Maya* was frustrated, upset, and confused. She had met a guy and gone out on a few dates and thought the relationship was progressing nicely, but then he disappeared. He stopped calling and texting and was not answering her calls; he also blocked her access to his pages on social media sites. “I wouldn’t do that to someone else,” she said. “What’s his story? Why couldn’t he just call and say it isn’t working out?”
Roberta* was worried. Her “sort-of” boyfriend of two months had suddenly stopped returning her calls, texts, and Facebook messages. Was he okay? Had something happened to him? Was he mad at her? Had she done something to upset him? She racked her brain to figure out what had gone wrong, but couldn’t come up with a single explanation.
Han* knew he had been ghosted. But he really liked the woman who had stopped answering his calls and texts and blocked him from her social media. He thought they were really well-matched. Wasn’t there a way he could convince her to give him another chance?
Has this happened to you? Someone you like suddenly seems to stop liking you, and you can’t figure out why. The experience of having someone remove themselves from your life, ending all contact or communication with you without any explanation, is called ghosting. It can happen days, weeks, and even months into a relationship and is so common that in one study half of the men and women questioned said that they had either ghosted or been ghosted. Interestingly, given the popular belief that guys do most of the disappearing, in this study more of the women admitted that they were perpetrators of the behavior.
So what should you do if someone you like — friend, date, potential romantic partner — pulls a disappearing act? Should you reach out and push them to explain, or simply accept the rejection and move on? Should you examine your own behavior, to try to understand what you might have done to create the problem? Do you need to figure out what’s wrong with the person who “ghosted” you?
The first step in deciding how to handle it involves understanding why the loss of a brief connection with another person can take up so much space in your psyche.
Although you may have felt intensely connected to the person who has disappeared, in many instances, it isn’t the loss of the relationship or even of the person that you are upset about. It’s the sudden interruption of your good feelings, the destruction of your hopes and dreams, and your deflated positive feeling about yourself. You thought it was going well. You were fantasizing about a possible future with this person. You thought he or she really liked you. And suddenly the rug was pulled out from under your feet. The relationship ended with a thud, your daydreams were cruelly cut off, and you were left with . . . what?
The immediate reaction to having a good feeling suddenly and inexplicably disrupted by someone else is to feel shame. Add to that natural reaction the feeling of embarrassment at having thought someone was as interested in you as you were in them — or even of just being dumped by someone without warning — and you have one of the reasons that your brain keeps working overtime on this relationship that turns out not to be a relationship.
Shame is one of the first responses of our brain when something or someone interrupts us in the middle of doing something we are enjoying, says Silvan Tomkins, an early student of emotions. And when we feel shame, we have trouble letting go. We want to undo the situation, so that we can go back to feeling good.
Shame is one of the reasons we look for ways to criticize the person who has ghosted us. Viewing them as rude, unkind, immature, or untruthful can relieve your worry that you imagined something more in the relationship, maybe something that wasn’t really there. Telling yourself that the person was a jerk can help you break the connection and repair your self-esteem. So can deciding that that they are afraid of commitment — you didn't misread the signs — and that the relationship was moving forward, but they just weren’t able to handle it.
No matter how you explain it to yourself, though, your psyche is trying to undo the sense of disruption of the good feelings. Shame is a reaction to having a circuit in your emotional system broken, and your next task is to repair the circuit so that you can move on with your life.
Some research has shown that emotional pain and physical pain share a number of neural pathways. Italian neuroscientists Giovanni Novembre, Marco Zanon, and Giorgia Silani have confirmed previous findings that the pain of social rejection and physical pain can activate the same regions of the brain. (For more, see Christopher Bergland’s PT post as well as Kirsten Weir’s post on the American Psychological Association’s website.)
The truth is that you are probably doing some of the work that you need to do already. But just to help you out in the process, here are some specific activities that can help.
1. Acknowledge that it hurts. You might not even care for the ghoster, but you had hope that something might evolve from the relationship; or you were just having fun; or you feel misled; or you feel exposed, either by how you behaved with the person or what you said to your friends afterward. In any of these situations, the rupture of the potential and of your own good feelings may hurt more than the loss of the actual person. That’s okay. It still hurts.
2. Offer yourself some understanding and sympathy. You are feeling a normal, healthy human emotion. That’s good. It means you’re engaged in the world, in relationships, and in your life.
3. Talk about it. Research has shown that putting our thoughts and feelings into words to another person can change our brain patterns, getting us out of difficult ruts and helping us to process painful experiences. As I explain here, this is one of the reasons talk therapy works, but it’s also why talking to friends and family can help us get through difficult times.
4. Take care of your mind and your body. Numerous researchers have shown that doing the basic work of eating well, getting enough sleep, and getting some exercise is important to managing psychic pain. Mind-body practices, like yoga, mindfulness, and meditation, can lower the body’s production of stress hormones, reduce physical and emotional strain, and even alter some of the neural pathways that cause emotional pain. You can read some interesting discussions of the ways that mindfulness affects our emotions and our bodies by clicking here and here.
5. Even if it isn't something you would do, it can help you to move on if you make some room for the possibility that the person who ghosted you thought that he or she was doing the right thing. It may have been cowardly, but I have been told by some people who have ghosted someone else that they believed it was the easiest way to let the other person down. "It's better than some lame excuse that just makes the other person feel bad anyway," said one woman. "The message gets across."
6. Let it go. Whatever happened, you will feel better when you move on. Of course, you can’t do it until you’re ready, and give yourself permission to take care of yourself and move at your own pace, not anyone else’s. But as the old saying goes, the best thing to do when a horse has thrown you is to get back in the saddle as quickly as possible. It’s normal to be worried about being thrown again, but when you’re happily dating someone else, the ghoster will be nothing more than a ghost in your distant memory.
* Names and identifying info changed to protect privacy.
Copyright @fdbarth 2017
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Empathy for social exclusion involves the sensory-discriminative component of pain: a within-subject fMRI study Giovanni Novembre, Marco Zanon, and Giorgia Silani; Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati, Neuroscience Sector, Trieste, Italy SCAN (2015) 10,153-64
Kross, E., Berman, M.G., Mischel, W., Smith, E.E., Wager, T.D. (2011). Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(15), 6270–5.