Because our nervous system is wired to need others, rejection is painful. Romantic rejection especially hurts. Feeling lonely and missing connection share the evolutionary purpose of survival and reproduction. Ideally, loneliness should encourage you reach out to others and maintain your relationships.
A UCLA study confirms that sensitivity to emotional pain resides in the same area of the brain as physical pain — they can hurt equally. Our reaction to pain is influenced by genetics, and if we have increased sensitivity to physical pain, we’re more vulnerable to feelings of rejection. Moreover, love stimulates such strong feel-good neurochemicals that rejection can feel like withdrawal from a drug, says anthropologist Helen Fisher. It can compel us to engage in obsessive thinking and compulsive behavior. This proved true even for tsetse flies in lab experiments. (See “Obsessions and Love Addiction.”)
Most people start to feel better 11 weeks following rejection and report a sense of personal growth; similarly after divorce, partners start to feel better after months, not years. However, up to 15 percent of people suffer longer than three months (“It’s Over,” Psychology Today, May-June, 2015). Rejection can feed depression, especially if we’re already even mildly depressed or have suffered depression and other losses in the past. (See “Chronic Depression and Codependency.”)
Factors Affecting Resiliency
Other factors that affect how we feel in the aftermath of a breakup are:
- The duration of the relationship
- Our attachment style
- The degree of intimacy and commitment
- Whether problems were acknowledged and discussed
- Foreseeability of the breakup
- Cultural and family disapproval
- Other current or past losses
If we have an anxious attachment style, we’re prone to obsess, and have negative feelings, and attempt to restore the relationship. If we have a secure, healthy attachment style (unusual for codependents), we’re more resilient and able to self-soothe. (See “How to Change Your Attachment Style.”)
If the relationship lacked true intimacy, pseudo-intimacy may have substituted for a real, binding connection. In some relationships, intimacy is tenuous, because one or both partners is emotionally unavailable. For example, a partner of a narcissist frequently feels unimportant or unloved, yet strives to win love and approval to validate that he or she is. (See Dealing with a Narcissist.) Lack of intimacy can be a warning sign that the relationship is troubled. Read 20 “Signs of Relationship Problems.”
The Effect of Shame and Low Self-Esteem
Rejection can devastate us if our self-worth is low. Our self-esteem affects how personally we interpret our partner’s behavior and how dependent we are upon the relationship for our sense of self and self-esteem. Codependents are more prone to being reactive to signs of disfavor by their partner, and tend to take their words and actions as a comment on themselves and their value. Additionally, many codependents give up personal interests, aspirations, and friends once they’re romantically involved. They adapt to their partner and their life revolves around the relationship. Losing it can make their world crumble if they’re left without hobbies, goals, and a support system. Often the lack self-definition and autonomy beforehand prompted them to seek someone to fill their inner emptiness, which not only can lead to relationship problems, but it resurfaces once they’re alone. (See “Why Break-ups are Hard for Codependents.”)
Internalized shame causes us to blame ourselves or blame our partner. (See “What is Toxic Shame.”) It can foster feelings of failure and unlovability that are hard to shake. We might feel guilty and responsible not only for our own shortcomings and actions, but also the feelings and actions of our partner; i.e., blaming ourselves for our partner’s affair. Toxic shame usually starts in childhood.
Breakups also can trigger grief that more appropriately pertains to early parental abandonment. Many people enter relationships looking for unconditional love, hoping to salve unmet needs and wounds from childhood. We can get caught in a negative “cycle of abandonment” that breeds shame, fear, and abandoning relationships. If we feel unworthy and expect rejection, we’re even liable to provoke it.
Healing our past allows us to live in present time and respond appropriately to others. (Read how shame can kill relationships and how to heal in Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You.)
For optimal results, start making changes in your relationship with yourself and with others; first, with your ex. Experts agree that although it’s difficult and may be more painful in the short run, no contact with your former partner will help you recover sooner.
Avoid calling, texting, asking others about or checking up on your ex in social media. Doing so might give momentary relief, but reinforces obsessive-compulsive behavior and ties to the relationship. (If you’re engaged in divorce proceedings, necessary messages can be written or conveyed through attorneys. They should not be delivered by your children.)
- Meditate with the healing exercises for self-love, self-soothing, and confidence in my YouTube channel.
- Practice the “14 Tips for Letting Go,” available free on my website.
- Prolonged feelings of guilt can limit your enjoyment of life and your ability to find love again. Forgive yourself for mistakes you made in the relationship with the e-workbook Freedom from Guilt and Blame – Finding Self-Forgiveness.
- Write about the benefits of the ending of the relationship. Research has proven this technique to be effective.
- Challenge false beliefs and assumptions, such as “I’m a failure (loser),” “I’ll never meet anyone else,” or “I’m damaged goods (or unlovable).” For a 10-step plan to overcome negative self-talk, read 10 Steps to Self-Esteem.
- Set boundaries with your ex and others. This is especially important if you continue to co-parent. Establish these rules for co-parenting with your ex. If you tend toward accommodation, defensiveness, or aggression, learn to be assertive and set boundaries using the techniques provided in How To Speak Your Mind — Become Assertive and Set Limits.
- If you think you may be codependent or have trouble letting go, attend a few Codependents Anonymous meetings, where you can get information and support for free. Visit www.coda.org. There are also online forums and chats, as well as telephone meetings nationwide, but in-person meetings are preferable. Do the exercises in Codependency for Dummies.
- Although mourning is normal, continued depression is unhealthy for the health of your body and brain. If depression is hindering your work or daily activities, get a medical evaluation for a course of antidepressants lasting at least six months.
You will recover, but your actions play a considerable role in how long it takes, as well as whether you grow and better yourself from your experience. For a free PDF with 15 additional strategies to deal with rejection and break-ups, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©Darlene Lancer 2016
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