Tylenol and the pain of rejection

By Kirsten Weir

Anyone who lived through high school gym class knows the anxiety of being picked last for the dodgeball team. The same hurt feelings bubble up when you are excluded from lunch with co-workers, fail to land the job you interviewed for or are dumped by a romantic partner.

Rejection feels lousy.

Yet for many years, few psychologists tuned into the importance of rejection. “It’s like the whole field missed this centrally important part of human life,” says Mark Leary, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. That’s changed over the last decade and a half, as a growing number of researchers have turned their eyes toward this uncomfortable fact of life. “People have realized just how much our concern with social acceptance spreads its fingers into almost everything we do,” he says.

As researchers have dug deeper into the roots of rejection, they’ve found surprising evidence that the pain of being excluded is not so different from the pain of physical injury. Rejection also has serious implications for an individual’s psychological state and for society in general. Social rejection can influence emotion, cognition and even physical health. Ostracized people sometimes become aggressive and can turn to violence. In 2003 Leary and colleagues analyzed 15 cases of school shooters, and found all but two suffered from social rejection (Aggressive Behavior, 2003).

Clearly, there are good reasons to better understand the effects of being excluded. “Humans have a fundamental need to belong. Just as we have needs for food and water, we also have needs for positive and lasting relationships,” says C. Nathan DeWall, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky. “This need is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history and has all sorts of consequences for modern psychological processes.”

Pain in the brain

As clever as human beings are, we rely on social groups for survival. We evolved to live in cooperative societies, and for most of human history we depended on those groups for our lives. Like hunger or thirst, our need for acceptance emerged as a mechanism for survival. “A solitary human being could not have survived during the six million years of human evolution while we were living out there on the African savannah,” Leary says.

With today’s modern conveniences, a person can physically survive a solitary existence. But that existence is probably not a happy one. Thanks to millions of years of natural selection, being rejected is still painful. That’s not just a metaphor. Naomi Eisenberger, PhD, at the University of California, Los Angeles, Kipling Williams, PhD, at Purdue University, and colleagues found that social rejection activates many of the same brain regions involved in physical pain (Science, 2003).

To study rejection inside an fMRI scanner, the researchers used a technique called Cyberball, which Williams designed following his own experience of being suddenly excluded by two Frisbee players at the park. In Cyberball, the subject plays an online game of catch with two other players. Eventually the two other players begin throwing the ball only to each other, excluding the subject. Compared with volunteers who continue to be included, those who are rejected show increased activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate and the anterior insula — two of the regions that show increased activity in response to physical pain, Eisenberger says. As far as your brain is concerned, a broken heart is not so different from a broken arm.

Those findings led DeWall, Eisenberger and colleagues to wonder: If social rejection aches like physical pain, can it be treated like physical pain? To find out, they assigned volunteers to take over-the-counter acetaminophen (Tylenol) or a placebo daily for three weeks. Compared with the placebo group, volunteers who took the drug recounted fewer episodes of hurt feelings in daily self-reports. Those reports were backed by an fMRI study, which found that people who had taken acetaminophen daily for three weeks had less activity in the pain-related brain regions when rejected in Cyberball, in contrast to those taking a placebo (Psychological Science, 2010).

The same patterns are seen in situations of real-world rejection, too. University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross, PhD, and colleagues scanned the brains of participants whose romantic partners had recently broken up with them. The brain regions associated with physical pain lit up as the participants viewed photographs of their exes (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2011).

The link between physical and social pain might sound surprising, but it makes biological sense, DeWall says. “Instead of creating an entirely new system to respond to socially painful events, evolution simply co-opted the system for physical pain,” he says. “Given the shared overlap, it follows that if you numb people to one type of pain, it should also numb them to the other type of pain.”

Lashing out

Being on the receiving end of a social snub causes a cascade of emotional and cognitive consequences, researchers have found. Social rejection increases anger, anxiety, depression, jealousy and sadness. It reduces performance on difficult intellectual tasks, and can also contribute to aggression and poor impulse control, as DeWall explains in a recent review (Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2011). Physically, too, rejection takes a toll. People who routinely feel excluded have poorer sleep quality, and their immune systems don’t function as well as those of people with strong social connections, he says.

