensitive to perceived rejection but also an environmental one. Overly critical, abusive, or neglectful parents or being bullied at school can set the stage for a child and then an adult being always on the look out for the next rebuff.

Today’s parents have been taught to enhance their children’s self-esteem - and in their attempt to do so, they have exaggerated the amount of praise heaped upon their children. Generalized praise does not feel good, for it is not behavior specific. Telling a child how smart he or she is does not help. It is not clear what it is exactly that is praise-worthy, so it makes children anxious. Instead, being specific - ‘you did well on your test because you studied hard for it’ - is a replicable behavior.

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All children wear an invisible sign around their necks that says, “Please admire me” - but it is for specific things that they do or say. They are loved for who they are: our children.

It is interesting to wonder what signs we adults wear secretly. My sign says, “I’m not OK, you’re not OK, and that’s OK!”