Coping With Breakup Loneliness
My heart is crying. I feel so alone. The pain of rejection is almost unendurable. I can’t eat. Can’t sleep. I walk around in a trauma fog, like a lost puppy in distress … when will the pain end.
Studies reveal that romantic rejections can start in high school with early dating when someone rejects your attention; then gradually decline during the college-age years and plateau in our early twenties and young adulthood. However, unlike social rejections, the survey revealed that romantic rejections return, and with a vengeance, later in life, a resurgence related to one specific life event—the breakup. Divorced men and women both reported a surge in romantic rejections after separating from their partners. This is not surprising. What is surprising was that the emotional magnitude of these midlife rejections actually rivaled the severity of romantic rejections people experienced in high school.
Some people might assume that as we mature, we are better equipped, emotionally and psychologically, to manage the emotional pain of rejections and keep it in perspective. Yet the nature of rejection is such that it hurts at pretty much any age. And hurts just as badly whether couples divorced or
live-in partners split up.
The pain is real because our emotions are fragile; our love goes deep, and the severing of love is a tragic loss.
I’ve run across an article in Psychology Today, December 16, 2010, that explains why the hurt is so devastating. So if you want to dig into what’s happening to you deep inside read along:
Why Does Rejection Hurt Us So Badly?
The honest truth is that rejection sucks. Rejection hurts now and will in the future. (Good on you rejection for at least being consistent.)
The purpose of this article is to build our awareness about why rejection hurts so badly, and why even after years of exposure we are not immune to its pernicious effects. In this article we examine rejection psychologically and evolutionarily, to discover what is happening to us neurologically when we feel rejected and why anthropologically speaking, we are hardwired to fear rejection.
Rejection comes from Latin, meaning thrown back. When we are rejected, we feel not only halted but pushed back in the opposite direction of which we were headed. Now consider this, when rejected, how do we describe the event? We tend to say, “I was rejected.” Notice what is going on here. We are using passive voice. This indicates how we feel about the part we play in rejection. We view ourselves as passive, as being the victim of an action, as inactive, as nonparticipative.
Rejection Is Physiologically Heart-Breaking
Do you remember when I made you slap your face? Let’s return to that moment to continue the discussion of what it feels like to be rejected. Okay, you have just received the swift blow of rejection knocking you off guard and what happens? First, you are stunned, disoriented from the blow. You feel weak and helpless. Your body begins to shut down, as you lay there paralyzed from the injury. You might think that I am being overly dramatic, but this is what happens biologically when your body responds to rejection.
Scientists from the University of Amsterdam found that unexpected social rejection is associated with a significant response of the parasympathetic nervous system. Let’s take a quick time-out to discuss just what the heck is the parasympathetic nervous system. When the body is active, generally in fight or flight mode, the sympathetic system engages, heart rate quickens, pupils dilate, energy is directed towards allowing the body to react quickly. However, the parasympathetic system is responsible for when the body is at rest.
Remember how we discussed speaking of rejection in passive voice: “I was rejected”? Well, studies have found that after rejection not only do we think passively, but also we act passively. When faced with unexpected social rejection, research has found that “feeling that you are not liked” results in our heart rate actually slowing down, an activity of the parasympathetic nervous system. Thus, feeling rejected results in you reacting both psychologically and physically. It is interesting to mention that in this study participants’ heart rates fell not only when they heard a person’s unfavorable opinion of them but also in anticipation of hearing a person’s opinion. If told that the person’s opinion of him or her was unfavorable, the individual’s heart rate plummeted even further and took longer to return to baseline. Additionally, heart rates slowed even more when individuals expected a positive opinion but received a negative one. This explains how rejection, especially the kind that blindsides you, literally feels heartbreaking.
We Are Hard-Wired to Fear Rejection
As human beings, we are extremely sensitive to rejection, especially forms of social rejection. We have a strong motivation to seek approval and acceptance. If we take an anthropological perspective, we can see how back in the day-I’m talking about back in the 10,000 BC day-you knew that if you were on your own, your chance of survival was nil. You needed your tribe for food, shelter, and protection. Being rejected from others meant imminent death. Evolutionarily speaking, we are hardwired to form social relationships and strongly motivated to feel liked and feel like we belong.
Neurologically speaking, rejection sucks! And, arguably the worst type of rejection is romantic rejection. Getting over a breakup is like getting over an addiction to cocaine. Oh, that isn’t just my personal viewpoint; it is also the opinion and the scientific finding of researchers at Stony Brook University. The researchers found that the area of the brain that is active during the pain and anguish experienced during a breakup is the same part of the brain associated with motivation, reward, and addiction cravings. Brain imaging shows similarities between romantic rejection and cocaine craving.
Rejection hurts so acutely because we get addicted to the relationship, only to have it taken away from us. And after, just like a drug addiction, we go through withdrawal.
