“Let’s just be friends.”
Many of you had a visceral reaction to that sentence. Maybe your heart rate shot up, your muscles tensed, or you felt a slight gag reflex. Regardless, if you’ve ever been on the downside of uneven feelings in a relationship, those words bit you. When romantic feelings go unreciprocated, it’s hard not to feel a little hurt and discouraged. It’s easy to understand.
Let me tell you what I don’t understand: people who say rejection shouldn’t hurt. After all, if your self-esteem is rooted in Christ and the love of God, you’ll be fine … right? Well, yes and no. First, you have to determine the type of hurt you’re feeling: sadness or depression.
We’re supposed to feel sad. Ecclesiastes 7:3 says, “Sorrow is better than laughter, for sorrow has a refining influence on us” (NLT). Jesus, God incarnate, wept at the death of Lazarus (John 11:35). God feels sad and we’re created in His image, so being sad is part of being human. It’s normal to feel at least a little sadness when someone rejects your romantic interest. Expect to feel even more sadness if you’ve spent a lot of time with someone and grown close.
Sadness is intense but brief. By brief, I mean days, not hours. You don’t feel bummed for only a couple of hours after getting shot down unless you asked out someone you just met (which is kind of a bad idea). Expect to be in a funk for a few days. You might withdraw for a while, miss a day of work or class, shed some tears, or act out by polishing off a carton of Häagen-Dazs® while deleting half your Facebook friends. Then, after a week or so, you start functioning again. Residual sadness might hang around for a few weeks, but you start living life again.
COPING WITH SADNESS
There are many ways to cope with sadness, but I’ll emphasize two that work for most people.
Be with other people. You might want to withdraw after a rejection, but you need to be around other people, even if it means watching reality television with the roommate toward whom your affection is lukewarm, at best. The presence of other humans keeps us out of the dark, irrational corners of our minds. It limits your opportunity to imagine that you’ll be alone forever, you could never love anyone else, no one else will understand you as well, and so forth.
Move. Keep your mind and body busy. This will be hard at first because sadness seems to drain all your energy and motivation. Your sleepiness isn’t real, however. It’s what neuropsychologists call “central fatigue,” the illusion that your body is tired due to psychological stress. The good news is that central fatigue shakes off after as little as a few minutes of physical activity or mental stimulation. Do something exciting and at least a little challenging. Tackle that project you’ve been putting off. Re-decorate your room, or build a new piece of furniture. And almost nothing beats hard physical exercise, which means running instead of walking. Exercise is the mortal enemy of anxiety and depression, so put down the Doritos®, get off the couch, and move.
Sadness comes from shattered hopes, but depression comes from feeling unlovable. People who base their sense of self-worth and importance on romantic love suffer depression instead of just normal sadness. Though rejection always hurts, it’s devastating and terrifying to someone who bases their self-worth on romantic love. Depression follows rejection when someone turns love into an idol. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Love, having become a god, becomes a demon.” Idolizing romance and marriage is perilous. God is the only one who can love you perfectly. Looking for perfect love in another person is always a dead end.
What does depression look like? It looks almost exactly like sadness but it’s longer and interferes with your life a lot more. Sadness morphs into depression after about two weeks. To be clear, if someone rejects you, the memory can sting for a very long time, but that’s not the same as being depressed. A depressed person feels too much fatigue, hopelessness, and despair to function normally. Eating and sleeping habits change in unhealthy ways. A depressed person can be irritable, withdrawn, and feel a sense of hopelessness or dread about life.
COPING WITH DEPRESSION
Socializing and exercising are musts, just as they are for sadness, but depression requires a deeper level of healing. You cannot deal with long-term depression without professional help, whether it’s a pastor or a therapist. You might even need to give antidepressants a try. Modern antidepressants have few side effects. They won’t turn you into a zombie. They won’t even make you happy; they just take away the darkest feelings. You’ll feel sad, but not hopeless. If the idea of taking medication freaks you out, that’s fine. You can conquer depression without meds, but you need someone with knowledge and experience to get you on the right path.
The biggest thing you need, however, is to discover the reason that you place all your hope in romantic love instead of Christ. Romans 5:5 says, “And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, for he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with love” (NLT). Only God can make you whole. He’s the only one who can complete you. Rejection always hurts, but it’s easier to handle when your heart is in the hands of the one whose love is perfect and unfailing. Rest in Christ and restore your reliance on His love before seeking romantic love again.
DR. STEPHEN W. SIMPSON is a clinical psychologist and relationship author. For more information about Steve and his books, visit stephenwsimpson.com.