I have dated a lot in my life. Mostly starting in my early twenties after graduating college, I jumped into dating head first. It was a harsh learning curve. My self-esteem wasn’t fully developed and I went into dates feeling nervous. I was fearful about being judged for who I was. I would hold back a lot of myself, from trivial things like my taste in music, to bigger parts of my personality. When I liked someone a lot, I wanted so desperately for them to like me back that I would diminish the parts of myself that I could tell were not compatible with them. This wasn’t a conscious effort, I would just start to adapt to what it is I THOUGHT they wanted.
Ironically, whatever it was that attracted them to me in the first place would be gone a few months in. I lost who I was, bargaining myself away for the crumbs of their affection. Not only was I not myself, I was presenting the WORST version of myself, the puddle person who just melted away. I would then get confused why the person I liked stopped liking me. Of course they stopped liking me! I wasn’t me anymore!
I went through a couple of these scenarios, feeling increasingly heartbroken and then increasingly jaded. I returned to therapy and started the harder work of learning who I was: What was I actually interested in? What were my values? How did I shape what I thought was “okay” and “not okay”? What contributed to the shame I felt about having my own interests? Who was I trying to impress and for what?
Novelty not Necessity
When I decided to start dating again, I had gained a tremendous amount of personal insight as well as a newfound attitude of ‘give no fucks’. This made dating an exercise in curiosity and less about romantic necessity. I was pretty fine on my own. Being alone was hard, but it wasn’t devastating. I could entertain myself, calm myself, and interrupt patterns of thought that felt harmful. Dating became about novelty. It was about meeting and connecting with another human for a brief amount of time and learning more about myself in that process. I had nothing to lose.
Gathering Dating Data
For a few months, I even made a spreadsheet of all my dates (nerd alert, I like data). I tracked how I felt before, during and after the dates, and what informed those feelings. I started picking up on what I liked about certain people and what things didn’t feel compatible for me. Ironically, everyone I went on a date with during that period wanted to go on a second date with me. I really believe it was because I was fully being myself. I asked questions and I gave honest answers. It didn’t matter what these people thought about me. It mattered how I felt about myself and then if they were lucky, how I felt about them. It may sound harsh, but their judgement was fairly irrelevant. Either we got along, or we didn’t. Either I was interested, or I wasn’t. All of this was okay. It was data for me to gather and continue to inform my process of finding a partner and, almost more importantly, finding myself.
Like What You Like
Making spreadsheets and tracking how I felt may sound unromantic, but to me it felt revelatory. I felt free. It made dating fun. I didn’t have to be nervous, all twisted up about whether or not they were going to judge my love of The Wedding Singer because I would still love The Wedding Singer regardless of whether or not they liked me. I didn’t have to battle with the previous shame I had for just liking what I liked, even if it was seen as “uncool” or unattractive based on whatever the other person was interested in.
Ultimately, to make the best match, showing off my unbridled personal joy will only bring me closer to someone who shares those same interests. Or at least someone who will be stoked for my excitement; even if what brings them joy is something totally different.
Here’s what I’ve learned: Being a fake version of yourself to attract someone else creates an unsustainable foundation for a relationship. Bargaining yourself away for the price of a relationship doesn’t work either, and dang, does it feel bad. And most importantly, the best part of dating is the opportunity to know yourself better. If someone comes along and recognizes that, well then that’s cake.