I don’t usually relate to the trending topics on Twitter — often about celebrities I don’t know and TV shows I’ve never watched — but earlier this week I noticed that #WhatHurtstheMost was a popular hashtag for the day. Out of curiousity, I searched the term on Twitter and read through a hundred or so tweets to see what it was that people found especially hurtful. There was a variety of answers, but the most popular one involved romantic rejection or unrequited love. Here’s a sample of the variations on that subject:
having a crush on someone who you know you’ll never have a chance with
when someone breaks up with you on Valentine’s Day or your birthday
was being so close, having so much to say, then watching you walk away
the person who used to mean so much to me is now someone who’s making me cry again
is finding out you never loved me
being led on and feeling like an idiot at the end
when someone makes you feel special, then suddenly leaves you hanging and you have to act like you don’t care at all
is liking someone that likes someone else
is that one person you care about doesn’t care about you
is loving someone who does not feel the same way
is wanting someone you can’t have
when your boyfriend/girlfried just leaves you out of nowhere … no explanation, no reason, just a goodbye.
There are many more tweets in the same vein. At first, I was surprised, but in retrospect, I shouldn’t have been. If someone had asked me to describe the deepest human pain, I also would have talked about unrequited love, only I would have placed it in the context of the mother-infant relationship. To come into this world wired for emotional connection and to be met with indifference or rejection — that’s a devastating experience, one from which we never fully recover. When rejection by a lover in later life is especially devastating, it’s because it taps into this earlier experience and revives the trauma of unrequited love all over again. What hurts the most, if you ask me, is to feel that you have been rejected because you’re unlovable.
I’ll bet that if you were to ask the people who sent out those tweets how that experience makes them feel — that is, to specify more clearly the exact nature of the hurt — I’m sure most would have used the word humiliated or maybe embarrassed. Some of them might have said “ashamed.” Anyone with a literary bent might have used the word “mortified” (it’s a word I don’t often hear used these days, which is unfortunate).
For those of you familiar with Sylvan Tomkins’ affect theory, you’ll recognize that all of these feelings belong to the shame-humiliation affect family; they arise when something gets in the way of or interrupts other positive affects such as interest-excitement or enjoyment-joy, major components of what we call love. When we find that the fulfillment of our love is interrupted — that is, met with indifference or rejection — it may feel so painful that we want to die in order to put an end to it.
Maybe I’m growing sentimental as I age, but reading through those tweets made me sad — so many people texting into the void about the pain of unrequited love! That list of tweets felt like a companion piece to the New York Times article about the end of courtship that I recently discussed. No wonder people don’t want to express too much interest, who prefer to hook-up casually, almost by chance, rather than to express genuine interest and risk rejection, to care and not feel cared for in return. That would #HurtSoMuch.
On the other hand, as some readers have suggested, maybe this new hookup culture allows people to get together in a way that manages shame and allows them to progress slowly and safely into more direct expressions of interest, eventually into “real” dating and monogamy. I really don’t want to become one of those older people always carping about how the younger generation is going to hell in a handbasket. I’m trying to keep an open mind.
In any event, I invite you to tell us what experience you believe hurts the most. Maybe you have a story to tell, one that involves unrequited love and how you felt at the time. Here’s mine:
When I was in 6th grade, I had a crush on a girl in the neighborhood; her name was Dee Dee. During Spring vacation, I bought her a little ring, one step up from a Cracker Jack prize, and brought it with me the next time she invited me to come over. We were friends but I wanted it to be something more. I don’t remember how the conversation got started (she must have instigated it), but we began talking about who it was that we liked, boyfriend/girlfriend-wise. I said that I didn’t want to say the name (I felt terribly afraid that I would be rejected) and she suggested we write the initials on a plastic ball. I urged her to go first. With a pen, she inscribed the initials onto the ball and passed them both to me. My heart leapt when I read “JB” there in the plastic. I wrote her initials and passed the ball back. Then I told her how I felt and gave her the ring.
The next day, she told me on the telephone that she didn’t really like me that way but only wanted to find out if I liked her. She knew the only way to get me to confess the truth was if she wrote down my initials first. I was devastated. I couldn’t bear to face her for a long while afterward. That was more than 40 years ago. As an adult, I haven’t thought of that hurtful experience more than once or twice, but remembering it today, I still felt a twinge of shame.