Dear in Headlights
I’m a girl in my 20s. I recently started dating a guy I’m falling in love with. He invited me to a party to meet his friends, and I’m nervous. He’s “objectively” more attractive than I am (6-foot-2, brawny and incredibly handsome) and very successful. I’m attractive, but I see the looks women give him, and I can’t help but feel his friends will question why he’s interested in me. I’m thinking of backing out of the party, but maybe I should back out of dating him entirely, given the pressure.
The other guests are going to a party; as you see it, you’re on trial and they’re the jury. The invite: “Drinks, tunes, and executing the borderline attractive girl at dawn.”
Tell somebody you might end it with this guy because you’re afraid his friends will be all, “Ew, why’s he with her?” and they’re sure to scold you that you shouldn’t care what other people think of you. They mean well, but this is ridiculous advice – akin to telling you not to get hungry. We evolved to be people who care what other people think. That’s built into our psychology, same as the urge that drives us to nab a burrito, which keeps us from passing out, dying and being eaten by raccoons.
Successfully handling other people’s appraisals of you starts with throwing out everything most of us believe about self-esteem. I explain in “Unf*ckology” that this “I like me!” state we’ve been told to strive for “makes little functional sense. Psychology researchers and therapists far and wide failed to ask the ‘Why?’ question that evolutionary psychology demands: Why would it be evolutionarily advantageous for you to like yourself – for you to sit around saying, ‘I’m fabulous! Kiss the royal hand!’?”
What would’ve helped our ancestors survive and mate is other people liking them: respecting them, wanting to get it on with them, and sneaking them seconds on the bison frittatas. Accordingly, psychologist Mark Leary explains that we developed an internal monitoring system that tracks “the degree to which other people accept versus reject” us. Our resulting feelgood or feelbad (erroneously called “self-esteem”) is actually part of a three-part process: 1. Our perception of what other people think of us, which leads to 2. Feelings in us (from happy to fearful), which motivate us to 3. Maintain our social position or try to repair it.
So, “self-esteem” is really “what other people think of us”-esteem – a measurement of our social standing – triggering emotions that drive us to preserve or fix it. In light of that, advice to “raise” your self-esteem makes no sense, because how you feel about yourself isn’t the problem, and changing that fixes nothing. (It’s like trying to feel better about your overheating car instead of putting water in the radiator.)
While being popular has many benefits, panicking at potentially being rejected made more sense when our survival in a harsh ancestral environment depended on our maintaining our social cred with a small, consistent band of people. We now live in vast cities teeming with strangers. If somebody in our social circle decides we’ve got adult cooties, we can pretty easily slide into a whole new social circle simply by hanging out at different bars.
So, your terror about meeting his friends – “LIFE OR DEATH, GIRLIE!” – is driven by psychology that’s seriously outdated: mismatched with our modern environment. Recognizing this can help you put your yearning to be liked into a more modern perspective: Great when it happens but merely a major bummer, not a death sentence, if it doesn’t.
Lowering the stakes like this should be helpful because pressure to excel could cause you to overfocus on your performance. This can lead to clutching anxiety that impairs your ability to perform (“choking under pressure”). Amazingly, research by Harvard Business School’s Alison Wood Brooks suggests a way to prevent choking is “reappraising” the pounding heart of anxiety as the pounding heart of excitement. Say to yourself repeatedly, “I’m so excited to go to this party and meet his friends!”
It should also help to approach the evening with a relaxed set of goals: 1. Having fun. 2. Getting to know his friends. Because you’re with him, they’ll probably assume you’re special – which is surely why he’s with you. (A handsome, high-status guy doesn’t get involved with a woman he finds physically and otherwise meh.) At the party, instead of trying really hard to be liked – a surefire way to be instantly unlikeable – ask people about themselves, and listen with genuine interest. They’ll warm to you, probably without knowing why. Sure, some hearts might remain hardened, but it’s the rare person who’ll cut themselves off, mid-“me, me, me!” to pelt you with canapes and chase you out of the party with a broom.