The following article comes from my own experience of working around the experience of rejection, I have used fictional characters as examples of typical human experiences seen by me over the years.
The most unbearable pain is that of being rejected, especially by the breakup of a relationship, the pain can be tangible and cruel, ruthless in its persistence and self-defeating in its negativity. When it happens, we feel merciless to the inner torment that it causes. Rejection, hopelessness, repeated, ruminating thoughts which are in every waking moment, every second spent alone. Desperate to be understood and listened to, our minds go over and over again ways of fixing the damage even of ways to become irresistible to the ex. Even fantasies which would cause the other to feel the same unbearable pain. Excruciating is the pain of suffering rejection, we are often left looking at the life of the other as looking at ourselves is overwhelming. Rejection hits us all in equal measures no matter what the human type, creed or class matters little, colour matters little, sexual orientation matters little.
Lucy (The breakup):
When I heard that he was leaving, I was washing up the dishes, oblivious to his intentions. We had been together for eight years, sure things were not perfect but I really believed that he would stay with me and that we could work out things together, we had been arguing and while there certainly had not been much love shared between us, we had still been sleeping together.
He announced that he was leaving after dinner, I was so shocked that I smiled and said, “Don’t be silly, what would we do without each other “. He proceeded to tell me that it had been on his mind for a while and that he did not want to be in a relationship with me anymore. So, I finished washing the dishes. He knows how sensitive I am, he knows that I need him, he knows that I suffer dark feelings, he won’t leave me, he can’t ….
I followed him into the bedroom and panicked when I saw that he was packing some clothes, he was leaving tonight…I started to plead with him, tears exploding, body shaking…I had no choice in this, I had no time. I crumpled in a ball on the floor after he left, my world had just ended.
John (The breakup):
We had travelled the world together, shared the death of both of our parents, we had cried and laughed together, planned together, been sad together. How could she prefer him, what is wrong with me? I don’t earn enough money, I don’t give her what she needs, I’m not man enough for her.
She picked someone younger, more handsome, more successful, more, more, more than pathetic me. I don’t care if I live or die, I don’t care if I never sleep again, I will love her forever, unconditional love, pure and true. You, you hurt me, you hurt me so much that I can’t breathe. You, you did not say sorry, you replaced me, thank you. I hate you. I love you, depends on my pain.
Is This Pain Justified?
There is no physical wound, no tangible place to bandage, no discernible virus to keep us in bed. It is abandonment, it is rejection, it is the knowing that you are suddenly an inconvenience. All these things make us feel sick, frozen due to loss, traumatised due to tragedy.
According to Edward Smith, Cognitive Neuroscientist at Columbia University, it feels like pain because it is. Emotional and physical pain share the same rural pathways in the brain, specifically the sensory components of physical pain (secondary somatosensory cortex; dorsal posterior insula) which become active when feelings of rejection manifest and associated with the pain experience. In fact, for the brain and the body, a break up is painful.
Smith states that, “This tells us how serious rejection can be sometimes. When people are saying, ‘I really feel in pain about this break-up’, you don’t want to trivialise it and dismiss it by saying, “It’s all in your mind”. Our ultimate goal is to see what kind of therapeutic approach might be useful in relieving the pain of rejection. From everyday experience, rejection seems to be one of the most painful things we experience. It seems the feelings of rejection can be sustained even longer that being angry”.
How Bad Is Bad?
Lucy and John both came to psychotherapy because they were not coping. Many months had passed and neither of them were feeling much better, they both felt intrusive feelings of resentment, jealousy, regret and fear. Lucy in particular had a deep-seated dread of meeting her ex yet at the same time would dress up in case she might chance to meet him, she would check his Facebook to see what he was doing, where he was going – who he was with. When she returned home after not seeing him, she felt devastated. When she returned home on the few occasions that she did see him, she felt devastated.
John avoided going out, he had begun to drink routinely every night, without alcohol he found sleep impossible. Work was his only motivation, he felt as though he had lost a part of himself. He was exhausted and lonely, he no longer knew who he was or what he wanted. He felt excluded and yet deliberately isolated himself from friends and social occasions. They both experienced friends and family members become increasingly intolerant of their frequent need to speak about their ex. It was becoming clear to Lucy and John that the people around them were becoming bored and frustrated with them. They both experienced this in a loss of confidence, a loss of self-worth. They were afraid of their futures and had both found behaviours which were incredibly self-defeating; Lucy had begun to feed her pain and feelings of emptiness with food. This somewhat relieved her loneliness and helped her to sleep, however food was becoming her love replacement and that was having a negative effect, not only on her self-esteem but also her body.
John’s drinking was becoming a habit that others had begun to notice. He was frequently hungover and although always managed to be on time for work, was irritable and impatient. When he was feeling particularly depressed, he found himself coming up with complex plans to end his life, although he did not believe that he would actually carry out a suicide attempt, at times he wished that he could.
Why Therapy for A Breakup?
There is no doubt that the negative or bad feelings inside of us are “better out than in”. We need to talk about feelings of rejection because those overwhelming feelings seen in the characters of Lucy and John have become literally stuck inside, stuck in their chest, stuck in their throat – stuck in their self-defeating behaviours. Talking to friends and family may be incredibly important and supportive in the short term, however we can only listen to “It’s time to let go” and “Don’t worry, time heals everything” or even worse, “Is it not time that you moved on and found a new relationship?” for so long.
Psychotherapy offers a genuinely safe place for you to say exactly what you want and need to say, not what the other person wants you to say. In other words, I encourage and embrace the crazy thoughts and feelings, there is no need for shame and no damaging consequences. From this all unresolved feelings around the breakup can be resolved.
Psychotherapy is about learning subjective ways of moving on and working through co-dependence. When we are attached to an ex, it feels impossible to become unattached and depends very much on our own form of attachment from developmental experiences.
In therapy, we can face the truth in the reality of the breakup together, truth that is often and understandably avoided. These painful subject’s need to be worked through before we can begin to repair an often utterly depleted sense of self-esteem. We need to find peace in order to cut the string. When we have done this, we need to look at the negatives in the relationship, acknowledge the things that we have put up with that we should not have, red flag areas that were ignored or denied which when confronted, give us self-empowerment and stop us from defining our future from our past. This can be seen in the repeated patterns such as, “I always attract the bad ones”.
It is not always true that we should be with the one we love. They may be bad for us, both physically and emotionally. I have often listened to client’s heart felt reasons why they should stay with the partner that gets violent, cheats, or takes any amount of substances from alcohol to cocaine all of which have a negative effect on many different levels. In other words, loving someone does not mean that they are good for you. Love can make us blinkered, it can make us believe that a toxic relationship is worth fighting for, that all types of love conquers all; and this can be true. The truth is that to love is to risk pain. We continue to desire love because we a human, secure love is good for us and above all – love is worth the risk. To the best of my knowledge, we have one go at this life, it is therefore important that we live life as much as we can and continue to love.
Rachel Murphy IAHIP.
Kross, Ethan; Berman, M.G; Mischel, W; Smith, E.E. (2011), Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. PNAS, vol.108 no.15, 6270-6275.