Even brief, seemingly innocuous episodes of rejection can sting. In one recent study, Williams, Eric Wesselmann, PhD, of Purdue University, and colleagues found that when participants passed a stranger who appeared to look “through” them rather than meeting their gaze, they reported less social connection than did people who made eye contact with a passing stranger (Psychological Science, 2012).

In fact, it’s remarkably hard to find situations in which rejection isn’t painful, Williams says. He wondered whether people would be hurt if they were rejected by a person or group they disliked. Using his Cyberball model, he found that African- American students experienced the same pain of rejection when they were told that the people rejecting them were members of the Ku Klux Klan, a racist group. In other studies, participants earned money when they were rejected, but not when they were accepted. The payments did nothing to dampen the pain of exclusion. “No matter how hard you push it, people are hurt by ostracism,” he says.

Fortunately, most people recover almost immediately from these brief episodes of rejection. If a stranger fails to look you in the eye, or you’re left out of a game of Cyberball, you aren’t likely to dwell on it for long. But other common rejections — not being invited to a party, or being turned down for a second date — can cause lingering emotions.

After the initial pain of rejection, Williams says, most people move into an “appraisal stage,” in which they take stock and formulate their next steps. “We think all forms of ostracism are immediately painful,” he says. “What differs is how long it takes to recover, and how one deals with the recovery.”

People often respond to rejection by seeking inclusion elsewhere. “If your sense of belonging and self-esteem have been thwarted, you’ll try to reconnect,” says Williams. Excluded people actually become more sensitive to potential signs of connection, and they tailor their behavior accordingly. “They will pay more attention to social cues, be more likable, more likely to conform to other people and more likely to comply with other people’s requests,” he says.

Yet others may respond to rejection with anger and lashing out. If someone’s primary concern is to reassert a sense of control, he or she may become aggressive as a way to force others to pay attention. Sadly, that can create a downward spiral. When people act aggressively, they’re even less likely to gain social acceptance.

What causes some people to become friendlier in response to rejection, while others get angry? According to DeWall, even a glimmer of hope for acceptance can make all the difference. In a pair of experiments, he and his colleagues found that students who were accepted by no other participants in group activities behaved more aggressively — feeding hot sauce to partners who purportedly disliked spicy foods, and blasting partners with uncomfortably loud white noise through headphones — than students accepted by just one of the other participants (Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2010).

Social pain relief

It may take time to heal from a bad break-up or being fired, but most people eventually get over the pain and hurt feelings of rejection. When people are chronically rejected or excluded, however, the results may be severe. Depression, substance abuse and suicide are not uncommon responses. “Long-term ostracism seems to be very devastating,” Williams says. “People finally give up.”

In that case, psychologists can help people talk through their feelings of exclusion, DeWall says.

“A lot of times, these are things people don’t want to talk about,” he says. And because rejected people may adopt behaviors, such as aggression, that serve to further isolate them, psychologists can also help people to act in ways that are more likely to bring them social success.

The pain of non-chronic rejection may be easier to alleviate. Despite what the fMRI scanner says, however, popping two Tylenols probably isn’t the most effective way to deal with a painful episode of rejection. Instead, researchers say, the rejected should seek out healthy, positive connections with friends and family.

That recommendation squares with the neural evidence that shows positive social interactions release opioids for a natural mood boost, Eisenberger says. Other activities that produce opioids naturally, such as exercise, might also help ease the sore feelings that come with rejection.

Putting things into perspective also helps, Leary says. True, rejection can sometimes be a clue that you behaved badly and should change your ways. But frequently, we take rejection more personally than we should. “Very often we have that one rejection, maybe we didn’t get hired for this job we really wanted, and it makes us feel just lousy about our capabilities and ourselves in general,” Leary says. “I think if people could stop overgeneralizing, it would take a lot of the angst out of it.”

