Emotional Pain is Real Pain
Think about some of the best moments in your life. I can almost guarantee that most of you are thinking about really meaningful and special times with important people in your lives. Now think about some of the most painful moments in your life. This time you are probably remembering times of extreme loneliness, rejection or abandonment. How do I know this? Because these are human universals – these tendencies are built into our DNA and are evidenced in our bodies and brains.
To quote Brene Brown, “We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong.” We crave belonging and acceptance, and we fear rejection and abandonment. No matter what we tell ourselves or what survival strategies we have developed, meaningful connection with important others is essential to our psychological, emotional and physiological well-being.
Pain and the brain
Social rejection triggers a whole host of painful emotions. Emotions that stimulate the same neural pathways as physical pain. When we are socially rejected, abandoned or isolated, our brain interprets this emotional pain in the same way that it does physical pain. FMRI studies show that taking Tylenol reduces the activation of pain centers in the brain in response to social rejection (not just good for a headache but heartache, too). So, just as physical pain is real pain, emotional pain is real pain, too.
In a study conducted by Lieberman and colleagues, they found that for individuals experiencing social pain, activating their prefrontal cortex reduced the activation in their pain center. The prefrontal cortex is the foremost part of our brain that is responsible for higher-order thinking, like planning, problem-solving, personality, and judgement (among others). Essentially, the prefrontal cortex helps us to consciously make sense of and find meaning in our world. The implication here is that the meaning we make of experiences of social rejection, abandonment and isolation influences how much pain we experience. In other words, the stories we tell ourselves about why our friends got together without us, why our significant other left us or why our parents weren’t more responsive to our needs growing up are just as influential as the events themselves.
How we make meaning
Does knowing that feelings of social rejection, abandonment and isolation are experienced as real pain make them any less painful? Perhaps! There is reason to believe that knowing that this is a normal and universal experience can relieve some feelings of “I’m the only one” and “there must be something wrong with me”. This knowledge might also help to lift some of the shame many of us feel about being so impacted by real or perceived social rejection.
It’s normal to jump to conclusions and assume that these painful social experiences are due to something within us. We often make those assumptions because they afford us a great sense of control (let’s face it, being out of control is scary). After all, if it is our fault that we were rejected, it means that we can do something to prevent it in the future – if only we could just figure out what it is we need to change about ourselves. The reality is that social pain, being rejected or abandoned, is often not actually about you. Rather is more about the capacity of others to be accepting, kind and loving, or simply that your personalities don’t work well together. These are things we can’t control and things that don’t make you any less loveable.
What can I do?
Pay attention to your thoughts and the stories you tell yourself about these painful experiences. Notice when you are assuming the worst-case scenarios or taking personal responsibility for others’ emotions and behaviours. Most importantly, notice when you start to blame who you are as a person for these painful social experiences.
Create new meaning by re-storying. Once you notice these thought patterns, try to take a step back and consider what else might be going on. Are you really a loser that nobody could ever like, as your bully told you? Or were these words a projection of the bully’s feelings towards themselves and an attempt to make sure that you were the one rejected instead of them? These stories hold different meanings for us that impact how intensely we experience that social pain.
Connect with the people in your life that do make you feel good. Social connection activates pleasure circuitry in our brains and triggers the release of feel-good chemicals. This might be a visit with a friend, snuggling with your pet, a phone call, or connecting online. There are endless platforms where you can connect with others who share the same struggles, interests and experiences as you. You are never really alone, especially with the technology we have available to use these days.
Reach out for help from professionals. Being aware of and intentional in our thought patterns is hard work. Counsellors and Psychologists have years of training and they want to help you process that social and emotional pain. Talking with a counsellor can help you organize and make sense of your experiences in a way that supports your emotional and mental health.
Leiberman, M, D. (2013). Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. Crown Publishers.
Yalom, I, D. & Leszcz, M. (2005). The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy (5th ed.). Basic Books.