It’s been about 10 years since I published The Tao of Dating: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Being Absolutely Irresistible (ebook, print, audiobook). Although most of the stuff I wrote that long ago has become too cringeworthy for me to read, this book is mostly okay. And thanks to the support of readers like you, it’s once again Amazon’s highest-rated dating book for women (4.5/5 stars). So I’m starting to think it’s useful to people.
In the meantime, I’ve had a decade’s worth of personal experience, 5000 letters from readers, and countless talks and seminars to reshape my thinking about dating and love for the modern woman. From that mass of data, three big principles have emerged that I’d like to share with you today.
1. Are you buying or selling?
When I was in Helsinki last summer, going to the farmer’s market was one of the most enjoyable things I did. Finland is big on berries, and has an abundance of wild blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, cloudberries, lingonberries, hinkleberries and floinkenberries. Okay, so maybe I made up the last two, but the rest are real and tasty. And at the farmer’s market, you’ve got all these vendors with acres of the stuff selling it for cheap.
So there I was, armed with my all-powerful berry-buying euros, thinking, “Hmm, which vendor should I buy from?” Here, let’s make it a multiple-choice quiz so you can help me out:
Vendor A: pretty solid berries but starting to look a little tired, 4 euros
Vendor B: big juicy bright superfresh berries, 3 euros
Vendor C: big juicy bright superfresh berries, 5 euros
So—which one should Dr Ali choose? If you said “B, duh”, then you understand the idea of being a buyer with money in your pocket and options to choose from. You know what you want, and you pick the best option.
Now, let’s switch the scenario around a little bit and pretend this is what happens instead:
You arrive at Vendor A. Hey, look, berries! They look a little worse for wear, but overall not bad. Oh, you’re willing to sell to me? No way! It must be my lucky day! I’ll take ‘em all. Will you pleeeez take my money?
What, you won’t even look at the other vendors, even though you’ve got money in your pocket? Do you see how much nonsense that makes? And yet, that is exactly how most people approach the relationship market. They act like they’re selling when they should be buying.
You’re selling whenever you try to persuade people how wonderful you are. I’m a great cook! I make mad money! I give body-melting massages with hot chestnut oil! I’m great in the sack! I’m pretty! Choose meeee!
And it’s possible that you’re all of those things and an excellent salesperson, and thus get all kinds of attention.
But in the end, the best salesperson in the world has less power than even the least skilled buyer. The science of game theory guarantees it. Because the buyer has choice. And choice in the marketplace is power.
How do you practice being the buyer in the dating world? By being playfully discriminating. The attitude is something like, “Hey, you seem pretty interesting. Let’s find out what you have going for you and whether there’s a potential match here.”
This would be in contradistinction to “Omigod you are so amazing and beautiful and great please give me a smidgen of attention pretty please I promise I’ll make it worth your while even though deep down inside I’m not worthy but give me a chance anyway? Pretty pleez?”
Yeah, that may not work so well.
And yet, in spite of the inherent weakness of the seller stance, it’s the one most people in the relationship marketplace assume by default. So if you are that rare person who has the presence of mind to adopt the subtle shift in perspective to become the buyer, you will win more often.
It does not cost anything to assume the buyer stance. You don’t have to lose weight, get a new hairdo, go to the gym, go on a diet, or get cosmetic treatments to assume it. And yet, it will make you more attractive than all of those external interventions.
In The Tao of Dating, I call this the picky buyer stance. And while I want you to be picky, I also want you to remain compassionate and kind. It’s very easy to lapse from picky to hardass to jerk. But you will never do that, because you will remain your playful, fun, kind self. Right? Right. The point is to keep your heart and mind open while conveying that you have standards.
The picky buyer stance is especially important to remember when meeting people online. This is because an online profile is basically an advertisement, which is by definition what people utilize to sell things. So when you go online, there’s no way around going into sell mode initially. Once you receive some messages from interested parties, then you can go back to being the picky buyer.
Being the buyer vs the seller feeds directly into the next principle, which may not only be the most important principle for dating, but also for lifelong happiness and fulfillment.
2. Are you enough?
One of the two things that struck me about the 5000 or so readers’ letters I’ve received in the past 10 years is that they all basically contained the same question even though on the surface, they looked different:
• “I’m a 37yr old divorced mother of two. Will any guy want to go out with a woman with young children?”