Next time you get passed over for a job or dumped by a romantic partner, it may help to know that the sting of rejection has a purpose. That knowledge may not take away the pain, but at least you know there’s a reason for the heartache. “Evolutionarily speaking, if you’re socially isolated you’re going to die,” Williams says. “It’s important to be able to feel that pain.”

Kirsten Weir is a freelance writer in Minneapolis.

via The pain of social rejection.

Healthy Connection

At the heart of attachment theory is the assumption that we all — all of us — have a basic, primal drive to connect. It’s wired into us, after millions of years of evolution, because on our own, we humans are weak, relatively defenseless creatures. That’s why emotional isolation registers in one of the most primitive areas of our brain — the amygdala — as a life-and-death situation (scientists call this the “primal panic”). The anxiously attached lack any faith that emotional closeness will endure because they were often abandoned or neglected as children, and now, as adults, they frantically attempt to silence the “primal panic” in their brain by doing anything it takes to keep connection. In short, they become needy. (The avoidantly attached shut their dependency needs and feelings off altogether to escape the pain of having their longings ignored or rejected.)

It’s not need, then, that engenders neediness. It’s fear– fear of our own needs for connection and the possibility that they won’t ever be met. That’s what hurtles us into the abject despair of neediness. The only way to get rid of a need is to satisfy it, and the more anxious we are about having it, the more quickly we want it met. Overcoming neediness therefore demands that we disentangle the need from the fear, and there a number of ways to do this:

Breathe. If you recognize that fear is the problem, not loneliness or a desire for contact, you can escape the suffocating grasp of the neediness by using stress management skills. Go for a run, meditate, do diaphragmatic breathing — all of these will reduce your anxiety, along with your impulse to act out of neediness.

Get connected. The researchers discovered a healthy version of dependency, one that involves a valuing of relationships. It’s not just more active, it’s more direct. Make clear requests. Neediness is all about blindly reaching when you don’t even know what you’re reaching for. Connectedness is about effectively depending on others.

Practice emotional mindfulness. Rather than acting on what you think you need, sit down and write about the feelings you’re having. Are you afraid of being alone? What’s it like to simply focus on that without trying to flee it by seeking contact? Instead of trying to get rid of the feeling, try to understand it. Not only does that make it easier for you to recognize and express your needs more clearly, it teaches you how to tolerate them.

Take stock of your relationships. Needy people often attract dates or friends who reinforce their neediness — people who crave connection, just like everybody else, but seem loathe to express the desire (they’re often avoidant). If your fear is that the phone will stop ringing if you don’t call, ask yourself, am I the one who always seeks contact or reassurance? Am I OK with that?

Make room for your needs. When we hate or fear our needs, it only makes them more intense because we’re tempted to hide or disguise them. That not only makes them confusing for others, but harder to satisfy. How you express your needs — whether for closeness, reassurance, contact, or love — will change dramatically once you start taking them seriously because you’ll have a far better understanding of what they are and where they come from.

When all is said and done, the key to overcoming neediness is to respect your needs for connection instead of fearing them. When you do, the chaos of neediness gives way to the clarity of intimacy. And everyone’s happier for it.

via Dr. Craig Malkin: How to Overcome Neediness.

Overcoming Singleness Anxiety

Throughout our entire childhood and upbringing, we were taught that we are supposed to look for love and marriage. We were taught that we should get married. We were taught that love and/or marriage would make us happy… or even that love and marriage are needed in order to be happy. This is ingrained in us by our parents, our teachers, the movies, TV shows and everything else most of us were exposed to. This is normal. And at first glance, this doesn’t seem like a problem at all. So what’s the issue?

The big issue with our pursuit of love… it makes us unhappy

If we believe that we need to find love and get married in order to be happy, this naturally makes us believe our life isn’t good enough the way it is. This subtle and often unconscious belief that “life isn’t good enough the way it is” creates a sense of lack, a sense of incompleteness, or a sense that something is missing from our lives. For some of us, this sense is very subtle and can only be noticed through continuous efforting to find someone to love us… but for others, this sense of lack is very apparent and strong.

