Romantic rejections don’t just seem excruciating, they actually are. In a proof-of-concept study, participants who had recently gone through a painful breakup lay in fMRI machines (a brain scan that takes images while the person does a specific task) and were instructed to think about the breakup while looking at photographs of the person who broke their heart. What the researchers found was amazing: The exact same pathways became activated in their brains as become activated when people experience physical pain.
What makes heartbreak even worse is that the pain it elicits goes on for much longer than pain typically associated with physical injuries. When you break your leg, it hurts terribly in the moment but minutes or hours later when your bones are set, the pain goes down to a dull throb. But the emotional pain caused by heartache lasts days, weeks, or even months.
One of the main reasons it takes so long to recover from heartbreaks is people usually indulge in thoughts and behaviors that might feel natural and compelling but actually make things worse. This happens not because we’re all masochists but because we lack the awareness that our "natural" way of responding to emotional wounds of all kinds (such as rejection, failure, or loneliness) often makes the injury worse—in other words, our basic "emotional hygiene" tends to be very poor. (See 5 Steps to Better Emotional Hygiene.)
If you want to stop hurting sooner rather than later, here are 7 mistakes to avoid:
1. Negative self-talk. One of the most common things people do after getting rejected is to be hard on themselves. You might find yourself listing all your shortcomings, faults, and inadequacies; calling yourself names; chastising yourself in other ways; or recalling other rejections or failures from your past. Remember that your ego and self-esteem are already hurting—don’t make it worse. Using negative self-talk after a painful rejection is akin to breaking your leg and then deciding to hit it with a hammer. Be as compassionate toward yourself as you would be to a friend whose heart had just been broken.
2. Brooding about your mistakes. Maybe you made mistakes in the relationship, and perhaps you need to learn from them, but most people can figure out what those were rather quickly. Tempting as it is to brood and ruminate about them and go over them repeatedly—don’t. Once you’ve identified what your mistakes might have been, going over them again and again will only make you feel worse and delay your emotional recovery.
3. Idealizing the person who dumped you. One of the tasks of getting over someone is to take them off the pedestal and de-idealize both them and the relationship. If the person broke your heart, either they and/or the relationship simply were not as amazing as you thought. Therefore, you have to change your perceptions of who the person was to realistically include the various flaws and character defects they displayed during the breakup process. Romanticizing the person even further and dwelling on the good times will only make it harder and more painful to deal with the reality of the breakup.
4. Avoiding new romantic opportunities. Of course you shouldn’t throw yourself into dating when your heart is still freshly broken but you should also be proportionate in how long you give yourself to "grieve" and "get over" someone. If you only dated for two months it is neither necessary nor wise to take six months off from dating anyone else. Give yourself a reasonable deadline and then get "back in the game" once that amount of time has passed.
5. Taking a break from activities you enjoy. Naturally you might not feel like doing the things you used to enjoy when your heart is still aching, but here, too, you should set a deadline for a reasonable amount of "mourning" time, and then reengage in those things even if you don’t really feel like it. Avoiding such activities deprives you of important distractions and squelches important aspects of who you are as a person. On the other hand, engaging in activities you used to enjoy, even if you can’t fully enjoy them yet, will help reconnect you to your core self and the person you were before the breakup.
6. Withdrawing from those who love and value you. The instinct to withdraw can be powerful after a breakup, but it should only be indulged for a limited amount of time. By avoiding the people who love and value you, you are depriving yourself of their caring, love, and concern, which are important for your self-esteem and recovery. Even if you don’t feel fully up to it, connect with people who care about you. Feel free to ask them to avoid discussing the breakup if you prefer not to talk about it.
7. Keeping painful reminders around you. It’s tempting to keep reminders of the person or relationship around you—photographs, mementos, social-media messages, gifts—remember that such items are also a vivid and constant reminder of the relationship and as such can also be very painful. While it might not be necessary to purge every reminder of the person, give thought to whether having such items around is preventing you from moving on, and to the extent to which it might be best to remove them from view.
For an in-depth look at how to recover from rejection and revive your self-esteem check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).
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Copyright 2015 Guy Winch
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