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The Porcupine Effect: What to Do When You Are a Porcupine

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
cute porcupine


Rules for Relationships When You Are Sensitive to Rejection

Once you have recognized that you are prickly and it affects the quality of your relationships, you can change your response by developing some rules for your relationships with others. These rules provide you with a structure to keep in mind when interacting with others or when anticipating contact with others who tend to trigger your rejection sensitivity. The following describes some of the common rules that can aid in this process. Not all of them may be relevant for you. In addition, you may develop some of your own rules that are more specific to your situation. The important element for change that rules provide is a mental strategy for addressing a problem.

Rule 1. Develop Awareness

If you recognize you have rejection sensitivity, the first step is to keep that awareness in mind. Many times people understand they have a problem but have difficulty changing because their automatic reaction occurs before they can think through the situation.

Cognitive diary method

Writing about a situation after it occurs when you can think clearly about it helps when confronted with the situation again. A cognitive diary is a structured approach to examining your thinking, how it might be inaccurate, and determining other ways to think about the problem. You can use the Cognitive Diary CBT Self-Help app for a convenient way of recording and evaluating your thoughts.

1) Write your thoughts about the situation. Try to be as specific and detailed as possible when writing your thoughts. Sometimes when people have developed an automatic way of thinking about situations they can't recall the thoughts very well. If that is true for you, imagine that you are describing the situation to someone else. Even say it out loud.

2) Identify the inaccuracy in the thoughts. Look at what you have written and examine why it might be wrong. For situations involving rejection sensitivity, this may primarily involve determining if other explanations for a person's behavior are plausible. For instance, I once had a client who felt excessively rejected when trying to approach women for a date. We brain-stormed possible reasons for the women's responses and filled up an entire marker board with explanations having nothing to do with him: just got out of a bad relationship, is very busy and not interested in a relationship, already has someone else in mind, has family obligations. Certainly, there were other possibilities that may have been about him but weren't necessarily personal: is attracted to a different look, wants someone with same religious beliefs, likes men who are more active, etc.

3) Write another way of thinking about the situation. Once you have determined the problem in the thinking, it should be fairly straight-forward to write another way you can think about the situation. For instance, if you have determined there are a number of other possible explanations, you can tell yourself: “I'm making a negative assumption and choosing an explanation that fits my feeling of rejection. There are other explanations that make sense so I can't focus on only the negative one.”

Visualizing desired response

Often people keep reviewing the rejection sensitive response which only reinforces that thinking. Instead, think about a situation while reviewing how you would like to think. Do this frequently. At first, you may need to deliberately recall situations, review them, and develop the desired response. The cognitive diary method can be helpful in this process. Over time, with practice, you may find yourself thinking more automatically about the desired response.

1) Imagine the situation fully without interpretation. Try to focus on the situation as if it were occurring. Think of the specifics of what were said, not what you felt. Think of how the person looked, the expressions, tone of voice, and other non-verbal behavior. Get a clear picture of the situation in your mind. However, do not interpret the behavior because that will only take you down the path of feeling rejection and reinforce those feelings.

2) Use your self-talk from the cognitive diary. Once you have fully developed a picture of the situation in your mind, use the self-talk you developed by completing the cognitive diary. You might need to repeat the self-talk a number of times and may even need to be firm with yourself to listen to the rational self-talk rather than pursuing the automatic path of feeling rejected.

If you find the self-talk does not help you feel better while imagining the situation, you may need to review your thinking again with the cognitive diary method and develop other statements that can be more helpful. If you continue to have trouble, you may need to get ideas from others regarding how you can think about the situation differently.

Use cues

Cues are powerful triggers for emotions, but for the person with rejection sensitivity the cues may be negatively focused. For instance, a woman walks in the house, sees the dishes aren't done and thinks “They don't really care about my feelings and needs...as long as I'm around to clean up after them.” In this instance, the cue is the dirty dishes which triggers the thoughts. At that moment, she has no other information about what is occurring in the house but immediately reacts with a thought about her family not caring about her.

