When it comes to romance and friendship, many people fear rejection, even when they’re just conjuring it up in their imagination. If we’re frequently anxious about being accepted or loved, we may be emotionally attached to rejection.
With this attachment, people operate on hair-trigger expectations of rejection. They’re driven by the compulsion to recycle the unresolved hurt of rejection, as if they’re addicted to the pain. Many people take the problem a step further: Unwittingly, they go looking for experiences of rejection, even as they claim to be its victims.
An emotional attachment to rejection springs out of inner conflict: Consciously, we want love; unconsciously, though, we’re emotionally entangled in expectations of rejection. Inner conflict contaminates relationships, fomenting miseries such as feeling loved versus unloved, worthy versus unworthy, connected versus disconnected, respected versus disrespected, and inwardly free versus controlled.
Dysfunction in relationships can arise, of course, from issues other than rejection. Rejection is just one of eight unpleasant emotions to which we can be attached. These emotions, first encountered in childhood, are refusal, deprivation, helplessness, control, criticism, rejection, abandonment, and betrayal (I call them “the first hurts”). As children, we experience these emotions even with good parenting because of how subjectively we interpret our daily experiences. As adults, these emotions can continue to haunt us, in varying degrees, and they interfere with the quality of relationships.
In this post, I mainly address the rejection issue. Yet what I’m saying here about rejection also applies to emotional attachments involving the other first hurts.
When people are particularly sensitive to feeling rejected by others, they’re transferring outward into the world their emotional entanglement in self-doubt, self-criticism, and self-rejection. The pain of being rejected (or the anxiety of expecting rejection) arises out of self-alienation and the conflicted relationship we have with ourselves. We expect that others will regard us with the same degree of self-denigration we inflict upon ourselves. We’re compelled to feel the same level of disharmony with others that we feel within ourselves.
Self-doubt loiters at the core of our being. Everyone has it, to some degree. Yet many people are afraid to face the problem at its source. They feel, even if just vaguely, that they’ll encounter a truly flawed person at these inner depths, perhaps an imposter or unworthy loser who has been hiding out within them. This impression of self is largely the result of how, through inner passivity, we allow our inner critic to treat us rejectingly, as if we are indeed a lesser person. Having absorbed over many years our inner critic’s imposition of its authority and its denunciation of our self, we struggle to believe emotionally in our goodness and value.
We’re often determined to cover up our doubts, anxieties, and fears. We don’t want to recognize the role these reactive emotions play in our relationships. These emotions are not only distressful in themselves, but we unwittingly use them for purposes of self-deception. Doubts, fears, and anxieties concerning the steadfastness of our relationships can be enlisted to deny our emotional attachment to rejection. Unconsciously, we make a claim such as this: “I’m not looking for or expecting to be rejected. If anything, I’m worried (or anxious or fearful) about the possibility of being rejected.”
Here’s another rendition of classic self-deception, again fabricated unconsciously: “I’m really angry at that person who has rejected me. My anger proves that I’m not looking for the feeling of being rejected. My anger proves how much I hate being rejected.”
Why is our denial so instinctive? It feels offensive to our ego to recognize an emotional attachment. Our ego insists, “I want pleasure, not misery! I’m not such a fool as to amplify my suffering!” Poor ego: To recognize its irrelevance to unconscious forces in the psyche is to feel dethroned.
Our denial of emotional attachments also expresses loyalty to the familiar suffering self we’ve known for so many years. We’re staunchly identified with this old self: “Who could I possibly be other than my familiar self!” This stubborn loyalty to the dysfunctional self is a byproduct of psychological resistance, and it helps to explain why, in national politics, so many people exalt loyalty over civility and truth.
Lacking insight, we’re more likely to sabotage a relationship because we refuse to acknowledge the negative emotion (in this example, rejection) that we ourselves have introduced as an emotional theme into the relationship. It’s now likely we’ll behave in such a way as to induce rejection or, anxious to avoid that expectation, strike first and become the rejecter. (Another compulsive influence here is one’s willingness to identify with the person being rejected, which is a secondhand but still powerful experience of one’s attachment to rejection.)
