Experiencing and Managing rejection
A vicious cycle: rejection, avoidance, and perceived lack of experience
Because our society is set up according to the needs and patterns of communicating that best serve neurotypical people, many autistic people experience social anxiety and have negative social experiences, including rejection and bullying, from a very young age.
Many (but not all) SAAIL participants shared feeling misunderstood, rejected, or even bullied by peers at school, leading them to experience social anxiety which also impacted on their early sexual or romantic experiences. Some participants spoke of instances from when they were younger where they had tried to speak to someone they had a crush on or had tried to make a romantic advance, however they felt as though it had gone badly or they had been rejected or treated badly.
As a result of these negative experiences, some autistic people said that as teenagers or young adults, they found it easier to just avoid flirting and dating altogether, as these were unpredictable situations and could easily lead to awkwardness, anxiety, rejection, or being treated badly. While they were avoiding these encounters, their peers were having their early romantic and sexual experiences, experimenting, learning and making mistakes, while autistic people felt that they lost the opportunity of these early experiences.
Some autistic people said that they then found themselves as young adults, perhaps at university, having had little or no sexual experience, while (in their minds) their peers were gaining lots of sexual experience. In turn, they felt shame about not having enough sexual experience compared to others their age. This led to them again avoiding dating, flirting, and hooking up for fear that when it came to having sex, that person would realise they did not have any experience and they would be humiliated or rejected.
For some, this became a perpetual cycle of avoidance and anxiety around lack of sexual experience and fear of rejection, leading to them feeling isolated, as though it was “too late” for them to get into a relationship, and as though they had missed the opportunity altogether. Below are some examples of how avoidance and lack of experience played out:
"It had been 9 years since my teenage girlfriend who had left me in my early 20s. So I’d really gotten through all of my 20s without any more relationships. Erm, so rather than sort of gaining experience and confidence, I’d felt more and more ashamed, and more and more like even if someone did find me attractive it would be such a disappointment for them because of such a lack of experience, if we did ever have sex that erm… I just couldn’t really see a way forward, you know… and I was, you know, depressed quite often as well and had a lot of kind of general social anxiety. So I sort of felt around the end of my 20s like I just don’t understand how I can hope to meet someone else. So this was actually quite, you know, painful really. Because, you know, my body and soul wanted these kinds of relationships so much." (Fred: male, 38, heterosexual, mixed race)
“I haven’t really seen any opportunities where I could even ask anyone out on a date. I also anticipate being rejected a lot if I tried, which also makes me wonder if it’s worth investing time and energy into attempting to date." (GammaRay_he_him: 47, male, heterosexual, white)
"[If I were to meet someone in a bar] they probably are looking for someone who is good at whatever kind of sex people have in casual hookups and I’m unlikely to be and don’t have that experience to draw on. So it would probably be humiliating." (Anon38, male, 28, heterosexual)
Lack of experience
Many participants felt that a lack of experience compared to their peers was one of the biggest barriers they faced. Many participants said they would like support in this area:
“A barrier is a lack of experience relative to my peers." (Neo, 32, female, Queer, white)
“How to deal with the reality of likely being far less sexually experienced than any potential partners, and what knowledge would help compensate for the mismatch in experiential knowledge. There seems to be an attitude, probably quite understandable, that people my age wouldn’t want to have to teach their new partner how to have sex as if he’s a bumbling virgin teen. So what can that person learn/practice in order to take that burden off their more experienced partner?” (Anon38, male, 28, heterosexual)
“On a personal level I feel that I would benefit from knowing that I am not alone and there are other autistic people that are also in their 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond that have limited experience with intimate relationships, still struggle to truly understand their sexuality, and find it difficult to access the language to express things such as desire. Just hearing that I’m not the only one in this situation would be helpful.” (Swimboy, 46, trans male, grey ace, mixed race)
“There must be Autistic sex therapists and counsellors out there who could run programmes for all ages but in particular help out people who are diagnosed late with that awful feeling that they missed out on a helluva lot of fun and games in previous decades.” (NedNerd, 54, questioning, heterosexual, white)
Tips and considerations
It is important to find ways to break this cycle of fear of avoidance if possible:
Some autistic people have found that paid sexual encounters with an experienced professional sex worker is a valuable way to gain the sexual experience they needed, but in a non-judgmental environment where the person could support their sexual exploration. Experienced and vetted professionals can be accessed via The TLC Trust website, many of whom support neurodiverse people.