We Aren’t That Good at Dealing With Loss
In general, humans aren’t good at dealing with loss. We tend to view loss as much more significant than gain. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman received the Nobel Prize for his work in Prospect Theory. Prospect Theory describes how people make choices in situations where they have to decide between alternatives that involve risk. The model discusses how people realistically decide rather than evidencing how one should make the most optimal decision. Using empirical evidence as the base, the theory describes how individuals evaluate potential losses and gains.
Individuals view the pain of losing $50 as much stronger than the joy of receiving $50. Thus, we tend to be loss averse and will be motivated to avoid risks that involve losing rather than take risks involved in the potential for gains.
Now that we can give the scientific explanation of why rejection sucks and can sound smarter at cocktail parties, let us move on to explore how rejection impairs us not only in the moment but also in the long-term.
After Rejection We Stop Trying and Taking Risks
Sadly there is no surgeon general warning that comes with rejection. So, we must conduct our own exploration into the major effects of rejection that are most inimical to our psychological and physical health. First, we see that rejection can lead to the reduction of hope and the reluctance to take risks.
Psychological studies have proven this outcome. This phenomenon is known in the scientific community as learned helplessness. Psychologist Martin Seligman and Steve Maier discovered during a series of experiments that dogs who had previously “learned” that nothing they did had any effect on preventing shocks when placed in a new situation, where they could have easily escaped the shock, simply lay down passively and whined. Learned helplessness refers to the condition in which animals or human beings learn to behave helplessly, viewing their actions as producing no effective result even when attempting to avoid an unpleasant or harmful situation.
After facing rejection, individuals often feel as if their actions fail to produce any desired effect. As a result, individuals can lose hope that the situation can be improved at all. And, just as the dogs in the experiment, what do we tend to do after a strong blow of rejection? We lie down passively and whine. We complain about how we were wronged saying that the world hates us and that the outcome is completely unfair. But, do we try and take action? No. Rather, we stay in that fetal position and continue to sing our song of sorrows and think why try if there is no point.
We are such diligent students of learned helplessness that we can even learn vicariously. By observing others encountering uncontrollable events, we too can become helpless and passive. Rejection is so strong that even the mere presence of it around us makes as run home to our mommies, worried that if he just beat up Timmy, who knows what he will do when he gets a hold of us. The result: we give up on our goals because we are so preoccupied with failing.
If We Think We Will Fail We Try Less
In fact, studies show that our belief in whether we will succeed or fail influences how much effort we put into our actions. Neuroscientists at the California Institute of Technology studied brain activity in the posterior parietal cortex (PPC), the part of the brain where sensory stimuli are transformed into movement plans. In the study, subjects performed a complex task and then reported how they perceived they performed. Fascinatingly, subjects perceived performance did not correlate with actual performance. Some individuals rated performing well while actually performing poorly and vice versa.
The researchers discovered that brain activity in the PPC related directly to how individuals thought they performed rather than how they actually performed, as well as how much money they would gain or lose from the experiment. This means that the level of effort, how hard an individual tries, depends on if the individual thinks he or she will fail or succeed. It is interesting to note that when we plan for future actions, how we think we will do influences our plans. But remember, in this study how people perceived they were performing was not even correlated with actual performance. This means we are influenced by our subjective, inaccurate perceptions of how well we are doing. If we think we will succeed, we will try harder and put in more effort. When we think we will perform poorly, we obsess over trying to avoid failure and produce more brain activity when there exists a higher price for failure. We begin to focus our energy on avoiding rejection versus attempting to succeed. The more we focus on avoiding failure, the more we worry about failure, and the less effort we place in working towards our goals.
The More We Fail the More the Goal Seems Insurmountable
Studies have indicated that as the frequency of rejection increases, the more insurmountable our goal appears to be. Psychologist Jessica Witt at Purdue University found that after a series of missed field goal kicks, players perceived the field post to be taller and narrower than before. However, after a series of successful kicks, athletes reported the post to appear larger than before.
It is easy to witness the power of rejection. The more we encounter rejection, the more we view our efforts as pointless, the less we try, and the farther away our goal seems.
Making a Big Deal Even Bigger: Catastrophizing
We sit there licking our wounds, gazing at the formidable world around us. Since the last blow of rejection left us dizzy, our vision of reality grows distorted. Case in point, has this ever happened to you? You didn’t get a call back for that job interview. You start thinking about how if this company didn’t call you back, then why would you expect to receive a call back from the other companies. You begin to question if you will ever find a job. You start thinking about your spouse and children and worry about how you can provide for them if you remain unemployed. You then wonder if your spouse will even stay with you if you are just dead weight providing no support for the family. You can see how it is only a matter of time until your spouse takes the kids and jump in the minivan and drive away leaving you alone with the mortgage and the debt collectors. You realize you won’t be able to afford your house or rent and will end up on the streets living in a cardboard box that smells of urine.
