Objective: People with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) may experience heightened rejection sensitivity (RS), a disposition developing from repeated childhood rejecting experiences. It is not known whether the full RS model accounts for the cognitive-affective experiences common in BPD. This systematic review extends upon previous reviews, firstly by assessing the link between childhood rejecting experiences and adult RS, and secondly by considering the link between BPD and RS in both non-clinical and clinical samples.
Method: Two research questions were devised, and searches based on predetermined criteria were conducted using PsycNET, PubMed, SCOPUS, and Web of Science. Data were extracted by one researcher and 20% was inter-rated, with high levels of agreement. Forty-three papers were systematically reviewed, and 31 included in meta-analysis and meta-regression.
Results: Studies assessing the link between childhood rejection and RS are limited; however, emotional abuse and neglect appears linked with RS. Pooled effect sizes suggest RS is linked with BPD (r = .326), with strong effect sizes when comparing clinical and control samples (r = .655). Qualitative synthesis suggests this may be mediated by executive control, although further research is required. The small number of studies considering the full RS model with regard to BPD suggests the interaction between emotional abuse and neglect affects rejection sensitivity; however, outcomes are inconsistent.
Conclusions: Childhood rejection, particularly emotional abuse and neglect, appears to be linked to rejection sensitivity, and rejection sensitivity is linked to BPD. However, this may not be linear. Implications for clinical practice and research are discussed.
Practitioner points: Rejection sensitivity is consistently linked with BPD, in clinical and non-clinical samples. Supporting mentalization or improved theory of mind may offer a therapeutic target for this disposition. Considering the causes and effects of rejection sensitivity may offer a non-blaming explanation of interpersonal difficulties in BPD and could be utilized as part of formulation and the therapeutic relationship. However, the possible interaction between emotional abuse and neglect and rejection sensitivity suggests rejection sensitivity is not always apparent for people with BPD. Idiosyncratic formulation should consider this. The literature included in the review is limited to Western populations with a high proportion of females, which may limit generalizability. Measures of rejection sensitivity included in the review were restricted to self-report, which may be subject to bias. Furthermore, measures of childhood rejection were retrospective in nature due to the exclusion of child samples. Further research should consider longitudinal and observational study designs.
Keywords: borderline personality disorder; childhood trauma; meta-analysis; rejection; rejection sensitivity.
© 2019 The British Psychological Society.