We talk to therapist Michael O'Sullivan about why being rejected feels so bad and how this is linked to our earliest relationships ...
Relationships matter. If they did not matter then the isolation that depression brings would not be a problem and we would be contented living as hermits.
Compassionate mind therapy says that rejection matters because we evolved as social animals. Evolution says that if we are isolated from “our group” then we are in danger. People who are on their own do not survive long.
Managing the fear of rejection in the 21st century is hard. We feel more disconnected and alone than ever.
Our society, our culture and our social media mean that we mistake popularity with true friendship.
We yearn for closeness but are paralysed about getting closer because of the fear of rejection.
Fear of rejection from our group is linked to our relationships with the “big players” from our lives, the parents, brothers, sisters, indeed anyone who was significant.
These relationships leave their “stamp” on everyone. For depressed people the trauma, abuse and neglect of early relationships means that future relationships are tainted with fear.
The stamp might be ...
“Showing others what I am really like leads to rejection”
Why does this happen?
The psychologist Donald Keisler said that relationships exist on two dimensions. The first is friendliness and hostility.
Hostility here is not aggression but simply keeping people “at a distance”. For people with depression, keeping others at a distance makes sense because if the other person saw what they believed about themselves then rejection would soon follow.
Keeping others at a distance is often achieved through “wearing a mask”, a mask which convinces others that they are “ok”. In this way rejection fears are managed. However, there is a sting in the tail. The approval of others is towards the mask rather than the real person.
The second dimension is dominance and passivity. This is seen in the histories of people with depression.
They will often speak about feeling controlled by one or more family members or by an oppressive familial culture. In order to stay within the family the depressed person remains passive.
This is because the price of being assertive will be stigmatisation as the black sheep of the family and then exclusion. What can we do about this?
When we are depressed we “worry”. The fear of rejection is a worry ...
“What if I say how I feel and then I’m rejected?”
When we worry we live in our heads focusing on our “thoughts” rather than other people. Other people will simply appear less interesting to us. If we seem uninterested in other people we can imagine how we then “come across”.
Certainly if someone is uninterested in me, I may even think about rejecting their company.
Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy tells us that focussing on our thoughts-worry and rumination stokes the fires of depression.
If we change the spotlight away from the inward focus outwards towards other people, keeping in the moment, we may begin to manage the fear of rejection. By losing our self-focus in this way we may even begin the process of finding.