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  • Jessica Richmond

Why Does Getting the "Cold Shoulder" Hurt So Bad?

When someone who was once friendly, all of a sudden ignores us, and gives us the “cold shoulder” it feels very painful. Maybe it was your good friend, work colleague, sister, brother, mother, father, daughter, son, or partner. Maybe it was someone else. But whoever it was that gave you the cold shoulder, you most likely won’t forget it. It's shocking. It cuts you to the core. You are often left wondering, “What happened? Why are they ignoring me? Why are they being so cold?” Your mind starts churning thinking, “How could that person who was so nice to me all of a sudden turn his back on me? Does this mean our relationship is over?”


The dictionary definition of “cold shoulder” is defined as, “a show of intentional unfriendliness.” When someone gives you the cold shoulder you feel like they are looking past you, or even through you. Like you are not even there. That person who once laughed and joked and was in a loving mood with you now acts like he doesn’t even know you. Maybe he answers you in a cold way, with a one-word response. When you smile and say a loving remark that he would usually reciprocate, he does not acknowledge it. Or he walks past you and doesn’t say hello when just yesterday he was so happy to see you. This triggers you to try harder for his attention. Yet he still does not budge. Try as you might, he holds firm, stone-faced and hardened. You feel rejected, unloved, unimportant and sad. You wonder what you did wrong, or why is he mad you? You worry and wrack your brain. "What did I say that upset him? How can I get him to smile at me again? Should I ask him why he is angry? Do I dare? Will I piss him off even more if I ask him something directly? Why doesn’t he think I am special any longer?" You may cry, sob, worry, fret, or just silently suffer.


What’s interesting is that we don’t feel this same way when a stranger gives us the cold shoulder, do we? If you think about it, most days we are in a situation in which other people ignore us all day long in public places, such as on the bus, walking down a busy city street, or at the grocery store. So why don’t we feel upset about it? It seems that we only feel upset when someone whom we care about ignores us. So it is not that being given the cold shoulder in itself is that troubling. But it is when someone who used to pay attention to us, withdraws their attention. That is what is so troubling and even torturous in some instances.


So, what’s going on? Why does getting the cold shoulder hurt so bad? Actually, you might be surprised at the answer. It turns out that when we feel upset by someone giving us the cold shoulder it actually relates to our experience of being ignored as a child. In other words, it doesn’t have so much to do with the guy or girl who is ignoring us at present. It has way more to do with how our mother or father made us feel when we were young. For example, if our father was a workaholic, he was absorbed in his work, not in the family. When we wanted to play with him, he was too busy. If we tried to get his attention, he might give it for a short spurt of time, but also appear irritated that we bothered him. That scared us. In the end, we got the message that we should not disturb dad. He had more important things to do than to be with us. We began to realize and believe that we were a nuisance to him, a distraction from his work. That once playful dad who would carry us on his shoulders and horse around with us, happy to be with us, was no longer available. As a kid, this is very painful and creates a deep scar in our emotional heart. How this plays out as an adult, is that when someone who once was loving towards us, turns it off and becomes cold, we re-experience the same painful feelings of dad ignoring us. The source of the emotions flooding us as an adult is from the overwhelmingly painful experience of being ignored as a child. When a person makes us feel unloveable by giving us the cold shoulder, it is more than our already broken heart can bear. And that is why it hurts so bad when a person gives us the cold shoulder.


The good news is that you can get out of this pain. It is not easy, and takes some time to work with your emotions. But it is possible to feel the same happy self whether a person you care about ignores you or pays attention to you. You can start with the first step of just understanding that your strong emotional reaction to a "cold shoulder" today is actually coming from your past experience from your childhood, even if you don't remember it. Armed with this knowledge, you can take back your power. The next time someone you love gives you the cold shoulder, you can stay grounded within yourself. You do not have to feel rejected. You do not have to try harder to gain his love and attention. You do not have to criticize yourself, blaming yourself for his cold mood. You do not have to chase him either, like a hungry beggar, desperate for his love. You can just accept that he is not feeling like expressing himself in the way that you want him to right now. He could be stressed out, having a bad day, or lost in thoughts about something else. It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t love you. It doesn’t mean that he does love you either. Actually, we don’t really know what his cold shoulder means. However, it is not where to focus your energy on anyway. Try re-focusing your attention on yourself. Acknowledge and nurture your hurt feelings instead of analyzing him. He may come around. He may not. But your day can still go on with a smile on your face, knowing that you are good whether he realizes it or not.

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