What are the emotional hot buttons that lead you to overreact? Is there a certain way that people look at you, talk to you, or act in general that leads you to explode in anger or sadness? You can't explain why, but you know when this happens you feel your self-control slipping away.
Everyone faces a situation when people take a poke at an emotionally sensitive spot in your psyche. For some individuals, though, those hot buttons are more prevalent and problematic than for others. They see criticism everywhere and, by their overreaction, make things worse.
This quality is called "rejection sensitivity" and involves the constant expectation that other people will not accept you.
Long Island University's Kevin Meehan and colleagues, in a new study, note that individuals high in this quality feel "sureness that rejection will be the likely outcome of an interpersonal exchange", and therefore "are often bracing themselves for signs of impending rejection".
Once someone hits that hot button, "the person may exhibit desperate and often maladaptive responses to either shore up the perceived distance… escape the threatening context… or even retaliate against the perceived aggression".
Now a vicious cycle is set in motion, and what they fear would happen in fact takes place. The individual avoids relationships altogether while still longing for closeness, an "irresolvable tension".
However, the cycle can be broken if something about the situation changes. Maybe your interaction partner approaches you in a positive way even though you've been reticent. The entire dynamic now shifts.
It's because of the interactive effect of person and situation that Meehan and his fellow researchers decided to adopt a model based on "interpersonal complementarity".
The research team gives you a smartphone app which they can use to ping you at various points during the day. You provide a quick and immediate snap rating of your emotions, while at the same time indicating what else is happening around you.
The authors tested their method initially on a sample of 228 undergraduate students, producing findings that supported the interactive pattern between rejection sensitivity and ongoing interactions.
People high in rejection sensitivity presented themselves as cold and submissive and reticent toward approaching others, even if that person was acting warmly.
Having established this basic pattern in a large-scale study, the authors next took advantage of the more in-depth understanding provided by a case study approach, using a single participant to provide all the data.
Their participant, "Mary", was a young Latina college student who had scored high on rejection sensitivity, but didn't show any signs of personality pathology.
Mary used the smartphone app to rate her interactions lasting at least five minutes, at least three times a day, for seven days.
She described whom the interaction was with, and then rated the other person on a grid containing the two axes of dominant to submissive, and cold to warm.
She also rated herself on that exact same grid. The authors then divided up the 28 events she recorded on the basis of who Mary was interacting with at the moment of her ratings and whether these people were close to her or not.
From the in-depth analysis that Meehan and his colleagues provided of Mary's experiential ratings, it was clear that with the people she cared about, her rejection sensitivity led her to be unable to express her own needs and desires.
If those people actively expressed their own needs and desires, Mary's withdrawal, in turn, suggested to them that she didn't care about them.
To sum up, this research shows how your own hot buttons might be causing the very relationship problems you dread.
Whether you feel threatened by rejection or by other negative consequences in your relationships, knowing that your perceptions may be distorted by your fears can help you overcome these important obstacles to your fulfillment.