Dear Sara: I am a 29-year-old single male with social awkwardness, and I’m depressed because I’m getting nowhere with women. I have met some women online, and I’m lucky to get a second date with just one of them. I take it personally, like it’s me, and have had a psychic tell me it’s because I have bad mantras so I therefore have had a doomed love life. I really want commitment, but want to know what I’m doing wrong. I don’t want any more rejection. I’m sick of being alone and depressed. Help me. — R
Dear R: First, please don’t listen to the words of a self-described psychic who tells you something so mean and disempowering. I can’t believe anyone who truly has spiritual depth or insight would say anything like that.
This psychic sounds like a fraud, and my guess is she perpetuates this particular kind of deception by reaffirming beliefs customers already have.
She saw that you felt bad about yourself, and offered up some hocus pocus to confirm it. That’s not insight; that’s exploitation.
But to your larger problem: You’re lonely, depressed, and having a hard time finding someone to have a committed relationship with. It may help to know there are many, many other people dealing with the exact same thing—I have received countless versions of this same letter. So you’re not alone in your situation.
Some people believe they’re better than others. In the news lately, there has been a lot of talk about narcissists—those braggers and preeners who are convinced they are “the greatest” and dismiss all information that suggests otherwise.
But a psychologist recently told me there is a flip side to this personality. Some people believe they are worse than others. They walk into a room and assume no one likes them. When they meet new people, they assume they will be judged poorly.
That attitude is just as unrealistic. The vast majority of us are not particularly great or terrible, we’re just … average. And that’s a good thing. We’re all fairly fragile souls who want to be loved and fear rejection. Your luck may have been worse than other people’s, but that doesn’t mean you’re fundamentally different from other people.
So here’s my suggestion: Instead of worrying about what other people think of you, focus instead on what they’re experiencing. This could be a date, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, I’d suggest practicing in lower-stakes environments. Hold doors open for people. Give them your seat on the bus. Ask the cashier “How’s it going?” When you’re at work or with family, give others the gift of your attention—listen as they tell you about their weekends or grandchildren; let them vent about irritating coworkers and selfish relatives. People love being listened to, and one of the best ways to convince them that you’re full of depth and wisdom—and a great conversationalist—is to simply hear them out.
The point is not to be a doormat. It’s to shift your attention away from yourself and onto others. This does three things. One, it gives you something to think about other than yourself—why am I so lonely? why have I been rejected so much? etc. Two, it makes you more aware that the people around you—however together they may seem on the surface—have their own frailties and fears. Finally, these small gestures of caring and compassion will give you some of the connection you’re seeking. Usually, you will find that the recipient expresses gratitude—a thank you, a smile, etc. So that’s nice. But even when they don’t, being the person who notices that somebody needs a chair or a hand with those packages will help you see yourself in a new light. Developing self-respect is actually quite simple: Behave in a way that you respect.
When you do go on another date, you will hopefully have flexed this muscle enough that all of this feels quite natural. Instead of worrying about what she thinks of you, think about what she’s feeling at that moment. She has left her home to meet a stranger, so she might feel a little nervous. She might be worried that she won’t come off as likable or attractive, that she’ll be rejected. What can you do to put her at ease?
Again, this doesn’t require any sort of emotional wizardry. Just ask her about her day, and listen to what she has to say. Pay attention to small details. Does she have a good place to hang her coat? Is she comfortable where she’s sitting, or is the kitchen door banging behind her? The point is not to obsess over this stuff or make a big deal out of any of it. The idea is to simply place your attention on her experience, rather than your own, and to show her that you’re a kind, considerate person who is interested in what she has to say.
For further reading on this topic, I highly recommend this essay by Paul Ford. Sakyong Mipham’s Ruling Your World also has tremendous insights on how shifting your focus to others can bring confidence and contentment. And for coping with loneliness and isolation, Pema Chodron’s The Wisdom of No Escape and When Things Fall Apart are truly transformative books—or they were for me anyway!