Rejection Sensitivity and Job Hunting

Job hunting inevitably comes with rejections, and for people with rejection sensitive dysphoria those rejections can be physically painful.

[Disclosure: The humble author is not a medical professional and cannot provide medical advice.]

[Content warning: This article makes brief mention of self-harm and suicidal ideation/behaviors.]

In the past month, I’ve received at least thirty job rejections.

Job hunting is a numbers game. Every job listing has a pool of candidates at different points in hiring pipelines, with subjective judgment from hiring teams, with seemingly on-a-whim financial decisions from the hiring company. A candidate is left at the mercy of luck and the position of the stars on any given day. It’s no surprise job hunting is stressful and exhausting. Without warning, all the energy put into an application can be dashed with a rejection email.

But for some of us hopeful job seekers, those rejection emails are like physical wounds. We have something called “rejection sensitive dysphoria”.

Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria

According to ADDitude Mag,

[r]ejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD) is extreme emotional sensitivity and pain triggered by the perception that a person has been rejected or criticized by important people in their life. It may also be triggered by a sense of falling short — failing to meet their own high standards or others’ expectations.

Listed symptoms for RSD include:

  • Get very angry or have an emotional outburst when they feel like someone has hurt or rejected them
  • Set high standards for themselves they often can’t meet
  • Have low self-esteem
  • Feel anxious, especially in social settings
  • Have problems with relationships
  • Stay away from social situations and withdraw from other people
  • Feel like a failure because they haven’t lived up to other people’s expectations
  • Sometimes think about hurting themselves

From personal and community experiences, I’ve also seen RSD present as perfectionism; suicidal ideation/behaviors or “risky” behaviors when triggered; avoidance behaviors; a fear of taking risks that may result in rejection/criticism; fear of attempting new things for fear of failure/poor performance; and “people pleasing” (overworking to maintain positive perception from other people, sometimes sacrificing personal boundaries).

When different conditions are often diagnosed together, these conditions are considered “comorbid”. RSD is comorbid with ADHD and autism. Symptoms also overlap with other mental illnesses like (C)PTSD, borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety. No one specific thing can cause RSD, and RSD is not indicative of any one specific condition. It’s important to recognize that RSD is a collection of symptoms that can occur in many different situations and looks different for everyone.

If RSD resonates with you, you aren’t alone. There’s nothing wrong with you and you aren’t broken. Your emotions are rich and beautiful, and you feel intensely. The world needs more people like us. However, if you feel personally bothered by that intensity, you have some options. For me, trauma-informed talk therapy and psychiatric medication help me emotionally regulate. Proper diagnosis and treatment is obviously ideal, but if that isn’t accessible for you, seeking community and learning from them can be just as valuable.

Handling RSD while Job Hunting

Job hunting involves very direct rejection. Often in the form of an email, sometimes as a call, we have to face an open rejection based on our “worth” (in talent, skill, experience, etc.) What’s worse is we’ll likely never know an authentic reason behind this rejection. This leaves us to stew in our worries. Was I not good enough? Did I say the wrong thing? Did I laugh too loudly? How can I improve so this doesn’t happen again? Am I just not employable?

I, too, get tired after applications and lay dramatically on my bed with dried up lavender stalks.

Especially for new professionals, rejections can damage self-esteem. I’ve also talked to people with long-term roles with one company that fear job seeking because the prospect of rejection scares them. (It scares everyone, by the way.) How do we, as people with intense emotions, handle that wave of fear?

We’ve all been this person.

Standing against pessimism, self-loathing, fear, and anger is difficult. We have to acknowledge first that managing these emotions is not easy. Once we’ve accepted that we’re going to feel some negative emotions, we can start working on them.

Decentering

The first skill to practice is “decentering”.

I first encountered the concept of decentering in social justice work. The theory has a long history in activism and social theory. According to Ashley Crossman on Thought Co.,

[d]ecentering is a way of understanding the world in its social and psychological aspects that holds that there is no single way to read an event, or institution, or text.

This holds true for most things we experience in our lives. Our perception is just that: ours. We don’t know how others perceive a situation. This allows us to focus on overall movements and events and push justice forward while acknowledging everyone has their own truths.

Decentering also has a definition in cognitive behavioral therapy. According to the American Psychological Association dictionary, decentering is

any of a variety of techniques aimed at changing one’s centered thinking (i.e., focus on only one salient feature at a time, to the total exclusion of other important characteristics) to openminded thinking.

Similarly to an activist’s definition, a psychologist’s definition focuses on shifting the focus of an event from our self, to our environment and all its factors AND our self.

