#2: Moving to the woods, feeling confident, and flirting like a European
In this week’s edition of Default Wisdom, we talk acceptance, self-confidence, and why Europeans can get away with being flirtier than Americans.
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Moving to the woods
I feel like no matter what I do, I’m never accepted. I always feel like an outsider and I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.
I want to give up and live in the woods.
— The Perpetual Outsider
First of all, I’m sorry for taking so long to answer a question that I suspect is causing you a lot of pain.
I’ll be the first to admit that I have this issue, too. I think a lot of us do.
Without knowing you or an example of your situation, it’s hard for me to key in on specifics.
Here are a few things I’ve picked up on my own journey, though:
(1) Sometimes, it is our own fault, and we have to take accountability for that.
It’s possible that your behavior does turn people off, and to achieve the kind of acceptance you’re looking for, you will need to fix it.
Maybe you bring up topics (totally well-intentioned!) that make people uncomfortable. Maybe you come off as abrupt when you mean to be honest. Maybe you’re rude, maybe you struggle to read the room, maybe your facial expressions signal things you don’t mean them to. Maybe you’re friends with the wrong people.
The annoying part is that it could be anything, and occasionally, something shallow or outside of your control.
The conventional wisdom here is usually to ask a trusted friend if they have any insight for you. But you may not have one, you may not have one who’s picked up on anything, or you may not have one who’s willing to be honest with you. (And who could blame them? That’s a tough conversation to have.)
So my advice is to try to build your own intuition. Listen to yourself when you speak. And I mean really listen. Do you feel like you interrupt people? Pay close attention to people’s facial expressions: do they look uncomfortable when you talk? After a joke?
If it’s online, what’s your communication style like? Do you only get online to vent? This is a big one that gets a lot of folks in trouble, again, myself included.
From where you’re sitting now, these might sound like impossible tasks. But with a little practice and a little more patience, you should be able to pick up on a few clues.
The only thing I will caution you about here is not to be too hard on yourself. Try to do this with an open mind, but without getting in a cycle where you’re cataloguing every little thing you think might set folks off.
It can be a hard line to walk, but I think it’s a useful exercise.
(2) The second piece of advice I have for you is to interrogate your expectations of other people.
This is one part the dreaded “it’s in your head,” and one part, “maybe it’s not in your head and it’s just a framing issue.”
The social landscape can often be confusing because words mean different things in different contexts.
For example, people will call you their best friend in good faith, but mean that you’re an acquaintance they enjoy spending time with. There are some people you’ll only hear from when they need to share an intimate secret, but they would never invite you to lunch. The list of confusing, conflicting, and common social cues is infinite.
We won’t always have explanations for why people are the way they are, but we can make educated guesses and build our expectations around them.
Whether it’s a group or individual, I recommend asking yourself questions like:
What does acceptance look like to me? Am I expecting too much?
What do I feel like I’m being left out of?
Why do I feel like I’m entitled to that level of inclusion?
Does any of this mean they don’t like me?
What does it mean if they don’t?
You may very well find that you’re justified in feeling this way. Or you might find that you’re reading into things too much.
It’s okay if you feel like you’re stumbling in the dark. It’s okay if you find out you are expecting more from people than might make sense on the surface, and to sit with any negative feelings that come from that.
Nobody has to know you’re asking yourself these questions, or what your honest answers are. What matters is you’re figuring out what works for you and how to solve your problem in a way that makes sense to you.
(3) Be patient.
One thing I never hear in these conversations is, “Be patient, people just don’t know you.”
Sometimes I assume people don’t like me when the truth is they just don’t know me.
If you feel like you’re flitting from group to group, scene to scene, and seeing the same results… maybe you just haven’t been there for long enough. Settle into one for a bit. Give yourself some breathing room. See what happens.
You might be pleasantly surprised.
(4) And finally, sometimes these feelings are just a proxy for something bigger.
We feel physically anxious, but we struggle to identify why, so we label it as something familiar. Interrogating these feelings and tracking the signals that trigger them as they happen can help us make sense of the situation.
