Of all the things related to love and relationships, finding someone we really like can feel like a pursuit that’s mostly out of our hands. The question of where, how, and whether we’ll meet this person shrouds the whole matter in mystery. It can make us feel powerless. Our quest to find someone can range from fun to frustrating to, frankly, painful, as we often find ourselves in similar, disappointing scenarios. However, there are ways to break free of the cycle, and surprisingly, they involve a lot more introspection and personal insight than they do searching, swiping, and set-ups.
1. Get to know your patterns. Without realizing it, we’re often drawn to people for the wrong reasons. Our initial attractions can betray us, because the thing that allures us in another person can ultimately be the very thing that hurts us later on. Many of us subconsciously choose people who are more likely to place us in old, familiar (often unpleasant) scenarios, a subject I discussed in more depth in the blog, “Are You Creating Your Own Nightmare in Your Relationship?” We feel drawn to people who allow us to recreate dynamics that are familiar and who reinforce negative ideas we’ve long had about ourselves. For example, we may initially feel compelled by someone who’s more aloof and distant, thinking of them as “mysterious” and “intriguing.” Should we date this person, we may eventually find them to be cold and rejecting. We may wind up feeling inadequate and unsatisfied in the relationship, a feeling that’s familiar to us from our past. Although, we have the best intentions for ourselves, our patterns will lead us toward people who aren’t always best for us or whose defenses fit with ours in such a way that we end up feeling the same bad feeling even in a new relationship. By recognizing our patterns, we can start to make different choices and give someone different a chance.
2. Think twice about your type. Many of us have pretty fixed ideas about who we should date. Some of these ideas sound completely reasonable. We may want someone smart, kind, or responsible. However, we can also harbor some pretty specific criteria for how a potential partner should look or behave that can narrow our view very early on. Furthermore, we may rule people out for the wrong reasons. I can’t tell you how many people have told me things like, “He may like me too much. What if I let him down?” or “She’s a little too low key/down-to-earth. I think I want someone more exciting.”
As I said before, we can also be attracted to people for the wrong reasons. For instance, we may always find ourselves dating people who think they’re smarter or better than us or people we think we can “save.” We may find people who aren’t caring toward us or who take charge. At the same time, we resist people who don’t have these traits but who somehow seem less interesting.
A lot of our preconceived ideas about who we should be with come from our past. Most of us grew up with a lot of input about who we ought to date, perhaps from things our parents directly told us (i.e. “Find someone who can take care of you financially.”) There are also ways our parents behaved in their relationship that became models for us, so we subconsciously look for people who like to argue, control, stonewall, etc. just as couples did in our original family.
To counter these tendencies, we should try to be open-minded. The person we connect with won’t always fit the exact picture in our heads. It’s okay to test the waters and see how we feel with someone who isn’t our usual type and explore how we feel in the situation, because it may surprise us and actually wind up being a much better choice.
3. Step outside your comfort zone. This is one of those things a lot of people say that can feel tired and frustrating when you’re single and want to meet someone. However, most of us underestimate how easy it can be to retreat into our shell rather than face the challenges of dating. It’s easy to grow cynical and say “I’d rather stay home” or “dating just doesn’t seem worth the trouble.” While it may sound cliché, it’s true that, for many of us, the simple act of looking up, opening our eyes, and being more responsive can not only invite more possibility but help us feel more comfortable within ourselves.
If we approach each situation with self-compassion, a sense of humor, and a sense of adventure, we may find it easier to step into new situations. Whether the challenge is to chat on a dating app or agree to a blind date, in each case where we feel resistant, we can ask ourselves, “What course of action makes the better story?” When we take these chances, we can be more open to getting to know somebody. We can be curious about both them and ourselves without allowing our head to clutter with judgment and doubt. And, should something go awry, as it inevitably will, we can show kindness to ourselves just as we would a friend and resist the temptation to retreat back into our self-protective comfort zone.
4. Press mute on your inner critic. Don’t be surprised if there’s a running commentary inside your head that makes it a lot harder to take any of the three aforementioned steps. Our “critical inner voice” is always there to try to keep us in line. “Don’t trust anyone,” it warns. “You’ll only get hurt.” When we’re getting ready to go out, it tells us we look terrible and should stay home. When we meet someone we actually like, it informs us, “There must be a catch.” It’s an inner critic that is always there to sabotage and second guess, telling us, “It’s too soon or too late. You’re too old, ugly, boring, etc.” Plus, it launches similar attacks toward a potential partner, saying “He or she is too this or that. You should be looking for someone more attractive, successful, passionate, stable, and so on.” One of the biggest internal challenges to letting ourselves have love in our lives is standing up to this critical inner voice. We have to notice when it’s chiming in and resist allowing it to take the wheel. Many people mistake this “voice” as their conscience or intuition, but the voice isn’t there to look out for us. It upholds our defenses by driving us to make the same bad choices and by telling us we don’t deserve better. Each of these steps of getting to know our patterns, challenging our “type,” stepping out of our comfort zone, and muting our inner critic are connected in that we’re continuing to fight for who we really are and what we really want rather than giving in to the negative and limiting overlays of our past. Instead, we’re finding our own way and, in the process, finding a partner who can take this journey alongside us, appreciating us for who we are. This allows us to experience a relationship that’s more loving and more fulfilling than the one prescribed by our past.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org