This is what is known as catastrophizing. Catastrophizing is actually a serious problem prone to many individuals dealing with rejection. In an interesting study, Christopher Peterson and colleagues analyzed questionnaires from the Terman Life-Cycle Study and found that catastrophizing predicted mortality and accidental or violent death especially well. Let’s take a second to think about what this study reveals. Individuals who catastrophize and who tend to irrationally fear bad events, consequences, even death, are more likely to die from accidents or violent death. This is shocking, yet it makes sense. Take the mundane example of trying to make a free throw in a basketball game. If you are so worried about missing, you most likely are going to miss the shot. As we have learned, we tend to direct our efforts towards worrying about failing rather than directing it towards trying to succeed. We know from personal experience that when we think negative thoughts, we tend to end up in negative situations. But it is important to remember that these are not just negative situations, we are talking about risk factors of mortality.
It Makes a Difference Just Knowing You Have Control Over the Situation
Remember the learned helplessness dog experiments? Well, a similar experiment was conducted on people. Individuals were presented with a highly distracting noise while performing a mental task. Researchers found that participants who had access to a switch to turn off the noise had improved performance (as one would expect); however, here is the unexpected part: those participants rarely bothered to use the switch. The mere fact that they were presented with the option to control their situation was enough to significantly counteract the distracting effects. Thus, we must remember that when faced with rejection, knowing that we can act (even if we don’t even choose to act) is enough to help prevent the onset of depression from rejection.
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NOW WE KNOW WHY WE FEEL LONELY, HOW TO COPE?
Allow yourself to FEEL the PAIN. A Few Tips from Becky Potter
At the point, you feel exposed, empty and vulnerable. Allow those emotions to sink in. It WILL hurt. You WILL suffer. But you have to experience these undeniable feelings in order to move on. If you try to mask those feelings with say, alcohol or meaningless sex encounters, it only leaves the pain to fester for longer than need be.
During the time after my breakup, I experienced deep feelings of unshakable loneliness. And I still suffer from these feelings from time to time.
I started to understand that I needed to accept my loneliness as a true emotion. It would not just softly fade away, no matter how hard I tried to numb my feelings or look for distractions.
As you experience your emotions, you start to feel lighter. Give them the time and space they need to be fully expressed. Write down your thoughts. Talk about them with someone. Acknowledge that they do exist and that what you are feeling is very real to you.
Trust that the pain does eventually lose its intensity, making room for you to experience a sense of calmness and clarity amidst the difficulties.
Listen to your own advice.
I have indulged in my fair share of self-help books over the years, ranging from detailed accounts on depression, self-esteem issues, and more recently, tips and tricks on beating loneliness.
These stories may offer a few moments of fleeting comfort as you flick through the pages. But they are not able to take the sting out of the raw emotions that you experience first-hand, such as during those times when you are sitting alone, feeling fed up and isolated from the world around you.
Therefore, I have learned to take only the advice that works best for my own mind, body, and spirit, and leave the rest for someone else.
Maybe you are someone like me who prefers to stay at home, enjoying a book, watching a film, or having a bath rather than getting “out there,” meeting people, and forging new relationships.
Sometimes you just need to give yourself a break, making space during those times when you need to rest and restore. Go at your own pace. Understand that you are your own best teacher. And only you will know when it feels right to take the brave step out of your comfort zone into the unknown.
Realize there is nothing to fix.
We know the world is a busy place, crammed full of busy people with busy lives.
But that doesn’t mean we need to rush around trying to mend everything that is seemingly wrong with us all of the time.
While learning to stay with uneasy emotions, I realized that I didn’t need to find a speedy resolution for the difficult feelings. It’s okay to feel lonely; it’s just one of our many human emotions.
In fact, it was a relief. There was no need to force me to search in all the wrong places for the solution anymore. I am certainly not the only single person in the world. Why did I feel that I needed to fix this aspect of my life so soon? It wasn’t even broken.
Try and enjoy the freedom that comes from being detached. Appreciate the opportunity to gain introspection on yourself. You may even discover new interests or familiarize yourself with old forgotten hobbies now that your life has shifted focus.
Accept how it is.
Accepting that there is nothing wrong with how I am feeling gave me the grace to relax. There is no problem right now; therefore, there is nothing I urgently need to attend to.
I know that eventually, life will change again; it always does.
How I am feeling now may not be a true reflection of how I feel in a few weeks, months, or years’ time. And I trust that I will stumble across whatever it is I am looking for at some point again in the future.
Right now, though, I am experiencing my life as it is, complete with its bundle of thought-provoking emotions that come as part of the package.
I have learned to accept that this is just another passing chapter in my story, purposely placed here to keep life interesting and meaningful.
It may not be a highlight, but it is still part of my life. And I can live with that.
Now, moving forward, how can we learn to love again?
The workbook: How to Date to Marry Part III on Marital Harmonics gives sage advice on how marriages/relationships work best to prevent future rejections.
Remember, you can always call me for support.https://howtodatetomarry.com/call-me