Last year I went on a first date that I hoped would be the first of many more. We met online and chatted for a week. He was sweet, charming, smart and direct. He’d asked if we could continue the conversation in person over a meal and I was already impressed. “Alright, he knows exactly what he wants. That’s refreshing.”
When I saw him across the room, it felt like a reversed catfish. His pictures didn’t do him justice as he looked like he just stepped out of GQ in his suit. His baritone voice made my heart skip a beat as he shyly said “Hello”. “Uh oh, I’m in trouble…” I thought as I smiled back.
We had both agreed that we were seeking something casual prior to the date. We wined and dined, flirted and teased, and shared our stories. I hate to admit it but I performed my best version of Rin that evening – sassy, funny, gregarious and coy. I went into auto mode of “Pick me, pick me!” Until we ended the evening with a hug and he said “Let’s keep in touch…”
The death knell to any date.
You say “let’s keep in touch” at the end of a business meeting, and even then everyone knows it’s a euphemism for “… yeah, I don’t think so but I’m being polite”. My heart sank as I tried not to jump to conclusions and enjoy the evening for what it was. I smiled, a little too broadly, “I’m sure I’ll see you soon.” My last desperate clutch as a silent prayer that he’ll change his mind.
Sure enough, the next morning as I sent a thank you text and asked if he’ll like to meet again, the two tiny checkmarks remained unseen.
One hour, two hours, three…. I went through the classic stages of anger, worry, guilt, stupidity and shame. Finally later that night, he replies. “I’m really sorry, it was a busy day. I enjoyed our time together but have had a change of heart since then and would like to focus on myself.”
My heart lurched to my stomach yet I also felt absolutely ridiculous for even reacting that way. Feeling loss over a text exchange of seven days and a date? But I couldn’t shake off my anxious nature, “Was it me? Was there something I could have done differently?”
Even as I hit Send, the words on screen mocked me. “You are a grown 38 year old woman who’s suppose to be an expert at this! It’s his prerogative to put his boundaries down. He’s being polite and upfront. Why are you prying?” The inner critic inside hissed at me.
“No, you were great. It’s not you, it’s me. I hope you find someone you deserve.”
I saw my therapist a few weeks later. I was almost embarrassed to blurt out what’s been lurking at the back of my mind.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve been out of the dating scene for a while. Or it’s my conditioned anxious attachment style. But I felt, pardon my french, like complete, utter shit.
I recounted the personal rejection to her and how logically I knew I was spiraling over nothing. I confessed that each time I found myself moping, two distinct voices in my head would pop up to make sense of the situation.
“Come on, at least he didn’t ghost you.”
“Yeah but he led me on!”
“But how? He already said he wanted something casual.”
“Yeah, but a casual relationship… not just one date!”
“He’s allowed to change his mind you know. Isn’t that what you preach?”
“I wonder if it’s something I said or did that made him change his mind?”
“Don’t go there.. you were just being yourself. You’ve worked so hard on being you. Don’t apologize.”
“Maybe that’s it? Maybe I was myself and it’s too much at first? Maybe I should have been more mysterious?”
“Seriously? Again, you advocate for knowing yourself first and staying true to you. You know what happens when you try to change for a guy…”
“Maybe that’s it! Maybe it’s the blog that scared him. I shouldn’t have told him about it. He didn’t even give me a chance…”
“Babe, this is ridiculous. You are putting this complete stranger on a pedestal now…”
Thoughts, like feelings, can feel like relentless waves crashing against the shore. So my therapist’s go-to philosophy is to rely on the body’s cues instead, “Well, how did your body react when you got the text?” She asked.
I paused and sighed. Then told her the embarrassing truth.
Unwittingly, my body had responded in silent hot tears. First they rolled down quietly as I stared at my phone screen crafting a response. And as I thanked him for his honesty and watch the text thread wiped to a blank slate, the discreet tear trails turned to heaving sobs. Then I cried into my pillow like a lovelorn teenager. Now three weeks later, it seems like a fever dream that I can’t shake off. I still felt heavy.
And worse, I felt ashamed and betrayed by my own reaction. I thought I’d healed from all this needy bullshit.
My therapist looked at me square in the eyes and kindly said, “No, it’s real. Your grief and loss is real. You built a story around him with hope and optimism, and that’s what you lost. And it’s ok.”