1) Deliberately create cues. New cues need to be developed, but initially you may need to create the cues deliberately. Years ago I created a cue for myself when coming home from work. I pause at the door to the house and ask myself “Do you want to take your work stress in with you or do you want to walk in with a smile on your face and a pleasant greeting?” After a while, the door became a visual cue to leave my work stress outside the house.

2) Look for cues. People who are sensitive to rejection look for cues to fit the view of being rejected. Although it is normal for people to look for confirming evidence when they make an assumption because it feels good to be right, it is important to look for dis-confirming evidence when you are feeling rejected. Look around your environment to find evidence that your family, spouse, or friends do care about you and are accepting of you. Make it a habit to find the positive cues.

3) Use reminders. New habits can be difficult to develop even with the best of intentions. If you tend to have the same conflict again and again or focus on the wrong cues, write a reminder regarding how you want to respond or focus. This can be as simple as a post-it note where you will see it. For example, if I want to develop the cue that I just described of pausing at my door, I could put a post it note on the door. If I don't want anyone else to know what I am doing, I don't even need to write anything on it—just seeing the post-it note will remind me why I put it there.

Or, if you are technologically savvy, you could put a reminder on your phone or other devices. Perhaps whenever you dial a certain number, a pop-up could remind you about how you want to respond. You could also develop a reminder system that your partner or friend can use to help you recognize you are misinterpreting the situation.

Rule 2. Check It Out

Don't assume you know what your partner or friend is thinking or feeling. I used to arrogantly believe, “I'm a woman so I'm intuitive. I'm trained as a psychologist. I've known my husband a long time. I KNOW what my husband is thinking.” I believed this even if he told me otherwise. I learned I was wrong. When I quit listening to this thought, I could see my husband more accurately and realized he wasn't the type of person to say one thing and think another. When I began to check things out with him, I often found he was thinking something entirely different from my assumption.

The easiest way to check out your assumptions is to ask your partner or friend. “When you sit there staring at me without a response, I feel that you aren't listening to me.” This allows your partner to either affirm “Yes, I'm sorry. I'm a little distracted” or explain “No, I was listening. I just didn't know how to respond and was thinking it over.”

When you check out an assumption, the following guidelines can help you be more effective:

Be specific without inferences

Asking non-specific questions such as “Are you okay?” or “What's wrong?” or “Are you mad at me?” are not likely to generate a usable response from the other person: “I'm fine,” “Nothing,” or “No, I'm not mad.” Each of these non-specific questions are making an inference, an interpretation of the other person's behavior. The problem with interpretations is they focus on a very limited subset of possibilities. For instance, maybe the person is okay, in general, but feeling disappointed with a project at work. When you ask “Are you mad at me?” you take the focus away from being concerned about your partner or friend to being concerned about yourself.

Therefore, it is important to be clear in your question when you are checking out assumptions. “You don't seem like your normal self—you are quiet and seem lost in thought.” This statement only describes behavior—it does not interpret behavior. The problem with interpreting someone's behavior is that you are more likely to be wrong than not which causes frustration for the other person. When this occurs in the context of rejection sensitivity, it serves to confirm your inaccurate belief of the other person being mad at you.

Be calm

Frequently clients tell me that they did try to check out their assumption but their partner responded angrily and they ended up feeling even more rejected. When I inquired for specifics, I often found they approached the situation with angry accusations. “You would rather go out with friends than with me!” Somehow they believe that such a statement will elicit reassurance, “No, I want to be with you. I'll reschedule my plans.” Accusations, even when couched in subtle terms such as “It's okay if you'd rather be with your friends (sigh)” are likely to elicit confusion and anger.

Approach your your friend or partner calmly even if it means you have to wait until you calm yourself. Calmly means not just a controlled (but angry or fearful) voice, but truly being gentle in your approach and genuinely open to having a conversation about your assumption.

Use an “I” focus when expressing feelings

When you express feelings, take responsibility for your feelings by using an “I” statement. Accusatory statements such as “You make me feel unloved” are only likely to elicit defensiveness and anger. Instead, say “I feel unloved when you stay out late with friends.” Even though the other person could still become angry (especially if he or she is used to accusations), the “I” focus doesn't give as much opportunity for argument. If a person responds angrily, however, “That's ridiculous! Just because I want to see my friends doesn't mean I don't love you” it is easier to then explain “I understand that you love me. I'm just letting you know how I feel when you are out late.”

