Dating, Living, and Being Your Best Self

In a comment on my post last week about living your life as if you were on a date, a reader named Jean posted this comment:

Thanks for this article! But regarding the ‘be yourself’ advice… I’ve always wondered, which self? I have a best self who is on time, considerate, well dressed, brave, follows my dreams, etc. I also have a worst self who is late, selfish, lazy, a slob, and a scaredy-cat. The rest of the time I spend climbing away from one and towards the other, but frankly I spend more of my time near the ‘worst self’ end. I used to have a long-distance boyfriend who only saw my ‘best’ self and therefore had an unrealistic view of me. I got tired out trying to keep up his good opinion of me, and the relationship crashed because I wasn’t comfortable.

Jean raises some really interesting questions, and I thought it would be instructive to consider them in a longer form than is really practical as a blog comment.

My immediate thought is that the goal is to be our best selves all the time. But that shouldn’t be exhausting; in fact, I think that when we are truly being our best selves, it’s invigorating. Think of that energy we get when we meet someone and fall in love – you find yourself suddenly “on the ball” throughout your life, not just the parts that you spend with this new person. Or consider the creative person’s “flow”, that state of mind and action where everything just seems to come naturally, where we lose track of time, where ideas and their execution seem to blend together into a seamless, effortless whole. What is that if not us being our best selves?

What’s exhausting is faking that. Pretending to be our best selves. Because usually we aren’t really being our best selves, we’re being someone else’s idea of what our best self should be – or what we imagine their idea of our best self is. Think about it: if you love doing something, if doing it feeds and fulfills you on a fundamental level, how hard is it to do that thing, to be that person? Usually, it takes a serious effort to keep us from doing it!

This is why I hate books like The Rules, a dating guide for women that essentially smothers the best self and replaces it with a facsimile self crafted to avoid offending anyone and to secure a mate at all costs. Look at some of their “Top Ten Rules”:

  • 2. Show up to parties, dances and social events even if you do not feel like it.
  • 5. If you are in a long-distance relationship, he must visit your three times before you visit him.
  • 8. Close the deal. Rules women do not date men for more than two years.

Frankly, that sounds exhausting to me. The constant focus on marriage (that is, living towards the future instead of living in the now), the constant self-censoring to make sure you don’t put more into your relationship than your partner, the constant denial of your own feelings and state of mind – is that your best self, or the authors’?

I don’t know anything about Jean or about the situation with her long-distance ex, but I have to wonder: was she really being her best self or the idea she had of what her best self should be like. I know that when I first found myself in the dating pool in my early 30s, I found it exhausting all the time – wearing clothes that I wasn’t all that comfortable in because I felt they were the “right” clothes, acting a social role that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with (as a gender studies professor, traditional gender roles leave me flat), putting on an “all is well in the world” attitude when sometimes I was nervous, overworked, or even flat broke. It took me years to realize that I wasn’t doing myself, or my dates, any favors by trying to be someone other than I was – even if I somehow managed to impress them, it wasn’t really me they were impressed by but some other guy whose part was played by me.

My own dating life took off when I started being as honest as possible about who I am, what I want, and where I wanted things to go. I dress nice, but I don’t dress out of character. I do those “chivalrous” things because I feel like it, not because it’s expected – and I expect the same kind of small considerations from my date, or I let her know that I’m really not the right kind of guy for her. I share my goals and aspirations, my values and beliefs, even my feelings on religion and politics (oh no!) freely, and encourage the same openness from my date.

I’m not saying Jean or anyone else should be their “worst self”, on a date or anywhere else. I’m saying that there’s a good chance Jean’s strengths and the weaknesses she describes go hand in hand. For instance, she talks about being a “scaredy-cat” – but we’re all scared, to be honest. Not just in dating, but throughout our lives. What’s exhausting is to pretend we’re not, or to live our lives avoiding the things that scare us. Being our best selves doesn’t mean not being afraid, it means being honest about being scared, accepting that fear, and forging forward in spite of it. Jean talks about being lazy – but we’re often lazy out of fear, fear of failure, fear of being imperfect, fear of letting people (including ourselves) down. I’m not saying “be lazy”, I’m saying that laziness can easily arise out of a desire to do well by ourselves and by others and the worry that we can’t live up to that desire. When we open up to others in a real, honest way, those fears often dissipate – or at least become things we can deal with rather than things that control us.

Do you see what I’m saying? When I say “be yourself”, I don’t mean cave in to your worst impulses, I mean put your real strengths on display while being honest – with yourself, especially – about how those strengths and your weaknesses fit together. Or more to the point: let yourself be human.

Here’s the thing: in dating as in business, teaching, marketing, writing, and just about everything else, it’s good to offend people, if you come by it honestly. I don’t mean you should start swearing at strangers, of course, but that the goal is to draw to yourself the people who are actually compatible, whether as partners, business associates, audiences, or customers, and avoid the ones who simply are not. Take a lesson from Apple, whose “I’m a Mac” commercials work precisely because they offend – they offend people who would never buy a Mac, and create a sense of community among the ones who would and do.

To bring this down to the concrete, I would wager that Jean’s relationship – like so many others – failed not because it was simply too exhausting to be her best self, but because the person she was being when she tried to be that best self wasn’t really her. Maybe the relationship itself was on shaky ground, maybe she didn’t yet have the confidence in herself necessary for a strong relationship, maybe her partner wasn’t ready to accept her as her whole self. This is speculation, of course, but I think if the “best self” Jean put forward had really been her, she would have found it energizing, not tiring.

I don’t pretend any of this is easy. I struggle to live up to what I’m saying here every single day, and I fail about as often. But they’re instructive failures, interesting failures – and with each one I feel a little closer to my best self. Hope this helps!

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