Ironically in my last essay, I touched on how stories can help us build resilience and self-love. That afternoon in therapy, I discovered that stories can also keep us in stasis. When we get attached to the narrative and spark of potential, we miss out on actual reality and letting things go and flow.
When I said “Uh oh” to myself when I first spotted my date, I was actually correct to a certain extent. I wasn’t in trouble because of him, I was in trouble because of the subconscious story I was crafting in real time. A witty sweet GQ model interested in moi? Of course it felt like hitting jackpot! And right on cue, it brought up my deepest fears of being unworthy: ‘Wait a minute, a witty sweet GQ model is interested in lil ol’ ME? Fuck, I’d better not mess this up!’
There were two stories simultaneously playing in my head.
A. Here is a ridiculously perfect specimen of a man
B. I am not good enough as I am for him to choose me.
My therapist wisely pointed out the third story in the background. Since I obviously cannot control anyone’s feelings or actions, my only semblance of finding stability amidst the unknown is crafting the narrative in a way to take back control. “Ok, he said no because it must have been something I did. I can fix this.”
It was Joan Didion who wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
While it was easy for me to see why I created story A and B in my head almost immediately when I met him (cue flashbacks to a string of failed relationships and observing unhealthy attachment dynamics as a child), it was the third story that puzzled me. I thought I was the model student in adapting to change and being resilient… why would I deliberately try to take control of a situation by blaming myself?
The answer is in our brains. We’re actually evolved to feel emotional pain when we are rejected because it’s the same part of the brain where physical pain is activated. A fascinating study by Ethan Kross, Marc G. Berman, Walter Mischel, Edward E. Smith, and Tor D. Wager showed that under MRI , “rejection and physical pain are similar not only in that they are both distressing—they share a common somatosensory representation as well.” Evolutionary psychologists theorize that since we were essentially dependent on others to survive, the feeling of rejection is a mechanism for us to change our behavior to remain in line with the rest of the tribe.
Taking things personally after a romantic rejection then is a lethal combination of this evolutionary reaction and trying to create structure and pattern from the randomness of life. I might not have understood why I was moping around like a sulky teenager for a few weeks but my body did.
My body went through the motions conditioned by my past narratives of rejections, worst fears and insecurities (‘Why doesn’t anyone stay?’ was the line that kept playing in my head). Simply put, my body didn’t know the difference between the perceived loss of potential and actual loss of a real relationship. It felt and was exactly the same at that time.
Like any good story, this one should come nicely wrapped with a bow and a lesson to be learned. I’ll be lying if I said I’ve forgotten about him. He pops in my head once in a while as I secretly hope I’ll get a random text going “I’ve changed my mind, I can’t get you out of my head.” I blame Hollywood and romance novels for that.
I’ll also be fibbing a little if I said I’m back to being my confident ‘this-is-me’ self. I can joke about it now with my friends, I can write about it for the world to read, but at times, when I flirt with a boy or two, a little voice inside goes “Don’t get your hopes up!” I’m not a fan of that voice just because I’m an eternal optimist. As a mentor said, if you want big love but you build big walls, how will it ever come in?
Instead, the lesson I’m taking away from this tale is gratitude for the gift of literal reflection. I used to wonder why people often use the term ‘reflection’ as a way to describe their inner thoughts but now I see it’s a metaphor of holding up a mirror to see yourself, warts and all. At first sight, I didn’t like what the mirror showed me about myself. I only saw how needy, clingy, naive and performative I was at first despite thinking I’ve healed and evolved the past few years. Then I took a deep breath and looked in the mirror again. I saw the dark spots where I subconsciously felt I was lacking, how anxious I can get to please someone, and also how lonely I feel without a partner. It’s not the prettiest sight nor one that I’m proud to admit to, but it’s the truth and absolutely liberating.
Because the more you know what’s really driving your emotions and thoughts, the kinder you are to yourself. The more you can push up your sleeves and go “Alright, we’re not done healing yet… it’s ok, we’ll keep going”.
And the more you do the dirty work of facing your fears, insecurities and unhealthy behavior, the easier it becomes to see that the damsel-in-distress and the prince-who-comes-to-save-her is exactly one and the same person in the mirror: you.
But yeah, until then give me a few more weeks to jump back on the proverbial (dating) horse….