Under the Hood

Let It Go: People Convinced They Can't Change After A Breakup Let Rejection Linger, Impact Next Relationship

Let it go
Romantic rejection causes some to question who they really are. Pixabay

Holding on to a bad breakup? It may actually be you, not your partner, according to new research published in the Personality and Psychology Bulletin. Researchers from Stanford University found negative feelings associated with romantic rejection linger longer for those who have a fixed mindset, or the belief they can't change their personality. This makes it easier for them to doubt who they really are, possibly affecting romantic relationships in the future.

Psychology Professor Carol Dweck and doctoral candidate Lauren Howe were interested to see if the "basic beliefs" people held when entering new relationships made "them more likely to link rejection to the self, and thereby magnify and extend the impact of a rejection," according to a press release. Dweck said fewer things are more traumatic than when someone you believed to know you well suddenly says, despite their insight, they don't want to be with you anymore. And oftentimes people "look toward romantic partners as a source of information about the self."

Dweck and Howe conducted five studies involving a total of 891 participants, where participants were given online surveys regarding hypothetical and real-life rejections. For example, some questions asked participants to rate the extent of which they worried "there is something 'wrong' with me because I got rejected." Participants were also asked about whether they believed people can change, signaling a "growth-oriented view"; or if who you are is static, signaling a "fixed view."

These are the two basic mindsets that shape our lives, Maria Popova cited on her popular culture blog, BrainPickings, back when she reviewed Dweck's earlier research on the subject in 2014. To Dweck, "a 'fixed mindset' assumes your character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens, which we can't change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence." A growth mindset, meanwhile, "thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities." The two mindsets, Popova learned, manifest from an early age and "springs a great deal of our behavior."

In Dweck's present study, she and Howe found participants with a fixed mindset let romantic rejection linger. These participants saw rejection as more of a revelation of who they really were, which then inspired them to be more guarded and defensive in future relationships. In fact, Dweck and Howe found those with a fixed mindset reported "still being negatively influenced by rejections that had occurred more than five years ago."

On the other hand, participants with a growth mindset, though still hurt by the breakup, were more ready to "bounce back and envision a brighter future." Back in Popova's review of Dweck's research, she writes the hallmark of the growth mindset "is the conviction that human qualities like intelligence and creativity, and even relational capacities like love and friendship, can be cultivated through effort and deliberate practice." So in this sense, romantic rejection isn't so much a failure as it is a learning opportunity.

These findings echo the sentiment of Lisa A. Phillips' book, Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession (Phillips talked to Medical Daily when it first published, here). Though focused more on unwanted pursuits, Phillips ultimately concluded rejection, when you're ready, can be an opportunity for personal transformation. Looking back through history, Phillips found rejection inspired people from multiple realms, including science, art, and problem solving.

This isn't to say a growth mindset makes you immune to rejection; no matter which way you slice it, it sucks. Emotions aside, studies show social distress can cause physical pain and these physical aches can cause broken heart syndrome. And as Medical Daily previously reported, BHS occurs when a surge of stress hormones temporarily disrupts the blood pumping in and out of our heart. It can be a life-threatening condition.

However, the findings from both Dweck and Howe — and Phillips too — suggest the lasting damage of rejection is entirely up to us.

Source: Dweck CS, Howe LC. Changes in Self-Definition Impede Recovery From Rejection. Personality and Psychology Bulletin. 2016.

Loading...