• “We had a great first date, and I texted him the next day to thank him. It’s been two days and he hasn’t responded yet. Has he lost interest?”
• “We’ve been dating for three years and I thought we were headed towards marriage. But now he’s saying he wants some space. What should I do?”
• “Does my butt look good in these pants?”
But deep down, they were all variations on the same question:
“Am I enough?”
The problem: it’s the wrong question. Merely attempting to answer it puts you in a seller position that’s impossible to escape from. Also: Enough for what? The changing whims of culture and fashion? The unfathomable desires of millions of different potential partners, most of whom don’t even consciously know what they want? Your own pointlessly harsh standards?
Some of you reading this right now are probably thinking, “Omigod, he’s right! I’ve been am-I-enoughing myself forever! How terrible!”
And that would be funny, ‘cause there you go doing it again. But it’s okay: everybody does it. There are multi-billion dollar industries arrayed to make us feel terrible about ourselves: TV, movies, cosmetics, advertising, exercise, diet. Making us feel bad about ourselves is how people sell us stuff.
(a) Instead of asking “Am I enough?,” ask “How can I be of service?”
Even if you do happen to think you’re enough for one brief shining moment, that moment will pass. The hair will have a bad day. The outfit will go out of style. The culture’s ideal butt will go from Reubens to Marilyn to Twiggy and back, while yours stays attached to you mostly unchanged. And there’s no escaping self-criticism (except for the solution in (c) below).
Trying to be enough is a game you cannot win. It is temporary power at best, because it can be taken away from you.
The good news is that on any given day, wherever you are, you have the opportunity to be someone’s answered prayer. You have the power to elevate those around you, appreciate them genuinely, and make them feel like a billion bucks:
“Love how you’ve put together that outfit!”
“Really enjoyed your presentation. So uplifting!”
“Thank you for a fantastic dinner! So wonderful of you to bring us together!”
The power to elevate others is power that cannot be taken away from you. You can do it anytime, anywhere. And because of the hypersocial human brain, when you make other people feel good, you feel good. And when you feel good, you glow, and people want to be around you. You’ll feel great, and you won’t ever be lonely again.
To implement this into your life, start by setting a goal of giving one more compliment per day than you were before. For most of us, that adds up to one compliment per day. The bus driver, the receptionist, an old friend, your partner—everyone is eligible. Let’s make a habit out of this.
Another interesting thing happens when you make being of service a part of your identity. Potential partners will go from wondering if you’re good enough for them to thinking if they’re good enough for you. Your mere presence will want them to be a better man! How’s that for a shift from “Am I enough?”
(b) Practice self-compassion
Self-compassion would be the opposite of the voice inside your head saying stuff like “I can’t believe I left the food on the stove overnight again what a bonehead just shoot me now.” Prof Kristin Neff of the University of Texas suggests three things you can do to replace the habitual self-harshness with some self-compassion:
1. Self-kindness. Imagine your 7-year old nephew breaks a plate. Would you crash down on him like a titanium anvil, or say something like, “Oh, careful now but don’t worry about it too much”? Self-kindness means being as nice to yourself as you would be to the 7yr old nephew.
2. Recognize our common humanity. Everyone screws up. Everyone has issues like Kleenex has tissues, and they’re all the same issues, no matter how exotic and unique you think yours are. As the recipient of all of your letters, I have proof that whatever problem you’re having, hundreds of others have it, too.
3. Mindfulness. According to Prof Neff, “Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time.” This is about allowing yourself to feel whatever emotion you’re experiencing without over-identifying with it. Acknowledge it, feel it, and let it pass.
(c) Get rid of your small self.
One of the foundational tenets of Buddhist philosophy (and all mystical traditions) is to get rid of your sense of self entirely. If there is no you, then nobody can belittle you, insult you, betray you, or break your heart. No self, no problem!
The problem is that getting to no-self ain’t so simple. One path is to meditate. A lot. And while you meditate, you take one step back from your own thoughts and feelings so you can stop identifying with them. Instead, you identify with the pure consciousness behind those thoughts or feelings. Think of your consciousness as the TV screen, with your thoughts the programs showing on it. You are the TV screen, not the programs.
