When someone breaks up with you it hurts, sometimes a lot. How you translate those feelings into future actions is all about the story you tell yourself. As you know, I’m a big believer in stories, and personal narratives. I think so much of how we feel about ourselves is based on the stories we tell ourselves.
Two people might have identical experiences and derive opposite means from them, based on their personal narratives. This story, from the Atlantic, suggests we do this when we’re dumped. Some people take the rejection and work on themselves, trying to be better at the things they contributed to the failure of the relationship. Others implode with self-pity and depression, leading to trouble in future relationships. We can all work on the stories we tell ourselves!
In some cases, rejection also seemed to fundamentally change people’s outlook on romantic partnerships, leaving them with pessimistic views about the fundamental nature of relationships. As one person wrote: “To me, this rejection was like opening Pandora’s Box, and concepts like love and trust became fantasies that never really existed.”
So what makes for a healthy breakup, one in which the person moves on with minimal emotional damage? In our study, some people drew much weaker connections between rejection and the self, describing rejection as an arbitrary and unpredictable force rather than the result of some personal flaw. One person wrote, “Sometimes girls are not interested. It’s nothing to do with yourself, it’s just that they’re not interested.” Another noted how rejection wasn’t a reflection of worth: “I learned that two people can both be quality individuals, but that doesn’t mean they belong together.” Other people saw the rejection as a universal experience: “Everyone gets rejected. It’s just part of life.”
Yet another group of people saw the breakup as an opportunity for growth, often citing specific skills they had been able to learn from rejection. Communication was a recurrent theme: People described how a rejection had helped them understand the importance of clear expectations, how to identify differences in goals, and how to express what they wanted out of a relationship. Other participants wrote that breakups had helped them to accept that they couldn’t control the thoughts and actions of others, or to learn how to forgive.
So separating rejection from the self tends to make breakups easier, and linking the two tends to make them more difficult. But what makes people more likely to do one or the other? Past research by Dweck and others shows that people tend to hold one of two views about their own personal qualities: that they are fixed over the lifespan, or that they are malleable and can be developed at any point. These beliefs impact how people respond to setbacks. For example, when people consider intelligence to be something fixed, they’re less likely to persist in the face of failure than people who believe that intelligence can be developed.
And when we asked people to reflect on their past rejections, we found a link between those who believed personality was fixed and those who believed that rejection exposed their true selves. If someone believes that their traits are unchanging, the discovery of a negative one is akin to a life sentence with that new knowledge. Believing in the potential for change, however, might meant that the discovery of a negative quality instead prompts personal growth.
The stories we tell ourselves about rejection, in other words, can shape how, and how well, we cope with it. Previous research has illustrated the importance of storytelling in other realms—for example, recovering alcoholics who told redemptive stories in which they learned something from their suffering were more likely to maintain sobriety than people who told stories without this theme. Narratives that explained pivotal decisions (including getting married or divorced, and changing jobs) as moving toward a desired future, rather than escaping an undesirable past, were associated with higher life satisfaction.
One strategy for making breakups a little easier, then, might be to consciously consider the narratives we create about the experience. A person might think: I was bad at communicating in the relationship; I guess I just can’t open up to people. Another story might be: I was bad at communicating in the relationship, but that’s something that I can work on, and future relationships will be better. Maybe a healthy habit of questioning our own narratives can help us to make better ones—stories that promote resilience in the face of pain.