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The fun part of dating is getting dressed up, going on dates, making connections, and feeling the hormones associated with love: the ones that make us feel invincible.
The not-so-fun part of dating is the situations that don’t work out: the dashed hopes, the rejection, and the feelings of loss, sadness, and hopelessness.
I sought to have a permanent experience of the former while dating, but I admittedly experienced the latter not only often, but acutely.
In some of these moments of rejection, I would lose my sh*t and completely fall off the emotional cliff. This entailed feelings of sadness, fury, anger, confusion, rumination, and hypercriticism of both my flaws and/or perceived mistakes. The net combination of these feelings sometimes amounted to near-unmanageable levels of emotional distress.
In an effort to seek haven from this discomfort, I sought advice, much of which fell into three broad categories:
>> fill my man funnel/date more men
>> keep busy
>> avoid get attached in the first place
As an anxiously attached person, I personally found these well-meaning bits of avoidance-themed advice not only ineffective, but actually distressing, as I failed to be able to implement them.
I ruminated more rather than less as I tried desperately to adopt these techniques.
I furiously swiped right in order to “meet new men.”
Not surprisingly, that frenetic swiping didn’t yield emotional salvation.
There was simply no amount of busyness that kept my body or hormonal system from feeling the sting of failure.
And I frankly could never figure out how to show up on dates and offer warmth, connection, vulnerability, and openness, and simultaneously experience zero sense of attachment. I gave up even trying.
I did some research and found out that it’s basic human nature to perceive rejection as painful. In fact, MRI studies show that the emotions associated with rejection share the same neural pathways as physical pain.
Yup: rejection literally hurts as much as a physical injury. What I was experiencing was acutely human.
Further inquiry helped me learn that rejection lowers our IQ, creates a surge of anger and aggression, increases our self-blame, and reduces our self-esteem as we naturally find fault within ourselves, making the situation even worse.
The hormones related to rejection also distort our ability to perceive the severity of the rejection. Aka: we lose our ability to properly perceive the severity of the wound.
Nobody told me that when I signed up for Tinder.
It wasn’t an option to simply stop dating (another piece of common advice), so I had to find something beyond that oft-given counsel in order to cope with the avalanche of feelings brought on by online dating.
If rejection is sucking the life out of you, here are some tools from my trenches:
1. Seek community with stable connections: friends, colleagues, and family with whom we already have connection and acceptance.
Rejection hurts so much because humans are meant to be communal and function tribally, which we once would have literally died without. Reconnecting with our proverbial tribe reminds our physical body that we are safe, calms our nervous system, and helps us remember that rejection by one doesn’t amount to rejection by all. It reminds our bodies that death is not actually imminent.
2. Gather information from the right people and reduce it from everyone else in order to let our nervous system respond to the situation with an appropriate perspective rather than a distorted one.
Part 1: I directly asked men who I felt had rejected me for feedback on why things didn’t progress.
This was an opportunity to learn from the only people who could give me direct feedback: the men themselves. Most of the time, my theories were not only wrong, but I also learned that most rejection wasn’t personal, as I had imagined it was.
I could then react with appropriate proportion to the severity of the rejection.
Part 2: I weaned myself from asking friends and other well-wishers. My well-meaning contacts were guessing—at best—and I would often end up with a more overworked, overstressed nervous system after (admittedly lengthy) analysis sessions that were intended to reduce my pain.
Empowering myself to quit adding fuel to the rejection fire, putting boundaries around how often and to whom I entertained these conversations, and speaking to the men themselves helped me generate closure and acceptance. It also calmed my nervous system and set the incident behind me, as I could view it through a undistorted lens.
3. Focus on known natural antidotes to the stress hormones: exercise.
I know, I know. None of us really want to hear that.
But it helps.
4. Stop looking for “the one,” which puts a focus on our date’s feelings rather than ours.
The search for “the one” personally made me see every date as my potential future partner.
That was not only a lot of pressure (achieving forever in an hour or so is no small feat), but it also made me notice all signs that would verify that it could be true, and ignore all signs that showed that it might not be.
My main concern was being accepted by the man. So long as he was accepting me, I was offering my body frequent surges of zingy love hormones without noticing how I was actually feeling about him or whether I even wanted to continue.
Honestly, this was an extremely difficult habit to break, but I slowly practiced reducing: “I haven’t felt like this in a long time” pedestal-building, gathering data to see if they they were a “fit” by inventorying qualities (x colored hair, 40-x years old, x number of kids, x tall, and so on), and sharing information about upcoming dates with friends who invariably wanted details that look more like the resume I had gathered. I noticed that this shortlist detailing of a man’s qualities gave me greater sense of hope, optimism, and attachment than the situation usually warranted.
The focus of my most recent first dates was to notice, a day or two later, if I wanted another date.
No more thinking about “the one,” no more thinking about a potential future, no more resume-like list compilations of his features and benefits.
In its place: a simple practice of noticing if I had a desire to go out with the man again or not. No further justification or analysis required.
We can practice presence when we aren’t looking for the only human on Earth who could be a perfect match.
5. Building a stress-resilience tool kit.
We may see dating as a solution to life’s hardships and a search for someone to help.
I (sheepishly) admit that, at times, I did.
I also thought negative emotions were permanent conditions, which still makes me panicky to consider.
No matter how much I personally believe in community support and connection, no partner can rescue us, save us from our life choices, or take away our feelings.
If we are not equipped to manage basic emotional challenges, such as rejection from a date, it may leave us with the idea that we can’t manage adulthood’s other responsibilities.
The more we seek solace in a partner, the more we might ultimately be devastated if our potential white knight leaves us.
When I finally recognized that these emotional floods were not congruent with of the kind of adult I wanted to be, I sought to build a stress-resilience tool kit by way of techniques such as DBT and ACT, many books, support groups, many podcasts, and a lot of practice.
Most of our partnerships will be significantly emotionally healthier without a conscious or subconscious need for constant rescuing from an emotional edge.
Rejection sucks and there is never going to be a way to either remove it from the dating process or override the chemical response from our body.
The best we can do is find ways to keep our sh*t together, and find “the former” in dating more often than the latter.