Eventually, the state of dis-identifying from your thoughts goes from being a state to becoming a trait. That’s what the sages call samadhi, or satori, or awakening.
As a regular meditator, I’ve come to appreciate the slight impracticality of telling folks to solve their relationship problems by practicing no-self (anatta). It’s like telling an out-of-shape person to take up ultramarathons. That said, you can begin the practice of dis-identification by meditating.
Meditation is by far the single most beneficial practice I’ve taken up. And you can begin with just 2 minutes a day. Who doesn’t have time to sit and do nothing for 2 minutes? Apps like Calm, Headspace, and Waking Up are excellent ways to ease yourself into it.
3. What do you want?
The second thing that struck me about the 5000 letters was that they almost never contained a real question. I’d get a novella about how they met, the minute-by-minute unfolding of the first three dates, his lingering attachment to his ex, and then: “What do you think I should do, Doc?”
And that’s when I would say with total certainty, “Buy Tesla stock! It’s, like, totally undervalued.”
Well, actually, I don’t really know about that. I also don’t know about what you want. And until you tell me what you want—some kind of desirable outcome—I have no basis to dispense advice, dubious or sage.
There are some general guidelines, of course. Hang out with people who bring out your best self and catalyze your growth. Don’t chase bright, shiny objects without regard for whether there’s an actual fit between you. Only date people who are actually single and available. “Separated”, “divorcing”, and “like totally separated but ex still lives in the house” are not the same as single and available.
So. You need to ask yourself, “If I could wave a magic wand here and get exactly what I want, what would that look like?” You’d be shocked and amazed how much clarity this simple mental exercise will give you.
For example, sometimes what you really want is not a relationship with a hotshot who has repeatedly signaled his unavailability with poor communication and a busy schedule, but something simple and more reliable. Sometimes you just want a fun fling, not something serious. Sometimes you don’t actually want the long-distance relationship to work out, but rather to handle your latent tendency to avoid real intimacy. Sometimes you want the bad boy you’re dating to propose to you, and you know he’ll never do that, which means you’re free to look elsewhere.
Sometimes it’s okay not to know exactly what you want. Last thing you want is to spend lots of time and effort attaining a lofty but ultimately wrong goal. On the other hand, things like growth and fulfillment are directional goals. So long as you’re on the path to greater growth and fulfillment, you know you’re going in the right direction.
And sometimes, it’s okay to just go into the silence and practice solitude. Work on yourself. If you can’t stand your own company, how can you expect anyone else to stand you? Learning to be alone without being lonely is one of the cornerstone skills of relationship.
The principles I just described are simple to grasp. They may not be trivial to implement them into your life, especially if you’ve been practicing their opposites for years. But it’s certainly possible to change. One of the most hopeful aspects of human existence is neuroplasticity. The brain can change and grow no matter how long you’ve been alive. You can learn new ways of doing things.
So if you’ve been playing the seller your entire life, go ahead and try playing the buyer for a while and see what happens. Experiment! Make a game out of it. If you’ve been acting as if you’re not enough, shift to practicing self-compassion and being of service, and notice the results. If you haven’t been a meditator, start with 2 min a day. And if you’re having a difficult time figuring out what you really want, start with a list of things you really don’t want. That should help clarify the values you hold dear, which is a signpost to what you want in your life.
I hope you find a way to implement these principles into your life. I’m interested in hearing about your thoughts and experiences. There are thousands of you and only one of me, so there’s a lot more collective wisdom in your midst than in my noggin. Either comment on the article below, or write to me directly at DrAliB (at) TaoOfDating.com. If you have a question, keep it under 250 words and make sure you include a question :) And if you’d like me to do more consultations and office hours, let me know so I can make time for it in the schedule.
All the best, Dr Ali
To further explore some of the principles I discuss in the article, here are some useful resources:
• Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach (ebook & print). One of the best books ever written on meditation and living at peace with oneself. Just might be the best $11 you’ll ever spend.
• A Woman’s Worth by Marianne Williamson. Great antidote to feelings of not-enoughness.
• The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, by Norman Doidge, M.D. (ebook & print). Neuroplasticity is real and applies to everyone, including you right now. Some tremendously inspiring stories in here. Probably the most hopeful book I’ve ever read.