Sometimes you may not be able to directly check out your assumption with the other person. In these situations you can ask a trusted friend. However, you want to be careful in your choice when obtaining advice or at least set up the question to obtain the type of information you need. The reason being that many times if you only share your assumption friends may just automatically agree with your view: “Yeah, she's just playing hard to get—probably just wanting you for your money. I'd drop her.” Whereas, if you ask a specific question: “I think I might be overreacting. Can you help me consider other reasons why she didn't respond to my text?” With this type of specific question, your friend can follow a different line of thought: “Well, sure. Maybe she was busy. Maybe she didn't charge her phone. Maybe some technological quirk lost your message. Maybe she doesn't care about you and is just ignoring you. Maybe your message got ignored because she had so many to go through. Maybe she's feeling overwhelmed and taking a break. Maybe...” As you see, not all the possibilities are positive but at least it allows you to sort through the situation and determine what is most likely. Generally, if you need to assume, it is better to make a positive assumption. If there is even one likely positive possibility, it is better to make that your choice for an assumption.

Finally, be careful not to check excessively with your friend or partner. Some people seek reassurance from others to quiet their internal fears but when done compulsively such behavior can be annoying to the other:

“Is everything okay?”


“Are you sure you're okay?”


“You don't seem okay. You seem angry.”

“I said I was okay!”

Rule 3. Accept Your Partner's or Friend's Response

An important aspect of checking out your assumption is accepting your partner's response. It doesn't help to check out your assumption if you continue to believe what you want tobelieve rather than what your partner says. Don't read more into the response. If you ask, “Is something wrong?” and your partner says “no” then you need to accept that answer. It is not up to you to read your partner's mind. If there is a problem, it is your partner's decision to determine how to solve it and if it needs to be communicated.

Respect your partner's decision

Don't push your partner to share everything—people have their private thoughts. Just because you have a relationship doesn't meant you should have access to all those private thoughts. Frequently, people want reassurance that their friend or partner never has a negative thought about them. That is unrealistic. For example, your rejection sensitive thoughts are likely to be negative about your partner. Do you share all those thoughts with your partner? (And if you say you do, you probably shouldn't.)

If your partner says he or she is not judging you, not upset, not angry, accept that response. Tell yourself, “I can only know what my partner decides to tell me. I have to accept that my partner will share what is necessary.”

Then use that information to adjust your beliefs and feelings: “I don't have evidence of being rejected. Unless evidence presents itself, I choose not to focus on these feelings.”

Rule 4. Accept that Love Matures

Certainly, the initial stages of a relationship are exciting and you want to keep that feeling forever. However, the initial chemical reaction fades. It can't be maintained. Some people believe that when this occurs, it means they are no longer “in love.”

By recognizing that romantic love doesn't last forever, you can discover love that is even more satisfying—the love of being fully accepted by another human being. But that is a love that requires nurturing your own ability to fully accept another person. Romantic love isn't like that. Romantic love is not fully accepting of the other person. Romantic love requires that the other person and the relationship remain within the confines of how you believe love should be.

When you recognize that love matures, you can let go of these romantic beliefs that cause feelings of rejection when your partner doesn't respond in the way you think he or she should and replace them with an understanding of mature love:

Mature love is boring

Mature love doesn't have the drama and the extreme ups and downs as romantic love. Because romantic love has specific expectations, disappointment is more likely. For instance, if you expect your partner should celebrate your birthday in a certain way, and only in that way, then any other type of birthday celebration is a rejection of your needs and a disappointment. As a result of these types of demands, the desire for romantic love creates a roller-coaster of emotions.

However, when there is no expectation, anything is appreciated and valued. The cost of mature love is that it isn't as exciting as romantic love because most excitement comes from the roller-coaster ride. Mature love is stable and steady.

Mature love accepts the emotions of previous relationships.