It is best not to assume that everyone values sexual experience over other qualities in a partner. Some people would be willing to take a sexual relationship slowly and be part of your sexual exploration process. But this would mean being upfront with the potential partner that you do not have much experience and asking them how they feel about this.
Remember, you are not the only one who feels this way. There are many people out there, autistic and non-autistic, who feel insecure about their level of sexual experience or other aspects related to having sex. If you avoid all intimate situations you will miss out on meeting potential intimate partners who may be in a similar situation to you, or may need patience or support in another area.
“The one” thinking
The idea that somewhere out there “the one” exists – the one person in the world who was made for you or is right for you – is a myth. This kind of thinking can make rejection feel even more painful.
Some of our participants described experiencing this kind of “the one” thinking, where they met someone they felt a connection to and felt as though that person was the only person who would be suitable for them or who would ever love them. Some participants explained that because they were so often misunderstood by others, and had had so many negative experiences, when they found someone who understood them, who they clicked with, and felt attracted to, it really felt like their only chance at a relationship.
Therefore, having a disappointment or rejection from someone deemed to be “the one” was experienced as a disastrous and traumatic event for them. Other participants spoke about becoming very focused on the person they liked, paying attention to every aspect of that person, also then adding to the feeling of the person being “the one”:
"I am now in a long term heterosexual relationship, but sexuality, particularly the lack of sexual experiences (and lack of prospect of being able to do so in the future), has been an intensely painful experience for many years at the start of my adulthood. At the time, it seemed as though I had found ‘the one’, she wasn’t interested, and if I couldn’t establish a relationship with this woman, who seemed to understand me really well, I seemed I wouldn’t ever be able to do so. This was the main cause leaving my degree course, and caused severe depression. I think I still have PTSD as a result of it, as it was so intense and so long lasting." (aut_amo, male, 37, heterosexual, white)
“I was thinking, well, I’ve got to do whatever it takes, Because erm… if I can’t sort of find someone at this time of my life and particularly that person who I considered to be sort of I mean, I couldn’t imagine sort of anyone understanding me better.” (John, male, 37, heterosexual, white)
The myth about “the one”, that there is one person in the whole world who is right for you, is both unrealistic and based on normative understandings of relationships.
This myth causes anxiety when forming relationships. As a result, you may place a lot of expectations and hopes on one person, but in reality, it is better to approach it as though you could come across multiple potentially suitable partners across your lifetime.
It is easier to form relationships when your own expectations or mental images about the potential partner are not too limiting. Then you can meet people more freely and explore, whether they would match you or not.
What is "rejection sensitivity"?
Nobody likes rejection - whether it comes from a friend, family member, partner, or love interest. However, some people can’t shake off rejection easily when it happens and it can trigger an overwhelming emotional response. Some of our participants spoke about having strong responses to rejection, and some mentioned the term Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria (RSD), though we think this term can be pathologising.
Some people experience a severe response to rejection, and strong emotional pain and distress when rejected. Some people also experience a strong fear or an anticipation of being rejected, which can lead to the avoidance behaviours we know some of our participants spoke about.
This is a defence mechanism and it’s there for a reason: it triggers quick defensive responses when people are in situations they perceive as socially threatening and where they feel are likely to be rejected. This helps them to defend themselves against further rejection. But over time this can lead to people responding to rejection in ways that make them feel worse, they can experience extreme distress, become socially withdrawn or avoidant, they may go to great lengths to ingratiate or please others at their own responses, or respond in hostile ways towards others when they feel rejected.
Someone who is sensitive to rejection might interpret a situation, such as a new partner not replying to a text message immediately, as a sure sign of rejection even when there might be another explanation.
Autism and sensitivity to rejection?
People who have had multiple previous experiences with rejection (e.g., childhood bullying, rejection by peers) are more likely to develop expectations of rejection, which could lead to rejection sensitivity. We know that autistic people, especially in adolescence, are more likely to be socially excluded or rejected by their peers and are more likely to experience victimization and bullying. It therefore makes sense that some autistic people might develop sensitivity to rejection, because we know that autistic people experience more rejection and have more negative social and romantic experiences than their non-autistic peers. This is largely because our society favours neurotypical patterns of communicating and it rejects those who do not conform to these norms and because of lack of public understanding of autism.
We know that autistic people tend to hone their focus and thoughts and attention more narrowly to certain areas that interest or are important to them (see: montropism). This can extend to particular people too. While this can enable people to become experts on topics or excel in the areas they focus on, it does mean that sometimes they can focus their attention on one person, or ruminate or continuously worry about a social interaction they felt went badly rather than move on quickly. Not only autistic or neurodiverse people do this, but this did cause a lot of pain and anxiety for some of our participants.