Rejection sensitivity tries to spiral us into shame and anger because clearly the rejector didn’t like us, as people, because we’re bad at things and also bad people. A decentered approach to a rejection might look like asking questions instead. Some questions I ask, when trying to decenter myself: were an of my faults explicitly mentioned? Do I know the entire picture behind the scenes for this role? Do I know exactly what they were thinking, or am I making assumptions?

A Black person sitting a table, with their hands laced together in front of their face. They’re wearing a patterned headwrap, and their braids are tied up in a bun high on their head. They’re looking to their left. They’re wearing an off-white shirt under a beige knit sweater.

There are tons of factors that go into an open role. Sometimes managers will “hire” an internal candidate into that role. Sometimes funding changes. Sometimes you’re a perfectly good engineer but someone didn’t vibe with you on the team and that’s okay too. Regardless, a rejection can be seen instead as a series of variables all working together, most of which are out of your control.

Releasing Negative Emotions

Speaking of control, let’s talk about some things you CAN control. When you have been summarily rejected from something, and you’ve tried to decenter yourself, you still may experience negative emotions. Those emotions exist there for a reason, and it isn’t a personal failing. You cannot be positive all the time.

Unfortunately, rejection sensitivity can make negative emotions feel like poison. It can be incredibly intense. Most tips for releasing negative emotions include things like “Smile!” “Fake it til you make it!” But these can create the backlash of repressing emotions, pretending like you aren’t feeling poorly, and intensifying negative feelings into a festering mess.

Instead, let’s focus on things that distinctly help YOU feel less terrible. For me, this can look like socializing with others and playing with animals. Sometimes I even rage nap! (A rage nap is a nap driven by being so upset that your adrenaline exhausts you and you have to put your brain in time out for a while.) Figuring out what desensitizes your anger will take time and practice. You might not find your strategies immediately.

Interacting with your shame in a way that makes it less potent is key. If shame is a live wire, you’re looking for a ground. Structured breathing, mindfulness, external sensory changes (like a hot shower, smelly candles, or strong flavors), physical activity, art, music, anything to channel the shame so that it can move in your body without overwhelming you.

A Black person laying on their back in a bubble bath in a stone bath tub. They’re wearing a patterned headwrap to keep their braids out of the water. They have PERFECT eyebrows, wow, and have their eyes closed, facing away from the camera. They have Airpods in, and a necklace around their neck resting on their chest. They also have a tattoo on the left side of their chest.
I’ve been known to take “sad baths”, where I sit in hot water and stare at the ceiling.

Something that also works for me is giving myself the space and time to process those emotions. That gift of space and time is integral to working through rejection.

Self-kindness

I view the right to process emotions as a form of self-kindness. By not forcing myself to feel better immediately, each negative feeling has a time and place. Treating yourself with kindness takes practice, just like releasing negative emotions.

In this context, I’ll assert that self-kindness after rejection looks like an absence of self-blame and self-loathing. If you can be rejected from a role and not feel personally attacked, that’s a form of self-kindness. You’re protecting yourself from capitalist expectations, from others’ expectations, from your own expectations. You’re guarding your worth and inherent value. As a person, your “value” is not determined by anyone else.

If this isn’t possible for you yet, here are places you can start:

When you start practicing kindness, it can suck. It might feel inauthentic. You might find entrenched beliefs that you don’t deserve kindness, forgiveness, or empathy. Releasing emotions might feel scary. A therapist is a great professional resource for this, if the prospect of untangling yourself is intimidating.

A printed street sign on a road, with black text on white cardboard. It reads, in all caps “you are worthy of love”.

I started by treating myself as someone else. Would I treat a friend the way I’m treating myself? Never. So why am I being so brutal towards my own perceived failings?

Eventually I started asking myself questions to justify my experiences. Why wasn’t I allowed to make mistakes? Why could I forgive others and not myself? Did I know how to forgive myself? How do I even start doing that?

As I accepted myself a person with faults and flaws, the total amount of blame in my life reduced (towards myself and others). It was easier to be kinder to others once I could forgive myself for inevitably making mistakes. It took years of practice, which meant it took years of exposure therapy to feeling terrible and self-soothing, and it was worth it.

Practice

This is the worst section: to learn how to do all the pieces above, you have to put yourself at risk of rejection. Rejection is scary for everyone but you’ve decided to do something about that fear. That means making a resume, applying for that job, going to interviews, and possibly being rejected.

It will feel AWFUL. I can confirm for you that confronting RSD is zero fun. Every single time you are rejected will hurt.

But, now you know you aren’t alone. You have strategies to practice, you have people around you that struggle with the same feelings, and you have a bright future to look forward to. Every rejection will hurt less and less until you hit a point of stability regardless of how brutal a recruiter or manager or automated messaging system can be.

I have every faith in you, fellow RSDers, that we will get to a point where the world cannot hurt us anymore.

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