“Who would ever want me?”: On being lovable
Hello, ladies and the occasional curious gentleman. Noah’s Flood has hit Northern California with full force, and I volunteered to be part of the crew that collects pairs of animals for the ark. The problem is that I really can’t tell the difference between, say, a boy armadillo and a girl armadillo. So if certain species end up going extinct in the near future, you didn’t hear about any of this. Deal? Deal.
In other news, I’ve been doing some research on my ongoing project called Happiness Engineering. In the course of my readings, I’ve come across a bunch of interesting research emphasizing the importance of vulnerability, compassion, self-compassion and mindfulness. In my last article, I covered some of those topics. This being the hammer that the world has provided me for the foreseeable future, I’ll be looking at the letters you send me as the perfect nails for said hammer. Case in point, we have one from Cori, a 44-year old widow with 4 kids who just started dating again:
After being married for years, my husband died of cancer, and I started dating again. I’m 44; the new guy is divorced. After dating for a while, the new guy says he wants to marry me. But after getting to know him for over year now, I’ve noticed that has a bad temper. He calls me names when he gets mad, like “jackass” – who even uses that anymore?! – and slams the phone down etc. Gets mad at me a lot. Told him it’s not fun anymore and I’m not okay with anger issues. He offered to change. I declined the offer. He argues that he is committed, dependable, and loving and I bring out the anger by doing stupid shit basically. I told him no go – husband of many years never called me a name, ever.
Question: Am I nuts to break up with a man willing to take on a widow with four kids? I meet tons of men. I’m super sexual. Get hit on plenty but his point is they all just want sex, not love. I’d rather be alone! But do you think people change?! I really don’t. I feel pretty liberated by making my own choices and not allowing myself to settle…
Anyway. As always just hoping for some honest thoughts from the smartest man I know (online anyway). Hope your love life is going better than mine. — Cori
Dear Cori – I’d say you’re pretty smart, too, since saying stuff like “Just hoping for some honest thoughts from the smartest man I know” is exactly the way to motivate me :)
Your letter brings up a bunch of interesting points. First off, because you’re so smart and fabulous, here’s what I would say: trust yourself. You don’t like the anger. Your late husband never called you a bad name the whole time you were together. Clearly this is something you don’t want to tolerate, and really nobody should. You already have clear boundaries, and he’s obviously violating them. He could be a trillionaire who’s a typhoon in the sack, but if he has a habit of pooping on the breakfast table, then you can’t be with him. Uncontrolled anger is like pooping on the breakfast table, except that it can happen unpredictably at any time, anywhere, not just at mealtime. His blaming it on you because you supposedly do “stupid shit” is BULLSHIT, emotionally manipulative and inexcusable. A grown man is responsible for his own behavior.
Now this line from the letter was quite telling:
“Question: Am I nuts to break up with a man willing to take on a widow with four kids?”
Let me translate that into what it’s actually saying:
“Since I’m just a widow burdened with 4 kids, I should hold on to any guy who would give me the time of day. I mean, when will I ever get another chance? Who would be crazy enough to want little ol’ me?”
Well, Cori, I don’t know. Who would be crazy enough to want little ol’ you?
And ladies — before you think that somehow this is a problem unique to Cori, please raise your hand if you’ve ever had a version of this go through YOUR mind, ahem:
“Who would want to be with me with my oversize thighs / stringy hair / pot belly / C on my report card / chronic disease / neat-freak tendencies / crappy job / ugly neighborhood / weird family / shitty car / funny-looking feet / dwarf stature / beanpole height / asymmetrical boobs / annoyingly high voice / funny accent / other perfectly common no-big-deal issue which I will nevertheless unconsciously use as a barrier to intimacy?”
Now, I haven’t met you, so it doesn’t make sense for me to sit here and boost your ego by singing your praises. What I can do, however, is to tell you how you can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are enough.
See, I get hundreds of letters from you ladies every year. And you all think you have this one special problem that’s specific to you and you alone.
Well, I’ve got news for ya. All of you have one problem and one problem alone, and it’s pretty much the same for all of you. And I’ve said before, it is this question:
AM I LOVABLE?
That’s pretty much it. Everything else boils down to that, as I mentioned in my last article. Am I worthy of love? Am I pulling my weight on this planet? Is there any good reason why people should like me, want to spend time with me and be nice to me?
Luckily, the answers to those questions are entirely in your hands. Here are three things you can do such that you know that you’ve done your part in being, like, totally lovable:
1) Am I being vulnerable?
What’s the most lovable thing in the world? An infant, a kitten or a puppy would qualify. So cute! So adorable!
And so completely useless. I mean, what can a baby do? Not much besides pee, poop, and make nipples sore. And yet, because it’s also perfectly defenseless, everyone adores it.
