Fear of rejection and the need to be liked

Many years of research and hundreds of studies have shown that human beings have a need to be social and form relationships with other people. One of the more popular explanations for why we need to connect and attach ourselves to other people comes from evolutionary psychology. It is presumed that being part of a social group made it more likely for people to survive thousands of years ago, and to pass along their genes. Think about the following options available to our ancestors:

  1. You could try to survive by finding food, fighting predators, and finding shelter on your own, or
  2. You could take advantage of being in a group to accomplish these survival tasks. Also, being in a group means you are more likely to have intimate relationships and pass along your genes through offspring.

Those people who chose option #1 were less likely to live than those who chose option #2. According to evolutionary theory, the body and brain will retain those qualities that best help people survive. So, over the course of evolution, human beings developed a need to form relationships with other people.

Now, you might be thinking – what exactly changed in the body and brain that made it more likely for people to be social?

Well, one of the major things that evolved over time in humans is their capacity to feel hurt by rejection and social isolation. I use the word “hurt” quite literally.

Research over the past decade has shed light on what happens to people when they are rejected. An area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex becomes activated when we are rejected or isolated from others. This is the same area of the brain that is responsible for processing physical pain. In fact, cultural groups all around the world tend to use “pain language” when describing rejection:

  • I was hurt
  • I was crushed
  • His words stung.
  • In French, blessé is often used to describe feeling rejected.

Reactions to the Pain of Rejection

People have three options when it comes to dealing with potential pain:

  • Run – do your best to avoid situations where pain could occur.
  • Attack – try to intimidate and hurt others to discourage them from hurting you.
  • Freeze – helplessly assume that you cannot prevent pain.

It is not uncommon for people to frequently use one or more of these coping strategies when in their daily lives. When these coping styles dominate a person’s life, the consequence can be a significant disruption in functioning and/ or quality of life. For example, if you avoid social events and/ or relationships in order to avoid the pain of rejection and negative evaluation, then you might suffer various psychological symptoms and problems, such as:

  • Sadness and depression
  • Reduced motivation
  • Anxiety
  • Low confidence
  • Low self-esteem
  • Suicidal thinking

However, avoidance is not always so direct – it can be subtle as well. For example, people will sometimes deal with the fear and pain of rejection by using alcohol and/ or drugs, prescription medication, and even overeating. Things can become even more complex when people make changes to their personality to avoid rejection.

What Can CBT Do?

A psychologist using Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy essentially does two very important things:

  1. Develops a conceptual understanding of what the problem is and why it is occurring.
  2. Develops a treatment plan that targets the causes identified in step 1.

Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy involves the collaboration between a client and psychologist to figure out the problems and take steps to manage it. Specifically, therapy involves an examination of:

  • Thoughts that contribute to immediate symptoms. Psychologists have identified various thinking “errors” that have the potential to cause negative emotions. For example, mindreading occurs when you assume another person is thinking negatively about you, when there is little evidence for this assumption. This type of thought can cause a number of negative emotions such as anxiety, sadness, disappointment, etc.
  • Underlying beliefs about yourself, other people and the world. These beliefs are very important and significantly relate to quality of life.
  • Behaviours that affect thoughts, beliefs, emotions and relationships. The things we do have a very large impact on how we think and feel, and how others think and feel about us. Having a psychologist objectively provide feedback about your behaviour can be very helpful.

CBT is an effective form of psychotherapy, as shown by numerous research studies. It can be an invaluable experience for people whose lives are negatively affected by fears of rejection and problems connecting to other people.

We are here to help you.
For more information on our services, or for help on deciding which of our team psychologists to choose, don’t hesitate to contact our clinic coordinator at 514-337-2473, ext. 0, and it is with great pleasure that we will discuss with you the psychological services we can offer you.