Due to the forces of evolution, our brains have developed, first and foremost, to keep us alive, irrespective of whether the emotions that drive us to do cause us pleasure or pain; in this sense, the process of evolution is entirely indifferent as to whether or not we are happy; indeed, this is why our brains have a negative bias: to help ensure our survival, our brains are wired to focus on threats, dangers and that which can harm us rather than on more positive things (which could seduce us into a state of dangerous complacency and vulnerability). The principle at play here is that it’s better to be in an unpleasant state of anxiety and fear, but alive, than it is to be in a state of peace and serenity whilst being gobbled up by a lion.
One of the main operations of our brains to evolve in order to help ensure our survival is the ability to detect threat. This is because, in the case of our ancestors, such threats were frequently life endangering (such as being attacked by a wild animal, as alluded to above).
Today, however, the threats we tend to encounter are very rarely life-threatening. However, because evolution is such a glacially slow process, our brains have not had time to readjust to this fact and, therefore, will still respond to certain threats that would have been life-threatening to our ancestors as if they are STILL life-endangering today.
One threat that was life-endangering to our ancestors was social rejection; this is because living in groups made it more likely we would survive and, of course, it logically follows from this, if we were rejected from the group (and even more so if they were rejected by our parents when young) we would be at greater risk of death.
So, the crucial point is that our modern-day brains react to rejection by significant others today as our ancestors’ brains did in the distant past i.e. as if the rejection were life-threatening. That is why, say, rejection by a parent or partner can drive us to despair or even suicide (the latter response is particularly ironic as, in such a case, our death would be brought about, ultimately, by an overly assiduous survival instinct).
In objective terms, then, we overreact to rejection in the modern-day due to a trick our mind is playing on us that has its origin in millions of years of evolutionary history. It must be recognized, nevertheless, that for many of us, this is cold comfort indeed.
You may also wish to read my post: COGNITIVE HYPNOTHERAPY AUDIOS FOR THE RELIEF OF MENTAL PAIN
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).