Dating is terrible. Everyone good is already taken. Nobody wants to date me or I’d already be dating them.
These are things I firmly believed until about nine months ago. All of that changed when I befriended Kara Loewentheil, a Certified Master Life Coach and dating guru. Kara specializes in coaching feminist women and gender non-conforming individuals who believe in equality, but still have trouble acting in ways that match those beliefs. Her goal is to help people change the way they feel about what they’re feeling, and to recognize that the stories they tell themselves about themselves aren’t necessarily true, but become true if you cling to them. She calls it “redesigning your mind.”
“I work with people who know they ‘should’ feel confident, but secretly worry that the reason they don’t have a partner is that there is something wrong with them,” she tells me. “I think romantic relationships are the perfect nexus of everything that holds us back in life: social conditioning, patriarchy, family patterns, our desires for human connection, our fears of rejection, and our stories about ourselves and our potential.”
After taking a step back from my feelings, I realized that my dating-related anxieties — the stress of keeping someone interested, but seeming fun enough, all while maintaining enough distance to be alluring, for example — put my emotions in the hands of my date. I’d drive myself crazy over hypotheticals and the impossibly high expectations of a person I hadn’t even met yet. Through all of that, I had failed to consider the most important question: What do I want out of all of this?
I asked Kara about practical ways to overcome and approach dating stress differently. Below are five ways she says people like me — that is, people interested in a relationship, but who dread the dating process — can start to rethink the way we date, or at least, the way we feel about dating.
1. Practice liking yourself more
“The best thing you can do to improve your dating life is to work on improving your self image,” she says. And it isn’t a simple matter of “loving yourself before others can love you,” a cliché Kara dismisses as “obviously not true.” You do need to at least like yourself, though, or “you won’t believe anyone can truly know you and love you at the same time.”
If your brain is bullying you and telling you that you’re undateable, Kara suggests getting literal and making a list of things you like about yourself. It may feel cheesy, but sometimes putting pen to paper is surprisingly effective, and the repetition can help cement what you know to be true, even if you don’t always feel that way.
2. Stop telling yourself dating is hard
Kara says brains are pattern-making machines. “We know from neuroscience and psychology research that the brain sees what it looks for. That’s its whole job.” It’s no surprise, then, that a negative outlook leads to a negative outcome. But it’s not quite as cut and dry or simplistic as The Secret. “When people talk about positive thinking, it’s not a mysterious attraction force,” she says. “It’s that if you tell yourself that there’s nothing out there for you, your brain will miss seeing opportunities and connections that it could have recognized if you had told it to look for evidence that there are lots of options out there.”
3. Imagine the relationship you want, not the person you want
“The biggest mistake people make in dating is focusing on the kind of person they want to date rather than the kind of relationship they want to have,” Kara says. If you focus on finding someone hot, smart and tall, these qualities tell you nothing about how this person will show up for you and how you might show up for them. How often do you want to see your partner? Do you talk every day? Do you eventually want to get married? Kara suggests allowing yourself to reflect on dates through that lens, rather than seeing him or her as a list of bullet points that exists in a vacuum.
4. Look for reasons to continue seeing someone, instead of reasons to stop
“So many of us are so judgmental about the people we meet while dating,” Kara says. “We’re constantly scanning for reasons to disqualify someone.” Looking for these deal-breakers can be a method of self-preservation, a way to spot future trouble. But heartbreak and sadness are a part of life and therefore a part of dating, she explains, so the risk is always there no matter what we do to scan for it. With constant worrying and judgement, you’re not preventing anything. “You’re actually just creating anxiety and sadness for yourself,” she says.
Next time you go on a date, Kara advises you ask yourself, If I already loved this person, what would I think of them? “It’s a total game-changer and it will open you up to way more possibilities for connection,” she says.
5. Stop putting on an act
“So much of the conventional dating advice out there teaches us to play games, manipulate and not be ourselves in order to snare a partner,” Kara says. “Then what do you have? A partner who likes a fake version of you.”
“This strategy only makes sense if you care more about getting a partner than you do about what kind of relationship you’re going to have with that person.” It’s an impetus that’s not conducive to intimacy, which she describes as “the whole point of a relationship.”
What I love about Kara’s dating advice is that it focuses on what I can control. It used to feel emotionally risky to sign up for Tinder, much less dress up and grab a drink with an Internet stranger. Now it’s beginning to feel like practice, an opportunity to ask myself what I really want. As a policy, I no longer hide my terrible taste in music from the people I date (Top 40 forever) or pretend I don’t care if it takes two days to text me back (I care). I’m beginning to realize my personality and needs shouldn’t be an obstacle in finding a person to date, they should be part of why we’re dating. Instead of waiting to be chosen, I finally feel like I’m participating in the choosing.
Bailey Williams is a Brooklyn-based writer and playwright. She just joined Twitter but has been taking annoying vacation photos on Instagram for some time @buffalobailey. Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.