Published April 14, 2017

Rejection Sensitivity

Man is by nature a social animal. (Aristotle, a long time ago).

It is well established that humans are motivated by the need to belong. Behind our attempts at material success, professional accomplishment, and physical improvement is a drive to be accepted and cared for by those around us. Modern attachment theory holds the belief that this drive is innate: We are preprogrammed to form close and lasting bonds with other humans, and begin to do so before we are born. In the first formative years of childhood, our parents are the main object of our attachment, and provide us with a rough model of attachment for the rest of our life.

Of course, nature feeds into nurture. Temperament is believed to be at least partially intrinsic, and scientists have begun to find gene markers for certain temperamental traits, including aggression and neuroticism. This, along with unshared environmental influences, can serve to explain some of the behavioural differences between siblings and other family members.

Whatever the specific ratio of causes, we all grow up with a slightly different understanding of attachment. As such, we express our attachment to others in different ways: Some people show their appreciation for others with verbal affirmation, whereas others prefer to do so through the giving of gifts. Additionally, we all have a different need for affiliation, or “belongingness” to the groups we find ourselves in.

If we grow up in supportive households and experience a fairly stable upbringing, we are in a good position to form a healthy model of attachment. Unfortunately, many of us do not have the luxury of a perfect childhood. Those of us who experience abuse, neglect, and other unfortunate circumstances during our formative years are likely to have skewed models of attachment, and an unhealthy understanding of what it means to be loved.

Many of us do not realize this until adulthood, when we begin to form relationships of our own. We may observe a trend in our selection of certain romantic partners, perhaps modeled after a parent or authority figure we knew in childhood. Some of us may observe persistent behavioural tendencies of our own when placed in different types of settings. One of the most common of these in individuals with troubled childhoods is heightened rejection sensitivity, or the tendency to expect, perceive, and overreact to social rejection cues. Seems pretty awful, right? Trust me, it is.

The number of people who tend toward this dysfunctional way of thinking has increased since the rise of social media. A recent survey of almost 1500 individuals in the UK discovered a significant correlation between Instagram usage and a slew of mental health issues. Of course, this isn’t surprising: How else are we supposed to react when our popularity is reduced to a finite number of likes?

Unfortunately, this problem isn’t just confined to Instagram. Of the five social media platforms listed in the #StatusOfMind survey, Youtube was the only one with a reported net positive impact on mental health. The other four (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat) were found to be correlated with increases in depression and anxiety, and all five were related to increases in bullying, sleep problems, body image, and fear of missing out. It seems ironic, doesn’t it? The very platforms made to bring us together are leaving us feeling more isolated than ever before.

While I can’t say for sure, it seems increasingly clear that this epidemic is related to a lack of discourse on mental health. Although society has become more understanding of mental illness over the past decade, we still have a long way to go before we can claim that we’ve kicked the stigma for good. Too often we stay silent, hoping the situation will resolve itself – and too often, it doesn’t. We must address the elephant in the room, or face further declines in mass emotional wellbeing.

What are we waiting for?

I’ll go first. Like everyone else, I’m far from perfect. For many years, I have struggled with mental illness. My sleep schedule swings from insomnia to hypersomnolence, with no in-between. Social events leave me paranoid for days, and for that reason I tend to isolate myself. The list goes on. Well, now you know.

But hey, I’m not all bad. I’ve spent my summer volunteering with non-for-profit initiatives. I’m always here for friends who need support. I’m creative, smart, well-meaning, and kind. The list goes on. I have strengths and weaknesses, just like everyone else.

Importantly, I’m making this post to raise awareness: In speaking openly about my own struggles, I hope I can inspire others to do the same. In collectively opening up to one another and embracing our vulnerabilities, we may chip away at the stigma and misunderstanding that divides us. After all, we’re all in this together. Aren’t we?

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