Fear of rejection can lead to unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaving in relationships. Most of us have experienced this at some point. We worry that the person we like (or love) doesn’t feel the same way. We worry they’ll reject us, end the relationship and break our hearts. But for some of us, this fear runs a little deeper and causes bigger difficulties.
If your understanding of relationships, at a neurobiological level, is that others will reject you, how do you relate to people? How do you protect yourself from the heartache you believe is coming? One of my clients from a few years ago was a young man in his twenties called Tom. Tom’s solution to this problem was to keep everyone at arm’s length, including his family, friends and romantic interests. This gave him a guarantee of never being rejected or hurt, and never feeling the pain of a loved one ending a relationship. He never got close, so he never got hurt.
Did you spot the downside? Tom may have protected himself from the hurt of rejection, but he was also preventing himself from experiencing the joy of a close and trusting relationship in which he felt safe, special and loved. Because of his fear of rejection, Tom was actively preventing this experience. What Tom didn’t realise was that close relationships – the thing he was avoiding – were the one thing that could help him.
As I worked with Tom, we traced his fear of rejection to his childhood. His biological mother could not care for him and he was removed from his biological family and adopted at 24 months old. Despite the love and care of his adoptive family, his early experiences instilled a deep fear of rejection in Tom. He truly believed that others would reject him as his birth mother had.
Tom’s early experiences affected him on a neurobiological level, making it difficult for him to feel safe in his relationships. In therapy, Tom worked on his relationship with his adoptive parents. When he was certain he was loved unconditionally and could never be rejected in these primary relationships, he was able to move on and get closer to others. As the overwhelming fear of rejection lessened, he could finally experience the joy of close and trusting relationships.
Dr Kerry Ashton-Shaw