How Your Perception Of Yourself Affects Breakups

by Lara Rutherford-Morrison
woman sitting at the window
Victoria Chizhevskaya / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images

There is nothing quite as soul-shredding as an intense breakup; break ups seem specially designed to make us question everything about ourselves, from how we choose our partners to how we understand our own innate value. New research from Stanford University reveals that the way we cope with breakups depends on how we understand personality. People who see personalities as fixed tend to see failed relationships as evidence of unchangeable defects within themselves, and they can take a very long time to get over breakups. People who regard personalities as more flexible, in contrast, are able to move past breakups more quickly, because they don’t see a breakup as a permanent reflection of their own failures.

The research, led by doctoral candidate Lauren Howe and co-authored by Professor Carol Dweck, addresses a deceptively simple question: Why do some people cope with breakups more easily than others? In a press release, Howe explained, “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.” But why do some people get over this experience fairly quickly, while others continue to stew about it months — or even years?

The answer lies in people’s basic beliefs about how personality works. Howe and Dweck surveyed almost 900 participants, asking questions about how they handle rejection, in both hypothetical situations and their real lives. For example, subjects ranked how closely they align themselves with statements like, “I worry that there is something 'wrong' with me because I got rejected.” They also answered questions that determined whether they tend to think of personality as something that can change and evolve over time or as essentially unalterable — a “We are who we are” point of view.

Howe and Dweck found that people who see their personalities as fixed had a difficult time getting past rejections from romantic partners because they assumed that those rejections were evidence of something permanently wrong with them. Dweck explained, “To them, a rejection reveals that [personality] is fixed at a deficient level. On the other hand, people who believe in their ability to grow and develop, while of course hurt by rejections, can more readily bounce back and envision a brighter future.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers found that some people’s inability to let go of feelings of rejection can have a negative impact on their future relationships. When people are convinced that they are fundamentally, unchangeably flawed — and that this is the reason for past rejections — they will take those insecurities with them into new relationships, which can lead them to be “guarded and defensive” with new partners.

So if you’re struggling with a recent breakup, or finding yourself unable to get past a more distant rejection, the key to moving forward may have less to do with getting over a particular person than with rethinking your own concept of self. Whatever personality traits you think led to the end of your relationship aren’t fixed, and they don’t disqualify you from love in the future. We all have the capacity to learn and change.

Images: Victoria Chizhevskaya / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images; Giphy (1, 2)