Why Rejection Hurts so Much & How to Heal Using Attachment Science

dealing with rejection

Once you start diving into attachment science, it’s impossible to not see it everywhere you look). Today, we’re focusing on the avoidant side of the equation, and how to heal using attachment science.

Rejection and Childhood

Attachment science teaches us to go way back to early infancy when considering the ways developmentally significant events relate to adult functioning.

So, consider a child or baby, who is fully reliant on their caregiver for food, shelter, water, protection. Feeling rejected by this caregiver, maybe by the caregiver not being engaged or responsive to the baby’s cries for what they need, is inherently traumatizing: it means the inability to secure the necessities to be safe and alive in the world. It means death.

In this situation, the child learned that the following actions were not effective in getting their needs basic met:

  • Communication of their needs
  • Reaching out to their caregiver
  • Expression of emotion

Not only were those methods ineffective, they were actually potentially actively detrimental to the child, as they left the child exposed vulnerably in their needs.

A child could enter adulthood thinking…

  • Expressing emotions and needs left me feeling in pain with my needs unmet
  • Expressing emotions and needs is not useful or safe
  • I cannot trust others

Soon enough, a child will further socialize through school and early peer relationships.

From an evolutionary perspective, we know that there was a time when rejection from the in-group corresponded to isolation, lack of resources, and death. The body, in its remarkable attempt to keep us safe, remembers this threat of death. And when rejection is perceived, the similar sensation of doom ensues.

These early events become ingrained in the mind and central to the narratives one holds about safety in the world and encode the programming of the nervous system.

As an adult, someone is still impacted by the hurt of those early rejections (and perhaps operating reactively from those wounds).

I know, if only we could figure out where it started and just extinguish these dynamics simply.

The problem is, the threat of rejection is so scary, that even for the best of us, our survival strategy kicks in when we sense it. It is essentially human for attachment strategies to activate.

This might mean pushing others out for the preservation of ourselves. For instance, if someone senses they are getting pushed out of the in-group, they may actively try and push someone else out instead to protect their own chance to survive- and who can blame them?

When we are unconsciously letting the attachment system steer the wheel, we live in a place of uninformed reactivity, constantly reigniting one another’s deepest threats to survival and putting our learned strategies to the test.

A colloquial example of this dynamic that comes to mind is the idea of “leaving before you are left.” If you are leaving a relationship not because there is intention in where you are going, but to avoid the pain of future imagined rejection, you are reacting from this attachment wound, and in the process, perhaps triggering the threat of rejection in the partner you are leaving.

Rejection, Attachment + Functional Strategies in Adulthood

Attachment therapists often associate those who tend to fear rejection as those who display an avoidant attachment style. In the words of Glennon,

“…sometimes the horror of the leftoutedness feeling which can feel like death, can lead us to things that become survival skills in our lives…for me…dissociation.”

Glennon Doyle, We Can Do Hard Things podcast episode 241

An avoidant attachment style is often associated with minimizing emotions, needs, and dependence on others. More specific strategies in adulthood may include:

  • A tendency to dissociate
  • Over-intellectualizing (obsessively focusing on facts and logic)
  • Humor
  • Protective anger
  • Eating disorder
  • Substance use
  • Numbing or bypassing needs

If a child perceived that their caregiver was not accessible, engaged with, or responsive to them, the child may have learned that they are safer if they do not have needs.

So, if they can deactivate their threat-detection system altogether, they will feel like they are more safe in the world than if they are to face the reality that the care they need might not be reachable.

This teaches children to protect themselves through containing their emotions and their needs, which is the way they have learned to care for themselves when they move into adulthood.

Why Rejection Hurts so Much & How to Heal Using Attachment Science

The strategies above can work really well to allow avoidant attached individuals a sense of security… in the short-term.

Over time, people experience serious costs associated with these strategies:

  • Lack of experiencing the true self
  • No healthy dependence
  • Lack of experience of pleasant emotions
  • Lack of depth in relationships
  • Physical manifestation of unexpressed emotions and symptoms

The implementation and function of these behaviors is usually unconscious.

There is a deeper meaning for why people may be implementing these behaviors, but work is required to bring into consciousness what historic attachment wound to which they are reacting.

The lack of this work is how we can find ourselves in ongoing, perpetuating cycles of ineffective coping.

It’s important to remember that even though we see a strong facade on the outside that we might associate with a lack of caring, the fact that the strategy is online actually indicates a deep level of being affected.

If you love a person who expresses an avoidant attachment style, it may be natural to assume they do not care and feel discouraged when you see them withdraw.

But this could not be further from the case, the fact that they are using the strategy (I.e. the attachment system is activated) is evidence that they do care deeply. They just have learned to minimize that care, just like they learned to suppress every other emotion.

rejection avoidant attachment .jpg

How to Heal (Attachment Theory)

Being a full-experiencing human means touching parts of ourselves and our experiences that can be unpleasant. We all have sensitivities to different stimuli that impact us due to experiences in our early development.

Here are some of the keys to healing from the pain of rejection.

The first step in any healing journey is to pause. Catch yourself when you notice your emotional reaction does not match the intensity of the situation in front of you.

Breathe, feel into your body, and trust that you are safe enough to sit with any temporary discomfort. See if you can label what you are feeling and identify what you may be responding to.

Acknowledge all your body is trying to do to keep you safe, and also know that you do not have to move forward in reactivity.

Choose to respond from an informed, intentional place. In this way, we can learn to reparent ourselves, or teach ourselves how to find calm and safety in the face of attachment distress.

Once you have created space, you can start so reflect and put the pieces of your experiences together.

Get curious, be with your emotions, observe your triggers, and learn your attachment style. Little by little, as you learn your style and your tendencies, your body will be more open to releasing them.

Through relationship with trusted others, we have the capacity to heal some of these wounds. These trusted others could be emotion-focused therapists, partners, or other important figures in our lives who we feel deeply connected to.

In therapy, we call these “corrective experiences,” which are conversations we have that assure us that others are accessible to us and engaged with us, and that it is safe to express our deep unmet needs.

These experiences can rewire our brains from the historical detection of threat to an experience of felt safety, calming emotions and healing pain along the way.

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