Romantic love believes that all emotions regarding previous relationships should be negative (anger) or at least neutral. A woman whose husband is a widower and still has his wife's ashes questions, “Shouldn't I expect more than second best?” This woman is competing with his dead wife and feeling rejected because he still has feelings for his first wife. She views the solution as him needing to get rid of the ashes. However, the true solution is for her to rid herself of the romantic notion that her husband only has feelings for her.

Even someone angry and hurt from a divorce can still care for and respect their previous partner. I have seen many divorced families able to work together in a healthy way for their children to the degree of even enjoying socializing with one another. I've seen former husbands continue to take care of their ex-wife's home repair needs. Mature love can recognize that sometimes people divorce because it wasn't the right fit but they can still like and care about one another.

Mature love accepts emotions for previous relationships by recognizing that just because emotions may still exist doesn't mean that rejection is occurring. The individual understands he or she is the one in the relationship now and rejection depends upon how the partner treats him or her, not whether there are still emotions for the previous partner.

Mature love isn't jealous of innocent contact

Romantic love sees any contact with potential rivals as a threat. If a partner looks at, smiles, or converses with someone, the jealous individual views it as a sign of rejection. A young woman enjoys dancing but her boyfriend doesn't. When they go out, he wants to listen to the music but she wants to dance with others. He tells her that if she really loved him she wouldn't hurt him by dancing with other men. Such a belief indicates insecurity. He believes he will lose his partner if he allows such contact. However, the reality is that he is more likely to lose her if he controls her and doesn't let her do the things she enjoys.

Mature love is secure in the relationship and is not threatened by innocent contact with others. Mature love recognizes relationships are multifaceted and that needs met outside the relationship do not diminish the relationship.

Mature love recognizes other obligations and relationships

Romantic love believes the needs of the partner should always be first. A woman feels rejected because her long-time boyfriend places the needs of his teenage son first when he has him for weekends. She felt rejected because he wanted to celebrate Valentine's Day a few days later due to his son scheduled to be with him that day. Her boyfriend, a divorced part-time father, prioritized his son's need for his father as most important. Most likely, he felt his girlfriend, as an adult, could maturely handle waiting to celebrate Valentine's Day. If his girlfriend didn't have her romantic notion of love, she would have supported this choice rather than viewing the relationship with his son as a competition. Instead, she could have valued her boyfriend's integrity as a father.

Mature love recognizes that a partner has personal interests, work obligations, family bonds, and other commitments that may at times be a priority over the relationship. Mature love understands and supports these choices and doesn't view these choices as rejection.

Mature love is patient

Romantic love believes that love must occur in a certain way. For example, a young woman with the romantic notion of her boyfriend taking her in his arms and declaring his love for her felt rejected because they had been dating for six months and he hadn't yet said, “I love you.” He wanted the moment to be special but felt constant pressure from her about why he hadn't said “I love you” yet. She believed, based on her romantic time line, that if he hadn't said it by six months, he didn't care about her at all. As a result, she often felt hurt which caused her to be more pushy about him declaring his love. Both of these individuals operate from a romantic notion of love. The young man had a fixed idea of the first “I love you” being special whereas the woman felt rejected based on her romantic ideals of how a relationship should proceed.

Mature love doesn't demand love be shown on a time schedule. In fact, mature love doesn't have a predetermined notion of how love should be but accepts love as it occurs, in the way it occurs. For instance, love isn't often at first sight although it can occur in that way. But mature love accepts both possibilities and doesn't view one as better than the other or as a sign of rejection if it doesn't happen as desired.

Mature love respects privacy

Romantic love believes that all thoughts, feelings, and past events belong to the couple, not to the individual. A wife believed that if her husband had personal experiences from his past he didn't want to share it was the same as keeping secrets from her. She believed keeping secrets showed a lack of trust which was a rejection of her. Interestingly, this example shows that the wife cannot be trusted to accept her husband fully—she is judging his need for privacy of past experiences as wrong and criticizing him for it.

