In breakup stories, the antagonist often tells the deposed, “It’s not you, it’s me.” The line can ring hollow, but it’s worth taking to heart.
That’s one relationship lesson in a new study out of Stanford University that tries to explain why some people are able to get over romantic rejection quickly while others can be handicapped by it for years.
“People who respond to rejection by asking what was wrong with me, what did I do wrong, why wasn’t I good enough,” says Lauren Howe, a doctoral student at Stanford and lead author of the study, “that could be one factor that causes people to continue to suffer from the pain of rejection.”
Howe and her coauthor, noted psychologist Carol Dweck, conducted their study in the context of a theory that Dweck laid out decades earlier. That theory says that for a given situation, people will fall on a continuum between a “growth” mind-set, in which they believe they can improve through experience, or a “fixed” mind-set, in which they believe their personality traits are set in stone.
“These mind-sets set up the way we construct and shape our reality and interpret any ego threat,” says Jeni Burnette, an assistant professor of psychology at North Carolina State University. “They have implications for whether people think that they have the potential to succeed in the future.”
Dweck first developed her theory to explain how people think about their own intelligence. The distinction between fixed and growth mind-sets has since been applied in a number of domains, such as performance in school, sports, and dieting. In this latest study, which was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in January, Howe and Dweck wanted to see whether mind-set differences might also explain the way people respond to being romantically rejected.
To test this, they ran study participants through two kinds of tests. In the first, they asked people to recall a painful romantic rejection from their past and evaluate themselves according to statements related to that experience like, “I worry that there is something wrong with me because I got rejected.” In the second test, they had participants read fictional stories of romantic rejection, imagine the scenario happening to them, and respond to prompts like, “This would make me question my view of myself.”
Howe and Dweck found that people with fixed mind-sets tended to view romantic rejection as personally damning, while people with growth mind-sets viewed rejection as something that just happens, like the weather, or as a learning experience.
“People with fixed mind-set were more likely to tell stories that implicated the self. Like they’ll say I learned that I have this negative characteristic that drives people away or that I’m too clingy,” says Howe. “People with growth mind-sets told themselves stories about the potential for learning and growth and about how rejection happens to everyone.”
The difference in how people interpreted rejection also had big implications for how quickly they got over it. People with a growth mind-set were able to move on faster with fewer negative repercussions for how they perceived themselves. People with a fixed mind-set took rejection as revealing something essential about themselves, and the sting lasted longer.
Burnette explains that for people with a fixed mind-set, rejection can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: If rejection is taken as evidence of something undesirable about who you are, negative self-perceptions will intensify with each failed relationship.
“These fixed mind-set people, they get rejected and see it as about themselves,” Burnette says. “They get rejected again and look for that same information and feel even more certain it’s about themselves. It can create this kind of vicious cycle.”
Howe and Dweck found that people with fixed mind-sets were more likely to be ashamed or embarrassed about having been rejected — and to want to hide those rejections when they got into new relationships. Howe says she’s observed this process play out anecdotally and views it as one mechanism by which rejection builds on itself.
“I have a friend who says he loves starting new relationships because he can pretend like he has a clean slate,” Howe remarks. “That’s a huge burden to place upon yourself when meeting someone new.”
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.