Rejection Phobia: Explained

06/21/2012 02:43 EDT | Updated 08/21/2012 05:12 EDT

I recently wrote about rejection phobia and the impact it can have on people's lives. One of the more tragic aspects of rejection phobia is how self-sustaining the problem can be. In fact, people who are rejection phobic ultimately fabricate their own reality that perpetuates their phobia and can leave them socially isolated.

Rejection phobia is always associated with a core belief about the self -- the more common ones being:

  • "I am unlikeable"
  • "I am defective in some fundamental way"
  • "I am unacceptable the way I currently am"

Here's the surprising thing about these beliefs -- the person with rejection phobia is often correct in their self-assessment. Put differently, the beliefs they have formed are the most appropriate conclusions to be drawn from their subjective experiences in social situations and relationships.

Indeed, one the central causal factors in rejection phobia is that these individuals fabricate a special type of reality.

Cognition, Reality Formation and Rejection Phobia

A good understanding of psychology in general, and mental health in particular, starts with a solid understanding of the basic brain processes that get used on a daily basis. One cannot underestimate the importance and influence of these basic processes, as they literally shape our reality.

While there are many cognitive processes that could be discussed, the three that are most important for the current purposes are:

(1) attention

(2) interpretation

(3) memory

These three processes are critical in that they explain how two people can live identical existences in terms of the events and experiences encountered, and yet be very different people in terms of personality, mental health and overall quality of life.

The notion of reality and what is "real" has been a matter of philosophical conjecture and debate for centuries. A modern understanding of reality, based on our knowledge of the mind through neuroscience and psychological research, would conclude that the mental image in our brain that we call reality only partially overlaps with how things actually are in the external world. People fabricate their own reality based on multiple factors, including the aforementioned processes of attention, interpretation and memories.

Reality formation can be considered akin to documentary filmmaking. In documentary filmmaking, the filmmaker decides where to point the camera, often narrates a script that frames the material in a particular light, and ultimately edits the film.

Our brains are like the filmmaker. First, we do not pay attention to everything in our environments. You could have two people enter a room full of different objects and the same two people could have very different memories of what that room was and what was contained therein. Each one focused on different things -- as determined by pre-existing biases.

Similarly, people with rejection phobia pay attention to details that not everyone else would pay attention to - looking for any sign of rejection -- eye contact, tone of voice and gaps in the conversation.

Second, like a filmmaker, we too have narration going on in our heads that provide a storyline for what we are seeing. This is our inner voice providing commentary on events in our lives.

The person with rejection phobia often has negative commentary in interpersonal situations -- a decrease in eye contact ("he wants to talk to someone else"), a change in the tone of voice ("she sounds bored"), and gaps in the conversation ("he is giving me a hint that he wants to leave") are all interpreted as evidence that the other person is not interested in them.

Finally, like a filmmaker, the information that was gathered is cut and edited. We all have the capacity to modify and change our memories following a social interaction.

People with rejection phobia often ruminate on what transpired. Rather than recall the whole memory, they focus specifically on the events that they consider to be negative (ex: saying "stupid" things; the other person's non-verbal behavior that indicates disinterest in her).

Whenever information is reviewed repeatedly in one's mind, it makes it more likely for that information to be recalled. If someone asks you to remember a number sequence (ex: a phone number), repeating it over and over would be a helpful way to remember. Well, doing the same thing to memories produces the same result - it makes them stronger.

The long-term consequence of this process is as follows: Rejection phobics are left with a series of memories filled primarily with negative information. Furthermore, these memories are far stronger than positive memories because the negative ones are replayed with more frequency. This has serious consequences because of the impact on core beliefs about the self (i.e., the self-concept).

Hence, when someone with rejection phobia concludes that they are unlikeable, they are being honest and accurate in light of the information that is best available in their mind. The documentary film they have created is completely biased in its production, but anyone watching the film could only draw one conclusion based on the material that was presented - this person is clearly unlikeable.

Implications for Treatment

Within the profession of psychology, there are has been a fantastic history of research examining how the basic processes of cognition affect our daily lives -- in almost every respect imaginable. As such, treatment for problems like rejection phobia and depression must often start with the building blocks of reality formation.

A necessary starting point for anyone wanting to overcome rejection phobia is to start being mindful of how these processes operate. The term "meta-cognition" refers to the act of thinking about your thinking, and it is a key component of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

In order for people with rejection phobia to start drawing more accurate conclusions about themselves, they must stop watching the biased film they've been producing for much of their life, and start examining how they "film" everyday experience. Only a "behind the scenes" look will reveal the critical mistakes they are making.

If you suspect that your take on reality is biased in a very fundamental way, getting the objective opinion of a third-party (ex: psychologist) is highly recommended, especially if your reality bias is harming your mental health.