Just as the digital age has ushered in new ways of enhancing human connection, it’s also opened up the scope and range of social rejection. Unfriend—as in, un-Facebook ‘friend’ — was the word of the year in 2009, joining its older cohort “cyberbully,” amid the advent of the text breakup or the Facebook status change as ways to tell him or her that it’s over.
With the yin and yang of digital life in mind, it seems relevant to explore what science knows about emotional pain and its connection to the physical kind.
Language has always mirrored the connection between the two: we suffer from “broken hearts” as well as bones, and speak of “bruised feelings” along with toes. This all seems intuitively right because we recognize the common basis of the pain we experience, whether a throbbing headache or the pain of missing someone so much that you ache. Is there anyone out there who actually believes the line, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never harm me”? I somehow doubt it, but now science has a bead on the literal harm that words inflict.
Human beings don’t thrive going it alone the way snakes do. Just as physical pain signals us that we must withdraw from or flee from something that is hurting us in order to survive, so too does the loneliness we feel in isolation or the anxiety induced by abandonment reinforces us to seek out and maintain social connections.
While both physical and emotional pain both “hurt,” they seem, on the surface at least, to do so in different ways, right? Well, maybe not as much as we might think. While it’s true that slicing your finger instead of the onion on the cutting board is one kind of experience and being dumped by someone you love is another, there’s evidence that they have more in common than not.
Of course, it certainly doesn’t feel like an advantage, evolutionary or otherwise, when you’re in the throes of emotional devastation the moment you hear that your ex is madly in love, blissed to the max, and about to get married, when your close friend cuts you off with nary a word of explanation, or at the moment your mother, who never has anything nice to say about you, tells you once again that you’re a horrible disappointment.
Just because we can’t see the wounds doesn’t mean they aren’t literally and physically there.