If there’s any truth to the saying "out of sight, out of mind," then seeing your ex is the last thing you need when you’re trying to get over them. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to avoid such a run-in. Whether you share mutual friends, work in the same neighborhood, frequent the same bars, or simply live in the same city, there’s always a chance — no matter how slim — that you’ll unexpectedly cross paths. For some, that thought can trigger a lot of anxiety, and with good reason. Why are you scared of running into your ex? According to psychologists, that fear actually serves a purpose: It's a self-protection mechanism.
A 2010 study in the Journal of Neurophysiology found that when 15 participants who were recently rejected by former partners were shown photos of their exes, there was a surge of activity in the part of the brain that registers physical pain. Given that merely seeing an image of someone you have romantic history with can make you physically hurt, it makes sense why you might be afraid to run into them. In a way, you’re bracing yourself for the trauma of the experience. According to Dr. Sherrie Campbell, a licensed counselor and psychologist, that experience can include feelings of anger, rejection, regret, shame, longing, and sadness — among other complex and distressing emotions.
If this resonates with you, you're not alone. It should come as no surprise that being scared of running into your ex is totally normal. Board-certified psychiatrist Dr. Susan Edelman notes that it’s especially common for people who recently went through a breakup, as they’re likely still in the process of trying to emotionally break ties with their ex and move on from the relationship. They’re still grieving, and seeing the person they’re mourning the loss of can obviously trigger a flurry of painful feelings.
"If you were the one who was rejected, you might still wonder why they didn't want to be with you," she adds. "If you were the one who ended the relationship, you might feel guilty that you didn't try harder to work things out."
While the fear running into your ex is more common among newly single, it can also last for a long time, particularly if the relationship had a significant impact on you, or you simply never felt like you got the closure you needed.
"I had a pretty stressful breakup with my first boyfriend and it led to me feeling anxious that I'd run into him in public,” says Hannah, 26. “For years after we broke up — even after I was in a relationship with someone new — I always feared bumping into him on the subway or randomly on the street. I didn't want to get back together, I didn't care what he was up to, and I felt confident in my ability to survive a conversation with him if we did run into each other, but it didn't matter: I thought about bumping into him almost every day for years. Ultimately, it was annoying more than anything else!"
Even if you aren’t still in love with your ex, you may experience anxiety due to all of the unknown variables. You might wonder: How will they act toward me? Will they be with a new partner? And if so, how will that make me feel? Will seeing them make me miss them again? What will I say to them? It can feel impossible to emotionally prepare yourself for a situation marked by so much uncertainty. According to Dr. Campbell, that anxiety stems from feeling vulnerable.
“Our egos react in self-protection when our vulnerability is exposed,” she tells Elite Daily. “Wherever love has been lost, hurt almost always remains. We get anxious about having that deep wounded re-opened.”
Even though experts agree that this fear of seeing your ex is common and completely understandable, if it's having a seriously negative impact on your mental or emotional well-being, Dr. Edelman suggests consulting a therapist.
"Grieving can be a difficult process and there's no shame in getting professional help," she adds.
A licensed counselor or psychologist may be able to help you get to the root of why you're so terrified of this run-in, as well as work with you to come up with some coping strategies for the fear so it doesn't get the best of you.
Whatever you do, however, don't push that fear away. Rather than denying or ignoring it, which creates a sense of shame around the feeling, Dr. Campbell advises "feeling it wholly" — with zero judgement attached.
"Each time we’re in pain we are also building strength," she says. "Strength will eventually turn into power — the power to continue moving on."
Hear that? Seeing someone that you have a romantic history with may be difficult, and your natural instinct may be to feel anxious about being exposed to that pain. Rest assured, though, that just because an old wound gets re-opened briefly doesn't mean it isn't in the process of healing. The first step to conquering your fear, as it turns out, is embracing it. There may be a lot of uncertainty surrounding seeing your ex again, but at least you can be certain of this: You are likely far more resilient than you realize, and if and when you do experience a run-in, you'll finally get to see the full capacity of that inner-strength.
Dr. Susan Edelman, psychiatrist
Dr. Sherrie Campbell, psychologist and counselor
Fisher, Helen E., et al. “Reward, Addiction, and Emotion Regulation Systems Associated With Rejection in Love.” Journal of Neurophysiology, vol. 104, no. 1, 2010, pp. 51–60., doi:10.1152/jn.00784.2009.