Brain and Body

Stanford Psychologists Reveal the Worst Thing You Can Do After a Breakup

January 15, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Broken Heart
Photo credit: Prerana Jangam/

This way of thinking makes you much less likely to move on.

A team of researchers at Stanford University have found that people have a much harder time moving on after a breakup if rejection leaves them questioning their identity.

“Few things in life are more traumatic than being rejected by someone who knows you well and then, with this insight, decides that she or he no longer cares for you or wants to be with you,” Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, said in a press release.

In particular, romantic rejection poses a tremendous threat to the “self,” and the research shows that the basic beliefs about one’s personality can have an effect on whether someone will recover from or remain stuck in the pain of rejection.

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The researchers conducted five studies involving nearly 900 study participants who were asked to fill out online surveys about hypothetical rejections as well as real-life rejections. Specifically, they reported how their views of themselves changed as a result of the rejection. For instance, they rated the extent to which “I worry that there is something ‘wrong’ with me because I got rejected.”

The volunteers were also surveyed on their perception of the human personality — for instance, whether they believed that people can significantly change their personality (growth-oriented view) or whether they believed that “the kind of person you are” is permanent and can’t be changed (a fixed view).

The perception of human personality can have a big influence on how someone recovers from a breakup.

“The experience of being left by someone who thought that they loved you, then learned more and changed their mind, can be a particularly potent threat to the self and can drive people to question who they truly are,” says doctoral student Lauren Howe.

Therefore, if you believe that you can still change and develop your personality, it will be easier to move on than if you believe your personality is permanent. The study found that those with a fixed mindset about their personality who believe it’s unchangeable tend to allow romantic rejections to linger longer in their lives.

“Those who see rejections as revealing a core truth about themselves as a person, something about who they really are, may be more likely to struggle with recovery and carry rejection with them into the future,” says Howe.

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On the other hand, those who believe they have the ability to grow and develop are more likely to bounce back from a breakup and envision a brighter future.

Not only does the belief about a fixed personality prevent people from moving on, but it can instill a sense of fear that this “personality defect” will come to “haunt” them in future relationships.

“This concern haunts them and can make them guarded and defensive in future relationships—something we know is likely to impair these future relationships,” Dweck says.

Basically, rejection is likely to negatively change a person’s view of him or herself if they hold the fixed personality view. Further, it’s likely to change their view of relationship prospects in the future.

According to the researchers, these people still reported being negatively influenced by rejections that had happened five years earlier — quite a long time to hold on to the pain and self-doubt.

Future research should explore whether this rejection lingers in non-romantic relationships, like being abandoned by a parent or career failures, the researchers say. This avenue of research could potentially offer people scientific advice on how to “let go of the past” and cope with rejection.

So when it comes to a breakup, your best bet is to try and see yourself as an individual who still has the opportunity to grow, change, and develop — imagine the better days to come. Sticking with the mindset that you’re simply unable to change anything about yourself can make the process of moving on unnecessarily drawn out.

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