Whatever the source, like I said above, allow yourself to be sad, angry, or uncomfortable. It’s okay. You’re allowed to be frustrated. I can’t say for sure what’s causing you to feel this way, but I know it sucks.
I hope some (or all) of this resonates. And I hope you’re able to find some happiness.
What can I do to feel more confident in myself individually?
I feel like I put a lot of stock into creating a partnership with someone, but that person realistically isn't a good fit. How can I feel more sure of the red flags that are present, as opposed to trying to justify them so I am "in a relationship?"
— Serial Dater
So, I feel like these are actually three separate questions, rather than ideas that neatly weave together.
The first question is about managing your sense of self, and the second question is about managing your relationships.
The third question is implicit: how do you protect yourself from letting a relationship define your sense of self?
From my POV, feeling confident in yourself individually has nothing to do with getting out there and dating. It does, however, inform what your dating life will look like.
The first step to liking yourself is knowing yourself. This is a two-pronged process, and notoriously difficult.
Here are a few ideas to get started, though:
Find a rhythm. This doesn’t mean a routine that looks the same each day, but it does mean an understanding of what the ebbs and flows of your life are. Having a handle on what you can control, what you can’t, when things are going to suck, and when they’ll be a little easier. It goes without saying, these days, achieving a rhythm is remarkably difficult But there are small things you can do to approximate one: achievable goals, favorite foods, a living space that is your own, that you have control over.
Work on a project. I don’t believe that we must constantly be productive to find meaning. We’re people, not automatons. But being able to be proud of something is life-affirming. It can be finally writing that novel and finishing it, but it can also be something as simple as tending a garden, or cooking a meal for yourself every single day, and building that into a skill.
Put stock in something that transcends yourself. This is going to sound a little whacky for a dating question or even what initially reads as a more generic self-help question, but I truly believe that a lack of something beyond oneself is why life feels so empty for so many people now. That doesn’t mean you have to be religious and me offering this advice doesn’t mean that I myself lead some pious life. It isn’t about piety so much as it is about passion. Find something you truly believe, that you can continue believing in. That you can hold onto when things are hard. Yes, that could be God, but it could also be your community. It could be the intersection of both. This isn’t an easy task by any stretch of the imagination, but the worst thing that can happen is that your relationships accidentally take this place.
Now, onto the second question.
The most important realization I ever had about romance is that relationships might be work, but chemistry isn’t.
You might not know in a long term way, but you generally know who you should give a chance. There’s nothing wrong with you if you end up in a relationship with someone who ends up not being a great match. But giving someone that initial chance is a lot more intuitive than you might think.
Making excuses for a person who isn’t a good match is usually a more conscious process than you think, too.
What about people you have chemistry with who also have red flags?
The uncomfortable truth is sometimes it’s not a bad thing to give people who are a mess a chance. I think it’s less about identifying potential trouble, and more about trying to predict whether or not that trouble is something you have the bandwidth to put up with. Through the right lens, we all have a carousel of baggage.
Sometimes people are worth being patient for. How do you feel when you talk to them? Can you be your real self? Do you have fun with them? Do they make you smile without trying? Do you care about what they have to say? Are they there for you when it matters?
A lot of relationship building is about finding someone who fills in your blanks, the strengths to your weaknesses.
It’s really easy to let that subsume you and lose yourself. The trick is building a self you don't want to lose, but instead, share. Relationships should be about building something together, not letting the stronger person take over.
Flirting like a European
Do you think that male-female friendships can work when they both acknowledge any mutual attraction (no matter how small) rather than ignore it?
I've always liked the open flirtiness and affection that the French have but I'm skeptical if that would work in America.
This is a hard one for me. I don’t even have an instinct on it! I just don’t know.
I will say that I think the reason it works in Europe is because the flirtiness exists with a boundary. Granted, that boundary isn’t always respected, but it’s basically a performance. In the United States, that flirtation might be a performance, it might not be, and the danger is what happens when two people aren’t on the same page.
This is an issue I think we have more generally in the States. Social performances exist, but not everyone knows what is and isn’t a performance. It’s a recipe for conflict.
I’m going to throw this one back out to the readers.
What do y’all think?