Breakups are occasions for bingeing on Netflix, pints of ice cream, and countless Kleenex boxes. Depending on the person (and, often, the relationship), a few days is all that’s needed for the tears to dry. For others, the pain of a breakup lingers much longer and is visceral enough to feel like an attack on their character.
A new study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin from a pair of Stanford University psychologists suggests the reason why some people are better at moving on after a breakup than others is because, for some people, breakups feel like a reflection of who they are. Lauren Howe and Carol Dweck conducted five separate surveys asking 891 participants about hypothetical and real-life rejections to figure out how and why some people bounce back from rejection.
They found that recovery from rejection depends heavily on how you view yourself. Some people have an “entity theory of personality,” which is the idea that the personality you are born with is the one that carries over through your life. So if you’ve always been the smart one, or the creative one, or the goofball, you see yourself as that one-dimensional type of person and let that adjective define your sense of self. Others see themselves as having flexible personalities that change as they go through experiences. You might have been a band nerd at one time in your life, for example, but these days you’ve become the social butterfly of your friend group — and you recognize that that label, too, might change one day.
Howe and Dweck discovered that for the first set of people — the ones who believe your self is a stagnant concept — rejection is not only difficult but affects their recovery. If you have a fixed mind-set about yourself, it can feel like you’ve spent all this time letting someone get to know your quirks, and if that person then rejects you, well, it feels like you’re being rejected for who you’ve defined yourself to be. That can be tough to get over, especially for the fixed-mind-set types.
Here’s the kicker: Those people who thought the end of a relationship was an attack on themselves also were less likely to learn from what went wrong, blaming themselves and fearing their next relationship would suffer. The lesson: Sometimes when they say “It’s not you, it’s me,” it really is them.