In addition, once we believe that love and marriage are required to be happy, we naturally believe that we can’t be as happy if we don’t find love and get married. This is automatic. If we believe it is “best” to get married, of course we are going to believe that it would be “worse” if we never get married. Once we believe that it would be “bad” if we never find love and get married, we being to fear that outcome and experience stress and anxiety about it.

As long as you believe that love and marriage can make you happy, you will have this sense of lack and fear that you won’t find love

So, if you would like to feel complete now, if you would like to feel relaxed and anxiety-free now, there is a simple way to do it. Discover that another human being does not have the ability to fulfill you. If you can discover that love and marriage can’t make you happy, then you will no longer feel like you are missing something in your life, and you will no longer fear not getting love and marriage.

Let’s examine whether love and marriage can fulfill you:

All of our unwanted emotions are created by thoughts. To believe that someone else can make you happy, means that you believe another person can eliminate all of your negative thoughts. Of course, we don’t recognize this is what we are believing, but nonetheless, that is the underlying assumption. The only way we can be happy is if we don’t have thoughts that make us unhappy. If we believe that love and marriage will make us happy, we are inherently believing that love and marriage will somehow eliminate all of the different types of negative thoughts that currently create our unwanted emotions and prevent us from feeling fulfilled. But is that true? Let’s look at 7 different types of thoughts that love and marriage can’t eliminate.

1) Do you have any insecurities or judgments about yourself?

Are there parts of your personality or your appearance that you don’t like? Do these thoughts sometimes make you feel ashamed, embarrassed, lacking, or worried about others’ opinions? Nobody else can get rid of these thoughts for you.

2) Do you have aspects of your life that you think aren’t good enough?

Maybe your job isn’t good enough, your apartment isn’t good enough, or you don’t make enough money. These thoughts make you feeling lacking and insufficient, and create anxiety. Nobody else can get rid of these thoughts for you.

3) Are there people in your life which you think aren’t good enough?

Do you judge people that you come across? Do you sometimes get angry at co-workers? Do you have issues with your parents? Do you think your friends don’t always do the right thing? Do you think people should treat you better? Nobody else can get rid of these thoughts for you.

4) Do you worry about what other people think?

Do you worry about whether you have your parents’ approval? Do you worry about whether your boss will like your work? Do you worry about what others will think of your appearance and clothes? Do you sometimes not do what you want because you are afraid of what other people will think (i.e. dancing etc)? Nobody else can get rid of these thoughts for you.

5) Do you sometimes feel guilty or ashamed about your actions?

Do you sometimes do things you don’t want to do? Are you sometimes unable to do things that you really want to do? Do you still have habits that you think are bad, but can’t stop them? Nobody else can get rid of these thoughts for you.

6) Do you sometimes feel restless and bored?

When you are just sitting or lying down and your mind is constantly thinking, this creates the feeling of being restless or bored. Nobody else can get rid of these thoughts for you.

7) Do outcomes and events sometimes occur that you don’t like?

When you have negative thoughts about a particular outcome or event, doesn’t this sometimes create sadness or anger? Nobody else can get rid of these thoughts for you.

Relationships can eliminate a few negative thoughts, but they will almost certainly be replaced by new ones

Getting into a relationship will likely help you get rid of the thought “my life isn’t good enough because I don’t have a partner or someone to love me”. This will likely eliminate part of the sense of lack and shame that you had. But, it is likely to be replaced with new thoughts about how “my relationship isn’t good enough”, “they don’t love me enough”, “they don’t appreciate me enough”, “our relationship isn’t as good as their relationship” and these types of thoughts which will create more lack and shame

If you get married, you will almost certainly lose the thought “it would be if I never get married or find someone to love me”. Since this thought created some anxiety, whatever anxiety it created will likely be gone. That will feel really nice in the beginning. However, this thought is likely to be replaced with a new worries about whether they will stop loving you, worries about whether they still love you, worries about what you need to do to keep their love, worries about whether they will cheat on you, and possibly others. These new thoughts will continue to create anxiety and worry. It makes us fear that we will lose their love and constantly seek reassurances that they love us.

