Stuck in the village

In an article entitled Endorphment: Why Some Breakups Are Much Harder Than Others, Jeremy Sherman hits nail on the head. Breakups are the most painful when they are accompanied by a perceived drop in one’s value. This is part of the much larger topic of self esteem. One of the biggest challenges for therapists is helping people to build up their self esteem. Without confidence, erstwhile successful and happy people become their own biggest obstacles.

My own theory is that this is rooted in the human ancestral environment, where overconfidence was much more costly than it is today.

Blows to one’s ego are Mother Nature’s way of telling us: “Yeah, you’re not good enough.” We know this intuitively, just from how they make us feel. More specifically though, the crushing emotional defeat of a breakup serves to jar one’s sense of one’s own reproductive value down to a more realistic level. In the ancestral environment—small villages numbering no more than a few hundred people—our options were truly limited. There, it probably made sense not to be overconfident the next time. Better to pair up with someone a notch or two lower than us on the scale than to miss out entirely.

Even today, it makes sense to be sanguine about one’s prospects. However, most of us now live in a world of unprecedented opportunity. Large cities, freedom of movement, and inexpensive transportation now mean that the global village provides us with millions of options. However, we are still stuck with brains that evolved in villages. Thus, even a person living in a city of millions can feel hopeless after a breakup. (Are there data on how community size affects the pain of a breakup? It would be interesting to know how malleable this facility is.)

In short, people today usually have more options than their post-breakup emotions lead them to believe.

Concomitant with the rise of cities and easy transportation though came worldwide communication, and ubiquitous depictions of beauty, wealth, and happiness in entertainment and advertising. These ideals—much higher than the median, and out of reach for most people—cause disappointment by preventing people from setting realistic expectations.

It can be a challenge to find the right balance: to be hopeful and confident, while still setting realistic expectations.

Self-esteem comes from many sources:
  1. Physical health, mobility & fitness
  2. Engaging friendships with people we respect
  3. Rewarding, interesting work & the respect of our colleagues
  4. Fulfillment through study, practice, exercise, or hobbies
  5. Romantic relationships & the approval of our lovers
The advice I give my friends (and that I too try to follow) is this: when your self esteem takes a hit in one of these areas, try to concentrate for a while on the other areas. After a breakup, it’s tempting to wallow in self pity and desperately seek the approval of one’s lost love. However, as anyone who’s been in this situation knows, this course of action is counter-productive and ultimately more damaging to one’e ego. It’s much more effective to refocus one’s attention on the areas where one has more control. The satisfaction from a long run or a good read isn’t as quick or immediately satisfying as the infatuation of a new love, but it’s reliable. Moreover, consistent low level satisfaction is not only more reliable, but also ultimately more satisfying, than a roller-coaster of elation and sorrow.

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