Rejection hurts. It can hurt as much as physical pain or even worse than it. Studies have found that the same regions of the brain that get activated by physical pain (the dorsal anterior cingulate and the anterior insula), are also active when we’re reeling from the emotional pain of rejection. In one study, subjects whose romantic partners had broken up with them recently, started showing activity in these brain regions when showed photographs of their exes.
Some experiments have even found that the pain of rejection is so similar to physical pain that painkillers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) can reduce it.
Close your eyes. How bad does it hurt when you try recalling and immersing yourself in your worst physical injury ever? And how bad does it hurt when you try to recall the pain that you got from your most hurtful rejection? Trying to remember the emotional trauma hurts more than your worst physical pain, even if you’ve long recovered. Even if you believe you’re over a rejection, a brain scan might show otherwise.
The pain of rejection might be very terrible but it appears that we humans need it. If this theory is right, the intense emotional pain that we feel from rejection, served a purpose necessary for our survival in the past. And it may be serving an important purpose now as well.
The explanation by some evolutionary psychologists goes that in prehistoric times when man was still hunting and gathering, it was very dangerous and nearly impossible for man to survive alone. With great need for living together in troupes, the human brain needed (and hence developed) a mechanism (emotional pain) to discourage the individual from getting rejected by his group or close individuals.
Consequently, when an individual is rejected by his group, the emotional pain encourages them to try and reunite with their group and to avoid behaviour that could get them isolated and in danger of mortality.
In today’s world, while it’s easier for a human to survive alone, the pain of rejection has not subsided so much. Not surprisingly, on the other hand, having positive social connections and interactions boosts the production of hormones that make us feel in good moods. Maybe in our time, the pain of getting rejected by a partner or a group we want to belong to, the gloom of riding solo and the highs that come with having good social interaction, all compel us to avoid living alone and to seek meaningful relationships with others: relationships that keep the human species alive.
Can you think of other reasons why getting rejected by a group or a loved one still hurts?