Mature love recognizes that a need for privacy is not the same as rejection. We all have private thoughts and feelings we choose not to share for various reasons. Sometimes it's as simple as we haven't worked through the emotions and still need to determine the accuracy of the emotions. Why would we want to share an automatic, but inaccurate, reaction which could only cause hurt feelings and conflict?

Mature love communicates about needs

Romantic love expects the couple should be so in tune with one another that the partner should know exactly what the other needs or desires and meet those needs all the time. A wife hinted to her husband she wanted an engagement ring for their anniversary because they couldn't afford one before they were married: “Did you see Joann's engagement ring? I wish I had one like that.” Although typically a generous man, her husband did not buy her an engagement ring. “Its clear that he thinks I am just not worth it. I feel unloved and deeply hurt. It seems my needs always come last.” The problem in this situation is that although she believed she was clear about desiring an engagement ring, he apparently did not hear the request. If she had instead said, “Honey, how about for our next anniversary getting me the engagement ring we couldn't afford when we got married?” she might have had a very different outcome.

Mature love recognizes that partners can't read one another's minds and that it is necessary to communicate needs and discuss how needs can be met especially when needs may come in conflict with one another.

Mature love accepts differences

Romantic love expects the couple should have all the same interests, spend their time doing the same things, and never have a need to be apart. A young husband wanted his wife to be his audience while learning to play guitar. He believed she's not supportive of him and doesn't care when she doesn't eagerly sit and listen to him. This type of thinking holds her hostage to his needs but doesn't recognize her needs.

Mature love understands that partners can't always have the same interests. Mature love can even accept that what one person finds exciting, the other may find to be boring. As long as partners don't interfere with the other's interests, mature love accepts and supports those differences.

Mature love accepts the partner as he or she is

Romantic love has a predefined notion of how the partner should be and then tries to create the partner into that ideal when the partner falls short of “prince” or “princess charming.” So many relationships fail because one person believes the other is a “work in progress” and with enough encouragement, coaxing, or criticism, the other will become the perfect partner. “I thought he would quit drinking when he got married” or “She should take better care of her health and exercise more.”

Mature love recognizes the contract of the relationship which is “This is who I was when you fell in love with me. I never promised to be anyone else. Who I am should be good enough.” Mature love doesn't put demands or expectations upon the other person to change. Instead, it accepts the person as is while supporting changes the other chooses to make.

Mature love isn't easy

Romantic love believes that when you meet your “soul mate” you live “happily ever after.” The expectation is that with the right person, there are never any problems because you are always fully in agreement and always supportive of one another.

My husband frequently tells others when marriage is discussed “A good marriage takes work. And I'm here to tell you—it takes lots of work!” Mature love is willing to put in the necessary work. As a result, it reaps the rewards.

Rule 5. Learn to Tolerate Uncomfortable Emotions.

When people can't tolerate certain uncomfortable emotions such as being alone or feeling left out they often make the situation to be more than it is. For instance, your partner is traveling for work and you feel alone. If you can tolerate the feeling of being lonely, then you don't attribute any thing more to it. However, if you can't tolerate the loneliness, you may develop a scenario to go along with the feeling: “S/he doesn't really care about my feelings. If s/he did, then s/he'd call more or not take as many traveling assignments.”

Such a feeling may be even more intolerable when you view the other person's behavior as an unnecessary choice. For example, your spouse has a hobby that requires extended periods of time away from you. When you are sensitive to rejection you may believe your spouse is choosing the hobby over you whereas someone without rejection sensitivity may see the hobby as an important part of their spouse's well-being and happiness.

Develop comfort with not having reassurance or proof of love. Some things we can't know with certainty and need to take the other person's word for it. The problem is you can't “prove” love. You can only prove the absence of love. You can't “prove” acceptance. You can only prove rejection. So when you start to look for signs of rejection because you are seeking certainty or proof of acceptance, you are likely to find the opposite. Developing a mindful attitude can help you mindfully tolerate uncomfortable emotions.

Rule 6. Learn to Validate Yourself.

When you rely on the external validation or approval of others, you are at their mercy. Even if people do think highly of you, it doesn't mean they always show it. Sometimes they don't think of expressing positive opinions or reactions. Other times they may have stressors in their own lives. So when you need others to validate you, you are at the mercy of their moods, stressors, memory, etc.