Being overly sensitive to feeling controlled is the consequence of another emotional attachment. When we fear being controlled or manipulated, and are particularly sensitive to the feeling of it, then that’s exactly what we’re attached to—and it’s likely to be what we chronically experience. Our fear of being controlled stems not only from our expectation of being passive or submissive in a relationship but also from our determination to deny our bittersweet affinity for the submissive role. We can interpret even innocent situations as if we are in fact being controlled or oppressed. This willingness of ours to repeatedly experience this passivity is mainly unconscious, so we need good insight to illuminate the underlying dynamics.
The same principle applies to our willingness to endure and recycle the other first hurts. In relationships, many of us are prone to feeling criticized, betrayed, and abandoned. Attachments to these emotions produce, along with rejection, the common psychological affliction known as fear of intimacy. With deeper self-knowledge, we can avoid this misery and become capable of enjoying deep connection with others and our own self.
As well as being a self-defeating symptom, fear of intimacy also serves as a psychological defense. As such, the fear covers up a person’s underlying emotional attachment. As a defense, the fear is employed to make this claim: “I’m not looking to feel rejected (or controlled, abandoned, or criticized). If anything, I fear the possibility of rejection (or control, abandonment, or criticism). Look at how I’m thinking about backing away from this relationship. I’m refusing to get serious about it.”
An online search for information about fear of intimacy turns up hundreds of articles and scores of books. Much of this self-help literature does a decent job of describing the experiences and characteristics of fugitives from intimacy. But it does a lousy job providing the penetrating insight that exposes the self-defeating shenanigans occurring beneath the surface.
A common explanation says that fear of rejection and fear of engulfment cause people to flee from intimacy. That’s true, but where do these fears come from? Relationship experts are not accessing the deeper source of these fears. They say the fears can be due to a social phobia, an anxiety disorder, or a history of abuse. Yet they’re not telling us precisely what occurs in the psyche of those everyday people who decline to open their heart to a potentially ideal partner or who sabotage an established relationship.
For deeper insight, we have to expose and understand inner conflict. Such insight helps us to see that, while we consciously want intimacy, unconsciously we’re compelled to experience intimacy as if it puts us in greater danger of being controlled, helpless, rejected, betrayed, or abandoned. Though it’s our own inner conflict that triggers these negative emotions, our denial and resistance of this inner truth require that we develop detached, unfriendly, or even bitter feelings toward our partner or friend.
People with fear of intimacy often are lonely. They do earnestly want to find intimacy. On the dark side of their conflict, however, their emotional attachments to rejection, criticism, control, and abandonment cause them to fear intimacy. Loneliness, already inflicting misery in itself, is now enlisted as a defense to cover up one or more emotional attachments: “I’m not looking to feeling rejected (or criticized, controlled, betrayed, or abandoned). I’m feeling very lonely. That’s proof I want to feel connected and loved. I want intimacy, not rejection or abandonment!” It’s important to understand the range of psychological defenses we employ to cover up the dark side of our psyche.
Resolution of the attachment to rejection requires that we assimilate inner truth. Here’s the kind of mantra, repeated regularly, that we can employ to liberate ourselves from the attachment: “I see right now that I’m the one who’s making an unconscious choice to recycle that old hurt of rejection and to indulge in the pain of it. I recognize that I do this compulsively. This process has been unconscious in the past, but now, in making it conscious, I can begin to take responsibility for it. I have been choosing to embellish and accentuate the feeling of rejection. My new consciousness is now becoming more powerful, and it can now override or neutralize my attachment to rejection, setting me free to stop taking personally all hints of rejection.”
Taking ownership of an emotional attachment has a sobering effect that begins to awaken people. A deep sense of freedom follows as we liberate ourselves from an oppressive negative emotion. New awareness enhances our intelligence, liberates us from old pain, and steers us away from acting in self-defeat.