I read an article the other day that reported that scientists have discovered that social rejection actually is painful. Apparently, by studying MRI’s and PET scans of the human brain activity, scientists have found that the areas of the brain that are triggered by social rejection overlap with the areas of the brain that recognize physical pain. So, it appears that scientists have now confirmed what every dating woman has always known: being rejected hurts. Literally.
I think we all have slightly different ways of experiencing that pain. I feel it in my muscles, which ache like I’ve run a marathon, and in my chest, which tightens like the clenched muscle it is. I had a friend once who got physically ill every time she got her heart broken; it was like she was vomiting out all her pain, until she was empty. It was almost as painful to watch as it probably was to go through.
I think we also process our pain differently. My mother used to rage when she was heartbroken — slamming kitchen cabinets, pounding fists on the table — the outward manifestation of the violence happening in her heart. I have a friend who retreats to her sofa and her remote control, watching countless movies and episodes of Sex in the City until she finally tires of her own sadness and gets up and moves on. Then, of course, there are my guy friends, who self-medicate to forget about it, at least for a little while.
As for me, first, I fall into a fog. I mindlessly move through my day, reaching the end of each one with no real memory of how I got there. Second, I become restless and antsy, pacing like a caged cat, my mind racing like a mouse in a maze to uncover an alternative happy ending. Then, finally exhausted, I surrender to the reality of my situation, force all memories and theories and what if’s to the recesses of my mind, and bury myself in work and my children. This moving on period usually culminates in a date or two with a guy who really wants to spoil me, just to remind myself that such men exist. Oh, and there’s usually crying. Lots of crying. What can I say? I come from a theatrical family.
But I think, even as I sit in the midst of a present pain, that there is some value in hurting. As a child, my mother used to constantly remind me that adversity builds character. “People who have it easy,” she would say, “are boring.” As an adult, I know she is right. It is only through our struggles that we truly discover ourselves and our world in any meaningful way. It just sucks that those struggles have to hurt so much.
I have also realized and come to appreciate that pain is grounding. There is something profoundly humbling in coming to grips with the fact that someone does not care for you as you thought or wished that they had. It knocks you down a peg or two, puts you in your place, squashes any hubris that might have been taking root as you basked in the glow of your successful relationship. I found myself this morning, lying in bed, reviewing in my head my ex-husband’s catalog of grievances against me, examining each one for possible validity, and wondering — for the umpteenth time — if maybe, just maybe he was right about me after all. It is an extraordinarily painful exercise to move through, but definitely valuable. Because each new pain peels back another layer of understanding, of perspective, so that some of his complaints begin to stand on their own legs, while others sink further into the morass of crappy, wrong things he said about me.
Some people don’t question themselves at all after a break-up. They move out of that potentially painful space with the confidence and certainty that they are not at fault, are not flawed, are not to blame in any way for the dead relationship. Such people leave me incredulous, and I’m not sure whether I envy them or want to slap them. But I am forced to concede that it must be a nice, easy way to avoid the fog-and-restlessness-and-crying-and-overanalyzing approach that I employ.
I think, however, that the most valuable part of pain is the clarity that it brings with it. Sometimes it causes me to pause and consider the choices others have made with which I have disagreed. Suddenly, I don’t feel so smart and righteous after having my ass handed to me. In my humility, I must admit that perhaps their way was the better one, perhaps they are the wiser for having chosen it. Perhaps I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about and should quit spouting off like I do. Perhaps the choices that I’m making — about who to date and how to date — are the very choices that are giving birth to these painful episodes. Maybe, just maybe, I’m not as smart as I think I am. In fact, maybe I’m completely clueless.
A friend commented today that every time I am hurt, it is a moral crisis for me — I re-examine myself, take myself apart and look for broken pieces, trying to identify the culprit that tripped the trigger that caused the pain. As he said to me, “Not everyone is worth a complete transmission overhaul. Some guys are only worth an oil change.” I don’t disagree that, to a certain extent, he is precisely right. But I do wonder if that isn’t what we’re supposed to do with pain. Are we not to learn from it? Am I to be so sure in my self-identity that no criticism leveled against me shall ever receive any credence? I can only conclude that there must be some form of moderation involved — that perhaps I delve too deeply, too often, as he suggested.
I have noticed that the very issue of emotional pain is somewhat taboo among those who write for inspiration or motivation, and I freely admit that I waffled over whether to even publish this post. But I have to be honest: I really hate advice-givers and bloggers and motivational speakers who are perpetually happy and well-adjusted. I mean, seriously, don’t they ever have any self-doubt or melancholy? Even Carrie Bradshaw cried once in a while, and she’s fictional. Besides, I promised myself when I undertook this project that my blog would be real and true and unvarnished. So, if you tuned in today for a bit of uplifting prose, I apologize. It just wasn’t in the cards.
As for my current pain, I hope that it doesn’t last long and that I can shortly return to the peaceful and contented place I was before this man reappeared in my life. And maybe, just maybe, I will emerge from this little episode armed with more knowledge and wisdom and self-awareness than before. Then again, maybe not. Maybe the clarity to emerge from this period will be the clarity that I really am clueless and I really am naive and I really am vulnerable. But I suppose there is value in that information, too.
One response to “the value of pain. seriously.”
To paraphrase your post, I agree that people who don’t bother with any kind of self-examination after coming out of a long-term relationship deserve incredulity.
In my case, the definitive cause for my runaway wife’s departure is unclear. It could be reasonably argued that I was not at fault since that’s her own position. However, this doesn’t preclude the possibility that my actions or inactions from either the recent or distant past contributed. It would be pure naiveté on my part to assume I couldn’t make my next relationship a better one by learning from the best and worst parts of my marriage.