Quite a few of our participants spoke about rejection as a traumatic event;
“Most of the autistic people I know act like I’m crazy when I talk about the trauma I have from romantic rejection” (RandomVirus: male, 25, gay, white)
"I think I still have PTSD as a result of it, as it was so intense and so long lasting! "(aut_amo, male, 37, heterosexual, white)
Signs that you are sensitive to rejection
You are very aware and anxious about the possibility of rejection.
Experiencing rejection as extremely painful and traumatic.
Overly high standards for yourself.
Feeling easily triggered toward guilt or shame.
Isolating yourself or avoiding flirting or dating as not to be rejected.
Displaying strong feelings and sometimes anger or aggressive behaviour toward those who you believe have rejected you.
Frequently feeling an uncomfortable physical reaction due to being misunderstood.
Self-esteem that is entirely dependent on what others think and which rises and falls.
Frequent and intense ruminating after a social interaction (replaying situation over and over in your head).
Feeling like a failure because you haven't lived up to other people's expectations.
Coping with rejection
Just knowing and understanding that rejection sensitivity is real, and letting people around you know that you are sensitive to rejection, usually because of many negative past experiences, can be very helpful.
Remember that rejection sensitivity is likely at least partly the result of living in a society that has not been supportive or your needs over a sustained period of time and because of past negative experiences and traumas. It is not your fault, it is a defence mechanism to help you cope.
It is helpful to remember that not everyone experiences all rejection as such painful or traumatic events, so they might struggle to understand your strong reaction or feelings. You might need to explain it to them and help them understand.
Try not to ruminate or reflect for too long on what you could do differently in a situation like a date that went badly. If someone is not interested, accept what they have said and do not think about how you could change the other person’s mind.
Remember, you have the right to feel sad and to seek help if the grief feels overwhelming.
Although rejection may feel devastating and unbearable in the moment, the situation gets easier with time.
Instead of thinking about what you might have done wrong, practise being kind to yourself, reflect on moments where you felt loved or appreciated. When you find yourself ruminating over something negative, try to direct your focus to an activity, hobby, or something you feel proud of.
If you have been rejected by someone you really like, try to avoid “the one" thinking and challenge this thought pattern.
At SAAIL, we do not think that rejection sensitivity is a disorder. We think having a strong response to rejection is the result of repeated experiences of rejection, to resultant feelings of shame, and to the hostile environment that our neurotypical society produces for many autistic people.
Understanding that some people have stronger responses to rejection than others can help remind you to be more careful with others' feelings. It can also help you to understand why you yourself might be so triggered by rejection.
Tips for managing rejection from our participants
NedNerd, 54, questioning, heterosexual, white
“I realise that I looked to professional help precisely when I wanted help in relationships or after a rejection…There was a single session after someone had broken up with me. The therapy had to focus on my self-worth around relationships because it was the single theme I’d brought to focus on. The result was that the therapists encouraged me to see the relationship ending as not final or damning: I would have other lovers in future (they were right fortunately)."
Jay: 25, trans-masculine, bisexual, mixed race
“It (a positive intimate relationship) certainly helped me feel a little bit more secure in life, because, I’ve had this particular safety here and it has made me feel a little bit better about other uhm, other relationships in my life…it’s reduced some of that paranoia, some of that hypervigilance, because I’ve seen it done well and I’ve seen it done in a way that feels safe. So, it’s allowed me sort of be like, one of my other friend is not talking to me, rather than being like, "oh, I wonder if I’ve done something to upset them", think that OK, well maybe they’re busy with their uni course work, or maybe they’re just completely burnt out, or maybe they’re struggling with their mental health, or maybe, I don’t know, they’ve just – like there’s so many different things that have nothing to do with me, that could be meaning why someone’s not communicating with me. And it’s taken me a very long time to get to the point where I can challenge those thoughts. I’m very rejection sensitive, I had therapy about it and, and because of stuff I’m very aware of being rejected and I’ve always been ignored or being, it can make me feel very emotionally low, uhm, so just the idea of challenging your thought loops I get into and having them and having relationships in my life that have allowed me to have evidence, huh, that these are not rational thoughts that I’m having, is so, so important to me.“
Resources we love
The Chronic Couple
Spectrum Life Magazine
Black Girl, Lost Keys
The ADHD Podcast #405