How to Recover From Rejection and Breakups

Science reveals we're wired to feel pain with rejection.

Posted Jul 07, 2020

Roy Blumenthal, used with permission
Source: Roy Blumenthal, used with permission

Because our nervous system is wired to need others, rejection is painful. Feeling lonely and missing connection share the evolutionary purpose of survival and reproduction. Ideally, loneliness should encourage you to reach out to others and maintain your relationships. Rejection in an intimate relationship especially hurts. It's particularly difficult in the romantic phase of a relationship when we have unmet hopes for the future.

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. If we have increased sensitivity to physical pain, we’re more vulnerable to feelings of rejection. Moreover, love stimulates such strong feel-good neuro-chemicals 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 “Healthy Love vs. 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.

Factors Affecting Resiliency

Other factors that impact 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
  • Self-worth

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.

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, partners of narcissists frequently feel unimportant or unloved, yet strive to win love and approval to validate that they are. Lack of intimacy can be a warning sign that the relationship is troubled. Read “20 Signs of Relationships 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. If we're self-esteem is shakey, we are more prone to being reactive to signs of disfavor by our partner, and tend to take their words and actions as a comment on ourselves and our value.

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 of 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.

Internalized or toxic shame causes us to blame ourselves and/or blame our partner. 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 can also 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 the 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.)

The Stages of Grief

One thing that I see over and over is that people expect themselves to just “move on.” Well-meaning friends and relatives may urge you to, only to make you feel worse. Or they devalue the ex you still love and yearn for, which can make you ashamed of your feelings or that you may still want the relationship. Many victims of abuse still miss their ex. It’s more helpful to honor your feelings and recognize that they’re normal. You may find yourself cycling through these stages of grief:

Denial: can’t believe it’s over, the reason given, or that your ex doesn’t want or love you. Find out if you're in denial.

Anger: anger and resentment toward your ex, and maybe jealous of someone taking your place

Bargaining: trying to get your ex back, even if just in your head

Guiltabout your behavior—can be tied to the shame of feeling not enough

Depression (including sadness)

Acceptance

You might feel angry in the morning and believe you’ve moved on, only to break down in tears by the afternoon. This is normal as you process your emotions. It’s natural to long for your ex more when you’re lonely, so balance alone time with activities with friends. Read more on "Why I Can't Get Over My Ex."

Healing Tips

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.)

Here are 10 more suggestions:

  1. Meditate with healing recordings, such as exercises for self-love, self-soothing, and confidence in my YouTube.
  2. Practice the “14 Tips for Letting Go,” available free on my website.
  3. 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.
  4. Write about the benefits that the relationship is over. Research shows this technique to be effective.
  5. 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).”
  6. Set boundaries with your ex. This is especially important if you will continue to co-parent. Establish rules for co-parenting. If you tend toward accommodation, defensiveness, or aggression, learn to be assertive and how to set boundaries.
  7. If you think you may be codependent or have trouble letting go, attend online Codependents Anonymous meetings, where you can get information and support for free. There are also online forums and chats, as well as telephone meetings nationwide.
  8. 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 anti-depressants lasting at least six months.
  9. Avoid triggers, like going to places you frequented together or listening to “our song” or love melodies. There’s a tendency to want to do this as a way to feel connected to your beloved, but it unnecessary brings up painful feelings.
  10. Write letters you don't mail to your ex to express your feelings. If you were rejected, write a dialogue with your ex. Write with your left hand to “channel” what your ex would say. This can help you see things for his or her perspective, have empathy, and accept the new reality.

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. Email me to join my mailing list and receive 15 additional strategies to deal with rejection and breakups. Look for my Breakup Recovery Seminar to learn more about healing from breakups and relationships with unavailable partners.

© Darlene Lancer 2016.