If you are seeking love and marriage to make yourself feel happy and whole, you are looking for someone to use.

Let me ask you a question: Why do you want to find love and marriage? Really, take a moment to answer that. If you knew with absolute certainty that getting someone to love  you and marry you would make you unhappy, worried, and angry all the time… would you still want to pursue love and marriage? Almost certainly not. Why would you pursue love and marriage if you knew it would make you unhappy?

You likely wouldn’t. If you would want to pursue love and marriage when you believe it would make you happy… and you wouldn’t want to pursue love and marriage if you believe it would make you unhappy… then it makes it pretty clear that you are just pursuing love and marriage because you believe it will make you happy. In other words, you don’t want love and marriage… you want to be happy, and you just happen to think that love and marriage will make you happy. Love and marriage is the means, not the goal.

But, here is the reason why I bring that up. If we are seeking love and approval to be happy, then we are actually seeking someone to make us happy. In other words, if we are seeking someone to make us happy, we are actually looking for someone who we can use to make us happy. This is why we tend to think that receiving love means having someone to fill our needs (or wants).

If we are using someone to make us happy, then we aren’t really loving them. We just love how they help make us feel. That’s fine, there’s no problem with that. It’s just not based on love. If we pursue someone to make us happy, then we will “love” them when they seem to make us feel good and we will hate them when they seem to make us feel “bad”. This type of “love” is completely conditional. The bottom line is that if we don’t truly love someone, then we don’t feel this love or the fulfillment that comes with truly loving… unconditionally and selflessly. By pursuing love to make us happy, we are setting ourselves up for a relationship that’s not actually based on love.

When you discover that love and marriage can’t make you happy, you can be much happier right now

When we believe that love and marriage will make us happy, it creates a whole lot of suffering. And this suffering absolutely doesn’t end when we find someone to love us.

But, if you are able to see that love and approval can’t make you happy and fulfilled, then you can stop feeling like something is missing from your life and stop worrying about whether you will ever get it. Then, you will be left feeling much more free and happy right now.

If you want to feel whole and happy, you need to identify and address the thoughts that make you feel this way

Since other people cannot change all of our negative thoughts to positive ones, we need to question the truth of our negative thoughts if we want to be happy. If we don’t believe the thoughts which make us feel unappreciated, insufficient, or unlovable, then we will be completely happy regardless of whether or not others love us.

In addition, once you are already happy, then you can enter into a relationship without wanting anything from the other person. When you are fulfilled, you can enter into a relationship without an ulterior motive… without using them. Then, any relationship will be much more enjoyable. It will be based on love.

Therefore, somewhat paradoxically, discovering that a relationship can’t make you happy will make it much more likely that you will end up in a happy relationship.

Now, I would like you to ask yourself a few questions:

Can love and marriage eliminate all the thoughts that create my unwanted emotions and make me feeling lacking and unfulfilled?

If love and marriage can’t eliminate all (or even many) of the thoughts that make me unhappy, is it true that love and marriage can give me the happiness, wholeness, and fulfillment I want?

If love and marriage don’t have the ability to fulfill me (or anyone else), then is it true that my life isn’t “good enough” just because I don’t have love and marriage?

If love and marriage can’t fulfill me, am I sure that I would be happiest if I got married?

If all of my unwanted emotions and sense of lack are created by thoughts, then is it true that I need to get love and marriage in order to be happy?

Is it possible for me to feel completely whole, happy, and fulfilled without getting married (by addressing my thoughts)?

If I can be fulfilled without getting love and marriage (by addressing my thoughts)… and love and marriage don’t have the ability to fulfill me… then can I admit that it wouldn’t necessarily be “bad” for my life or my happiness if I never get love and marriage?

via How To Stop Feeling Lacking and Worried About Being Single.