Now, granted, there are also some deep evolutionary mechanisms at work assuring that we find wrinkly, pudgy, smoosh-faced, income- and sleep-annihilating babies adorable, otherwise the human race just wouldn’t propagate.
Nevertheless, it’s still true that lovability is directly proportional to vulnerability. One thing we all know for sure: perfectionism, the polar opposite of vulnerability, is distinctly non-cuddly and just plain unattractive. So if you’re trying to attract men, what may work even better than trying to come off as a hypercompetent, fiercely independent overachiever is this: a little bit of emotional self-disclosure.
Admit that sometimes things are tough. That you wish you had more support, more close company that you could share experiences with. That you miss your dad who passed away 6 years ago, and that you wish he could have met his grandkids. That all the responsibility of being a powerful woman weighs you down sometimes. That the scar from the surgery still hurts. That you gave up your childhood dream of being a classical cellist for a corporate job. Emotional self-disclosure of pain or imperfection like these make you more vulnerable, and therefore more approachable and lovable.
Vulnerability brings out the protective and nurturing instincts of a man – his noblest aspects. Perfectionism, on the other hand, brings out his competitive instincts. Which one would you prefer? Would you rather fight or be cherished? Your choice.
At the same time, “vulnerable” means “more subject to harm.” So make sure the person you’re making yourself vulnerable to is the right audience for it. Last thing you want is some brute who’ll attack you just when you’ve exposed your soft underbelly.
Also, make sure that vulnerability is the spice, rather than the whole dish. If you’re perpetually talking about the pain in your life, that’s not vulnerability – that’s just whining. This is not about dumping your woes on people. This is about discreetly making yourself vulnerable, in measured doses, to someone you like.
2) Am I being self-compassionate?
Generally speaking, people can only love you to the extent that you love yourself. So – how much do you love yourself? If you’re constantly putting yourself down and telling yourself how much of an idiot you are, then you’re probably going to end up with someone who agrees with you or worse.
Why? Because you’re going to reject out of hand any guy who likes you more than you like yourself. “What could he possibly see in me? He’s either crazy, deluded or faking it.” That would be funny if it weren’t true of so many people I know.
The antidote to this is a healthy sense of self-compassion (which apparently is different from self-esteem, but that’s a story for a different day). According to Prof Kristin Neff of the University of Texas in Austin, who pioneered the field and wrote the book on self-compassion (full delightful title: Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind) there are 3 components to it:
a) Self-kindness, meaning that we are gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental. Basically, when you flub, be as nice to yourself as you would be to others. Simple.
b) Recognizing our common humanity, meaning that we feel connected to others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering. This is what I was talking about earlier in the article when I said all of you have the same am-I-lovable problem. You’re not alone in being alone, as the immortal bard Sting put it in the song Message in a Bottle.
c) Mindfulness, meaning that we remain aware of our pain but keep that observation in perspective, rather than ignoring the pain or exaggerating it.
Practice self-compassion, and the beast of low self-worth is likely to go on a very long vacation.
3) Am I being loving?
If you’re being vulnerable and self-compassionate, that’s a great start. But being loving is also an active, outward-directed thing. So this is third part of doing your homework so you know that you are totally, completely, 100% worthy of love involves building up other people in addition to not tearing yourself down. Some ways of being loving:
- Being a catalyst for others’ growth
- Habitually making folks feel like a million bucks
- Expressing your appreciation of people
- Being focused more on giving than taking (while still looking out for yourself, ahem – no doormats or martyrs, please)
- Valuing people as ends in themselves, not as means to some other end
- Saying more positive things than negative things (3:1 ratio at least)
The good news is this is all under your control. You can choose to be vulnerable. You can choose to be loving. And when you do, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are worthy of love.
But wait! There’s more. There’s a side benefit to all of this. As a result of all of these practices, e.g. making others feel like a million bucks, YOU’RE going to feel like a million bucks, too! Scientists have shown that all of this stuff that you do – raising people up, sharing of yourself, being giving – has a direct, positive effect on you. It makes you feel good!
So to go back to Cori’s original question: Who would want to date a 44-year old woman with 4 kids? Who’s gonna love you, girl?
Well, if you’re doing the stuff that we just talked about, the answer is legions of guys – assuming they have some sense in them. At the same time, the work of vulnerability, self-compassion and being loving is its own reward. How’s that for a win-win?
So go forth and live it up. Make someone’s day — especially your own. I’ve gotta put on my rain gear and catch some armadilloes for now, but I fully expect to hear back on how it went for you when I’m back.
Best, Dr Ali
PS: As you may know, the audiobook of The Tao of Dating for Women is now available on Audible and Amazon. Audible has a deal where you can get it for free. And if you’re one of the first people to put up a review of it on Audible.com, I will hook you up with a free download code to send to a friend. I have 15 gift codes left, so hurry! Once your review is published, send me an email with “AUDIBLE REVIEW” in the subject and the link to your review, and I shall hook you up with the goods.