Instead, developing a positive internal sense of self allows you to be less reliant on others to feel content with yourself. The following methods can help you develop internal validation:

Discover what makes you happy

Don't expect others to make you happy. The more you discover your passions, talents, and interests, the less dependent upon others you become for your happiness. Don't just go along with what you think will obtain the approval of others. Instead, do things that make you feel good about yourself.

Recognize that your relationships are not the key to happiness. Instead, the opposite is true. The happier you are, the better your relationships with others will be. By discovering your happiness, you won't be dependent upon the approval of your partner or close friends to feel good about yourself.

Give yourself credit

Provide yourself with internal rewards: praise, credit, feeling good about your accomplishments. Don't be humble with your internal self-talk. Recognize your positive qualities and relish them. Recognize specifically what you do well.

Also, draw your partner's attention to your success rather than waiting for your partner to notice. You don't have to achieve great things to focus attention on your success. I always wondered why my husband would so proudly announce the minute details of his day, “I did the dishes today!” My reaction was “So?” until he explained that he felt good about accomplishing the task. Focusing in a positive way on the smaller details of your life increases the motivation to complete larger tasks.

Reinforce praise from others

Don't dismiss praise from others. By focusing on the accolades you receive from others, you can build up your internal validation by using the information obtained from them. When people do give you validation, take that external validation and transform it into internal validation . Remind yourself, “That's true. I am good at that” or “That is a nice quality I have.”

Provide specific feedback to yourself

When you recognize an area of yourself in need of improvement, be clear and nonjudgmental in providing feedback to yourself. Focus on the steps you can take to make the necessary changes. In this way, by recognizing your ability to change rather than criticizing an aspect of yourself, you validate your ability to improve.

Rule 7. Be Reasonable in Obtaining Support

Your partner or close friend can't meet all your needs. That is an unreasonable expectation. In addition to your partner's support, you can obtain support and encouragement from others. Having a friend to talk with, a minister or therapist to guide you, and family members to laugh with places less demand on your partner.

Also, when you do turn to your partner for support, recognize what is a reasonable expectation. For instance, a young couple had a miscarriage but the wife believed her husband didn't care about her or the lost child because he wasn't openly grieving as she was. In this case, she most likely needed emotional support from her husband during this time of sorrow, but saw his lack of emotion as rejection of her way of grieving. However, he thought the best way he could support her was to let her feel her emotions without burdening her with his grief. When you need support, recognize what you need and clearly communicate with your friend or partner about your need.

Identify your need for support

You are most likely to obtain the support you require if you can clearly identify what you need. So often people have expectations of others that are vaguely defined but they feel ignored and rejected when those expectations aren't met.

Ask yourself what is it that you want. Be specific in what this looks like. For instance, many times I've had women tell me “I want my husband to show me that he loves me” but then they don't have a specific idea of how he could do this: “Well, I'd know it when I see it” or “It needs to be his idea to be meaningful.” These are unreasonable expectations—if she doesn't know exactly what she wants, how can her husband know?

Make a specific request of your partner

1) Clear and specific. Once you have a specific idea of what you need, make a request of your partner. For instance, a specific way that a partner might show love is to give a hug. If you determine that you need to be hugged more, ask your partner to give you a hug.

2) Present moment. It is best to focus on what you need in the present moment rather than telling your partner generally what you need in the future. Instead of “I need you to hug me more” say “Give me a hug.” The reason for this is because we can easily be forgetful about changes to be made in the future. The rejection sensitive person takes forgetfulness as rejection “I told him I need him to hug me more and he didn't do it!”

3) Reasonable. Make your request reasonable. Often, this requires a discussion with your partner, not just your belief in what your partner should do.

Determine other ways to obtain support

Your partner cannot meet all your needs. Sometimes your needs come into conflict and to meet one person's needs means the other's must go unmet. Therefore, it is important to have other sources for support. Instead of viewing your partner as rejecting of your needs when your partner can't meet your needs, recognize it is not rejection when one person can't meet all the needs of another person.


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