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Have you ever been in a situation where you liked someone who didn’t like you back? Three out of four students say they have, according to a recent Student Health 101 survey. “Most people have experienced at least one crush,” says Dr. J. Dennis Fortenberry, professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis.
Amalia*, a freshman in Brooklyn, New York, says she liked someone for a whole two years before she worked up the courage to tell him. “He found out, and he doesn’t like me like I like him,” she says. “It’s very hard to move on, but I’m working on it.”
What does it mean to have a crush?
“A crush is an attraction based on one person projecting their romantic ideals onto another person,” says Dr. Carl Pickhardt, a psychologist in Austin, Texas.
Projecting romantic ideals? What does that even mean?
When we have a crush, we tend to feel like that person is the answer to everything we’ve ever dreamed of in a romantic partner. We play out scenarios in our heads about how they’d talk to us, look at us, treat us, what they’re thinking, and how their lives would perfectly mesh with ours. But more often than not, we don’t know our crush well enough to know whether any of that could be true. Psychologists believe our minds often craft these attributes based on what we hope the person is like rather than what they’re actually like. “Crushes have more to do with fantasy than with reality, and they tell much more about the admirer than the admired,” Dr. Pickhardt writes in Psychology Today.
But that doesn’t mean we should dismiss how we’re feeling. Dr. Pickhardt explains that crushes are an important part of how we learn about romantic love, and the emotions associated with them are for real.
How to see crushes as a learning experience
Even if your crush doesn’t work out the way you’d initially hoped—most don’t—you can learn a lot from the experience. “A crush can be an important way to learn about attraction to other people and how to handle feelings of rejection if that attraction is not mutual,” says Dr. Fortenberry.
Of course it can be difficult to see it this way when you’re reeling from the heartache of your crush asking someone else out, but crushes are important because they help you get to know yourself better.
“In coming to know yourself, you need to be intimately involved with others, to talk intimately and to reflect on yourself and the other person,” says Dr. Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Miami School of Medicine. “I think it’s an intellectual need—certainly a social need—to be liked by someone.”
When feelings are one-sided
When you have a crush who doesn’t feel the same way as you do, it can be a heartbreaking experience. But it’s also a very common situation; everybody experiences rejection at some point. “Crushes are normal, and although it sucks when they’re not reciprocated, it’s completely okay,” says Cam, a senior from Andover, Massachusetts.
“It can be painful to realize that one’s feelings aren’t returned, but that can also be important information,” says Dr. Fortenberry. “It helps us get our priorities straight and figure out how to move on.”
How to move on when the feeling’s not mutual
Follow these four tips:
1. Take a step back and reflect on the situation.
Your crush might be a great person, but chances are slim they’re as wonderful as you’d imagined. Ask yourself: Are your feelings based on an idealized version of the person you’re crushing on? Often, these attributes are not as close to reality as we let ourselves believe, notes Dr. Carl Pickhardt, a psychologist in Austin, Texas. Perhaps you exaggerated certain attributes you thought your crush had, only to make the harsh discovery that they weren’t entirely true.
How students say they deal when a crush doesn’t return their affection
Talk to the people they’re close with about their feelings
Get involved in a new activity (e.g., clubs, sports, yoga, art class)
Hang out with friends as a distraction
Try to meet new people to check out “the other fish in the sea”
Write in a journal
Unfollow the crush on social media
Spend some time indulging in their feelings (e.g., listen to Adele or watch a sad movie)
Delete/throw away text conversations, notes, pictures, and messages they had with the crush
Source: Student Health 101 survey, October 2015
Acknowledge that the feelings aren’t mutual, and accept the loss
Respect yourself for daring to dream, says Dr. Pickhardt. “When I liked someone who didn’t like me back, I was able to realize that and move on,” says Caroline, a sophomore in Brooklyn, New York.
Take some time to let yourself feel sad. Try turning on some music or a movie that allows you to express your emotions. Write down your thoughts and feelings in a journal. Allowing yourself to fully experience your emotions, rather than pushing them aside, can help you move past them.
2. Remember your self-worth.
The rejection you feel is not a reflection of who you are as a person. Keep in mind that pretty much everyone will feel this kind of heartbreak at some point in life—and most of your peers already have.
