We’ve all been there: caught up trying to solve why potential friends or partners won’t give you the time of day. It’s especially mind-boggling when you can’t seem to figure out why they aren’t responding. After all, you’re nice and fun to be around, right?
As it turns out, this puzzling behavior doesn’t only emerge in romantic relationships — it also pops up in many social situations.
For instance, you might insist on becoming friends with a coworker who says yes to your afternoon coffee invites but bails at the last minute. Or maybe a friend of a friend never makes an effort to say hello in group settings.
But instead of writing the person off, you try to win them over. In psychology, we call this chronic need for chasing unavailable relationships “rejection sensitivity.“
Chances are your situation isn’t a chronic occurrence, but if you find yourself mulling over the moment more than you’d like, here are some questions to ask yourself:
Great question! First, we’ve got to tackle some behaviors: Think of a scenario where someone likes you. What’s your response?
Are you eager to start texting and make a coffee date or do you wait a few days before responding? Do you feel unworthy of positive attention?
If insecurity plays a role in your response, it might mean that you have a scar from your childhood. We call this an early attachment wound, such as growing up with an emotionally walled-off and critical parent, or seeing your parent’s marriage splinter in half.
This often starts patterns of trying to befriend people who dislike closeness. Why? Because you had more problematic frames of reference for relationships than nurturing ones.
If this sounds like you, focus on the facts the next time you find yourself spiraling into anxiety. Ask yourself: Is there any evidence that your newfound friend will reject you?
Keep in mind that even if an early attachment wound caused “rejection sensitivity,” not everyone you meet will ignore your emotions and push you away like you may have experienced in the past.
If you’re looking to sort through these complicated emotions, don’t put your hope in the friendship basket. A therapist who can help you untangle your attachment patterns may prove a better fit.
Let me explain, if you find yourself gravitating toward partners or friends with larger-than-life personalities, is it the person you’re actually interested in? Translation: If you’re trying hardcore to be friends with the popular coworker, is it because you like them — or are you envious of their pull?
Now, this doesn’t mean you aspire to be like the Kardashians, but it could mean you’re dissatisfied with some aspect of your life. Perhaps it’s a constant a battle to see yourself in a positive light, and because of this, you place all of your energy running after unattainable friendships.
If this is the case, self-acceptance exercises may illuminate a meaningful life lesson.
For starters, keep track of the positive comments that come your way. Did your coworker compliment your outfit, or did a friend thank you for giving them sound relationship advice? Whatever it is, take note, because chances are you’re valued by others more than you realize.
Another great idea is to start a gratitude journal and write down one or two things that you appreciate each day. These may seem like simple exercises, but they can truly shift our perspective by cultivating positive feelings, which can help lift our self-esteem.
I don’t mean to get psychoanalytical on you, but sometimes it does come back to mom. Moms get a bad rap because society often makes it seem as if the “perfect” mom is always warm, loving, and joyful. But what if your mom wasn’t always bursting with sunshine? Or what if your mom took a “tough love” approach to parenting?
Most likely, no one’s mother fits the stereotypical cultural portrayal — and that’s okay. What’s important is understanding how your relationship with your mom influences your relationship experiences.
For example, if you grew up with a mom who seemed emotionally distant or constantly criticized you for not perfecting your SATs, and being the star of the soccer team, you might try to win over closed off people.
Psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud called this a “reenactment.” While some may say his theories are outdated, he was absolutely correct when he said we tend to play out old family scenarios in the present moment.
The other aspect of human behavior Freud nailed is this: We all engage in behaviors unconsciously. Reenactments are rarely conscious, which is why the behavior can be hard to break. In our minds, we’re merely repeating a familiar pattern that used to be a normal way to interact with others.
Because we’re not aware of this behavior, it often takes someone like a friend, coworker, family member, or therapist to bring it to our attention.
Many years ago, I went out on a limb and told my friend that she always seemed to befriend cruel people. While she was taken aback at that moment, she came to realize that she was replaying an old painful dynamic. Not only was she drawn to emotionally closed off people, but she mistakenly believed that charming them over would repair her childhood baggage.
If you see rejection as a sign of failure, not being liked can be a big pill to swallow. When this happens, the unrealistic need to be perfect can drive us to invest too much of ourselves in the wrong situations — and with the wrong types of people.
You might ask yourself why you hold yourself to such high standards? If a friend with a similar problem asked you for advice, what would you say?
Often, the pursuit of perfectionism is fueled by our need to avoid icky emotions like vulnerability, embarrassment, and shame — the very sentiments that feeling imperfect can activate.
If this sounds like you, you might ask yourself: “Where did the message come from that you aren’t ‘good enough,’ and that being disliked is a personal failure, instead of a sign of being human?”
Whatever the scenario, chances are your behaviors reflect an old childhood or adolescent wound that never fully healed. If these tips triggered something for you, you may want to read about fawning. If it’s hard for you to break the cycle of “rejection sensitivity,” speaking to an expert about your behavior can help.
And a gentle reminder: If these tips don’t fit your case, it doesn’t give license to push for a relationship to happen. After all, in an era when personal information is plastered on the internet, people have a higher need for boundaries. And we need to respect those boundaries, no matter how cool we think the person is.
After all, you don’t want them to think of you when that Mariah Carey song comes on.
Juli Fraga is a licensed psychologist based in San Francisco, California. See what she’s up to on Twitter.