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The "Poor Sandra" Syndrome: Overcoming the Real Pain of Break Ups, Affairs and Public Rejections

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I don't need to tell you how the media has reacted to the shocking and strangely circumstanced affairs of Jesse James. You can't buy your weekly groceries or check your favorite online news site without hearing all about it: the Nazi paraphernalia, the tattooed, bikini clad mistresses. But if you want to know how the public has reacted to the recent exposure of this high-profile affair, just google "poor Sandra." And if you want to speculate just how this might affect Sandra Bullock herself or how she can cope with this humiliation, keep reading.

Firstly, it's no surprise that the reaction to this strange story would be one of empathy. Not only is Sandra Bullock the leading lady in some of the most successful films year after year and the recently crowned best actress Oscar winner, but she is also the lovable girl-next-door who makes us laugh and, on some level, we feel we know. Add this to the fact that the more personal reports about Sandra up to this point have been about her humanitarian efforts, the million dollars she donated to Haiti and of course the little girl she fought a much publicized custody battle to adopt and raise. Finally, the thing that may have most effectively elicited our compassion was the very heartfelt, very real acknowledgment of her husband at both the Oscars and Golden Globe Awards, acceptance speeches that we all would like to give and be given as an ultimate emblem of a solid relationship.

So what happens when this solid structure of personal and professional victories starts to fall apart in the public eye, and when a seemingly strong, successful woman goes from being envied to pitied overnight? For one thing, the climate of any break-up or betrayal becomes a breeding ground for an emotion that, when examined more closely, is a bit surprising: humiliation. When you exacerbate this with the public exposure of a very private matter, one can only imagine the shame and self-criticisms that would ensue.

But why do people who have been hurt or rejected take this on as a reflection on themselves? In my 25 years as a therapist, I have often observed what my father, psychologist and theorist Dr. Robert W. Firestone, refers to as the "critical inner voice" to be the chief culprit in making break ups and affairs a matter of humiliation. While one would never think badly of a friend (or film star) who had been hurt by a significant other, rarely do people maintain the same standards for themselves. Instead, when they are hurt, they start to have harsh attacking thoughts toward themselves (critical inner voices) that tell them they are unlovable, foolish, pathetic or living a lie. In fact, most of the distress that people suffer in relation to painful events in their lives is caused by what they are telling themselves about the event, in terms of the critical inner voice, rather than the event itself.

When rejections hit, a person is likely to hear thoughts that almost sound as if they are coming from an outside source, thoughts like: You should have known this would happen, Look what a fool you've made of yourself, This is so humiliating, No one will ever love you, You'll never be able to find someone who really cares about you. Yet, no one else is thinking anything like this - often, not even the person they were rejected by. Therefore, these thoughts and attacks can only be coming from within.

In our book, Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships, Robert W. Firestone, Joyce Catlett and I discuss the feelings of humiliation and shame that sexual infidelity evokes in the "betrayed" party. We describe how their shame and humiliation are intensified in relation to others finding out about their partner's affair and explain how these feelings may be traced to early childhood experiences of humiliation.

We go on to explain how a self-critical process that stems from early experiences is reactivated by the current rejection. Think about how you've felt when a partner has hurt you. How many of your attacks on yourself and your partner come from you and how many are reflections of old feelings you've you've had about yourself or an attitude you've long struggled with? Was there a presence of a critical inner voice telling you, "You are pathetic. Once again, you have made a fool of yourself?"

A friend and associate of mine, the late marital therapist and infidelity researcher Shirley Glass wrote in her book, Not "Just Friends", about what the betrayed partner experiences:
The connection between what you think you know and your sense of reality has been severed... your assumptions about your partner, your marriage, and yourself have been shattered. They lie in ruins at your feet.

Glass also said that "the betrayed partner is the one who is traumatized and can't imagine how he or she will ever become whole again." This is how most people feel when they are cheated on or walked out on: traumatized. This trauma often throws them back into a defended state that, although painful, also feels familiar. They may experience feelings they felt early in life such as: they are not loveable, they are a failure, they have lost people's respect or they can't survive without being taken care of by the person they once trusted.

When people hear these thoughts, it is important that they learn to identify them as an internalized enemy, sort of like an inner critic (or a not-so-nice tabloid reporter) telling them they are "poor Sandras," broken and unloved. Once people understand that this inner critic is the one behind the wheel directing their harshest self-attacks, they can finally fight back and take on a more compassionate point of view. When people see these thoughts as coming from their own defense systems, they are no longer as compelled to feel humiliated in the eyes of others.

I am sure Sandra Bullock is suffering from the trauma of being betrayed by someone she loved and trusted, but I hope that she is not feeling humiliated. No one should turn against themselves just because they have been hurt. And no one should be critical of themselves for taking a chance on love.