Focus on your positive attributes
Look in the mirror and pick out all of the things you love about yourself. “I tell myself I haven’t been asked out not because I’m a horrible, unlovable person who is scary and intimidating,” says Riana, a senior from Thornton, Colorado. “It’s because I’m unique and my unique match just hasn’t come across yet.”
Remember, people are probably crushing on you, too
There are people who are probably feeling the same way about you as you’re feeling about your crush. If you know of someone specifically who has had a crush on you, think about what attracted them to you. Maybe they really liked the way you made them laugh or how you answered questions in class. Even if you weren’t interested in that person, remembering that you are likable and desirable can help put things in perspective. If you don’t know of anyone who has ever had a crush on you, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. Many people keep their feelings to themselves. “You’ll find someone who appreciates you for who you are,” says Megan, a freshman from Brooklyn, New York.
3. Try to see the bigger picture.
Look to the future
You have a lifetime ahead of you, and more than likely you’ll have relationships with people you haven’t even met yet. Think about all of the experiences to come—new schools, new jobs, new people to meet. “I just try to remember that I’m young and I shouldn’t worry about something as minor as [a crush],” says Leslie, a junior from Forest Park, Illinois. “Don’t take it personally,” says Brian*, a senior from Forest Park, Illinois.
Think of it as a learning experience
Focus on the fact that you’re “meeting interesting people and getting involved with interesting people, rather than thinking, ‘this [is ruining] my life because I lost this relationship,’” says Dr. Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Miami School of Medicine.
Think back to past experiences. Do you remember feeling similar emotions to these about a former crush? Think about how you were able to move on then, and believe in your ability to do it again.
Be grateful for other important happenings in your life
Your emotions might feel overwhelming, but remember that your world hasn’t ended. “Maybe it’s not what you wanted at first, but things will work out in the end,” says Zana, a freshman from Brooklyn, New York.
Don’t forget that there are other important things and people in your life who deserve your time and attention. “When I liked someone and they didn’t really like me back, I realized that it wasn’t that important, because even though boys are nice to have fun with, there are other things that are way more important,” says Alessandra, a freshman from Brooklyn, New York.
Focus on what is going well for you right now, such as:
- Your grade in English class
- The basketball game your team won last night
- The good friends you have surrounding you
- The cute girl/guy in class who always says “Hi” to you
4. Talk to friends, parents, or counselors.
Recognize the importance of feeling your emotions to re-experience loss
While you don’t want to obsess over the feelings you’re experiencing, you shouldn’t ignore them either. “It’s good to rehash the feelings, and go over it a few times just to get perspective,” says Dr. Field. She refers to a phenomenon known in psychology as “re-experiencing,” which allows you to release the emotions you’ve been holding in by expressing them to someone else.
Turn to the people you trust for comfort
Ask your friends or an adult you trust to let you vent a little and speak your mind. “Let out some of the emotion you’ve internalized by expressing it to someone else,” says Dr. Field. According to our survey, two out of three student respondents say they turn to the people they’re close to when they need to talk out their feelings about a crush.
“Surround yourself with positive people,” says Kelly, a junior from Indianapolis, Indiana. Distract yourself by spending time with friends and doing activities you enjoy, such as:
- Cozying up with your favorite book or TV show.
- Practicing something creative, such as art, dance, or writing.
- Going to the movies with friends.
- Hanging out with your pet or animals at the animal shelter. (Research shows that spending time with animals causes the release of oxytocin, a hormone that calms us and gives us those warm and fuzzy feels.)
Tiffany M. Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institute in the Department of Pediatrics, University of Miami School of Medicine, Miami.
J. Dennis Fortenberry, MD, MS, professor of pediatrics and medicine, Indiana University School of Medicine, Indianapolis.
Carl Pickhardt, PhD, MeD, psychologist, Austin, Texas.
Field, T. (2011). Romantic breakups, heartbreak, and bereavement—romantic breakups. Psychology, 2(04), 382.
Fine, A. H. (Ed.). (2010). Handbook on animal-assisted therapy: Theoretical foundations and guidelines for practice. Academic Press.
Fortenberry, J. D. (2013). Puberty and adolescent sexuality. Hormones and Behavior, 64(2), 280–287.
Pickhardt, C. E. (2012, September 10). Adolescence and the teenage crush. Pyschology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/surviving-your-childs-adolescence/201209/adolescence-and-the-teenage-crush