I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou
“Why would she ever like me?” I thought, as I waited for my date to show up. I was in my mid-twenties, and starting to date more, yet still struggling to feel confident. Then my date would arrive, I’d forget my self-doubt, and spend the next couple of hours getting to know her.
What dates became, though, was a performance: me trying to show the girl that I was the kind of guy she’d want to date. When I say performance, I wasn’t tap dancing in a tux, but rather trying to act like somebody I really wasn’t, in hopes she’d be impressed and would like me. So I put lots of pressure on myself. “I needed to appear successful, funny, and put together,” I thought, if I was ever going to get the kind of relationship I wanted.
These dates would go fine, but something always seemed off. It wasn’t until later that I realized the problem: I’d thought the best way to make someone like you was by impressing them, so I’d try my best to be the kind of guy I thought they wanted. But after my fair share of emotional bumps and bruises, I finally realized I’d been going about it all wrong: the point of dating isn’t to perform for your date, but to connect with them.
performing and dating
While we perform in every area of life, there’s no place where it shows up more than in dating. When you go on a date you know you’re going to be evaluated, so you put on your best clothes, tell you most interesting story, and try to be on your best behavior. If all goes well, you hope, your date will like you and want to go out again.
So what does it mean to perform? Performing is observing a social situation and then adapting your personality to fit another person’s expectations. You adjust who you are in order to alter how you’re perceived, with the goal of getting your date to think more highly of you.
Performing is all about suppressing your unflattering aspects and touting your achievements, activities, and interests that will garner the most social praise. We all know what’s prized among our peers, so we adjust what we talk about to fit society’s preferred path. Some people perform by talking and sharing a lot, while others perform by being quiet and rarely sharing, but the result is the same: we perform to control our personal narrative, hoping we’ll impress our date and receive the attention, approval, and acceptance we’re looking for.
Our fascination will how other people perceive us turns each of us into our own PR director, making sure the impressive aspects of our lives get wide airplay, while the unimpressive parts get buried. When we date, we try to convey three main messages to the other person:
I’m normal: I’m totally well-adjusted, easy to get along with, have no problems, and never stress about anything.
I’m an achiever: I’ve accomplished a lot in my life and have a bright future full of success ahead of me.
I’m high status: I understand what’s cool and other high status people think I’m fun to be around.
The key to performing, though, is to make sure the other person never knows you’re performing. This is just who you effortlessly are. So you spend the date monitoring how you appear and what you’re saying, always adjusting based on how your date’s responding.
why do we perform on dates?
Most people don’t perform on dates because they want to, but rather because they think they need to. Deep down, all of us are caught in an inner struggle: we all want to belong and be affirmed, yet we’re insecure and afraid that we’re not enough: not good-looking enough, cool enough, interesting enough, successful enough, and so on. We’re afraid that if our date sees our real self they’ll reject us, confirming our worst fears about ourselves. So we perform, creating an identity we think they’ll be sure to approve of.
In our insecurity about the self-worth of our real self, we put on a mask, a false front based on who we think the other person wants us to be. We choose a mask that fits our date’s preferred life narrative, and adapt our stories, interests, and expressions to reinforce that identity. When I’m performing, I almost always gravitate towards one of the following masks:
Achiever: Look at all of the success I’ve had and the different ways I’ve achieved!
Adventurer: Look at how exciting my life is and all the adventures I’ve gone on!
Entertainer: Look at how interesting and funny I am; there’s never a dull moment around me!
Agreeable: Look at how much we’re agreeing about and have in common!
Responsible: Look at how I have everything under control!
I would never set out to perform, but in my insecurity about my self-worth, I’d slip into one of these masks, all to get my date’s approval. This happens because we all socially construct our self-worth, using other people’s opinions to gauge our value. And since no one’s opinion matters more than our date’s, we do everything we can to impress them the most, hoping that if they like us, we’ll have proved we matter.
Performers, we should note, often appear really good at dating. They can carry on a lively conversation and share lots of information about their lives, but nothing ever goes deeper than surface level. This thrive in “resume dates,” where both people basically work through their resume. They end up knowing a lot about each other, but they don’t really know each other.
We’re all afraid the real us isn’t enough, so we perform, hiding any part of ourselves that we don’t think would measure up. They use generic statements and socially acceptable aspirations to hide behind their mask and deflect attention from their true self. Like the “Wizard” of Oz, performers work hard at appearing impressive, hoping you’ll pay no attention to the ordinary man behind the curtain.
the problem with performing
We perform in hopes that it will get us the sense of belonging that we all crave. But when we put on a mask in an attempt to be impressive, we present a sterilized version of ourselves, hiding anything we consider unimpressive. By doing this, though, we end up suppressing all of our unique and interesting aspects of our personality: our quirky interests, playfully embarrassing stories, and distinctive sense of humor. In other words, all of the things that make you, you!
Performing doesn’t pan out, though, because it can’t create the belonging we’re all searching for. Why? Because performing and the mask it creates always puts a barrier up between you and your date. Masks are an attempt at being perfect, and any time we come across something that’s perfect, we rightfully grow suspicious that this isn’t actually real. Even if they do like you, they really just like your performance, which is too exhausting to keep up for long.
We keep performing, though, because if it we don’t get to experience real belonging, we’re willing to settle for what it does get us: fitting in. But while fitting in feels okay at first, eventually it gets old, as we feel the disconnect between how we’re presenting ourselves and who we actually are.
And so, many single people, exhausted from performing, yet still afraid of rejection, end up disengaging from dating, choosing instead just to hang out in the safety of their same-sex friendships. We either end up dehumanizing each other, through things like hook-ups or ghosting, or just withdraw from the uncertainty and risks of dating altogether.
what’s the solution?
So how do we stop performing? Most young people try the problem of performing by either doubling-down on it and become better than ever, or they disengage from dating altogether, tired of putting themselves out there. But neither or these tactics actually addresses our insecurities and our universal desire for belonging. So what should we do?
The only way to stop performing and experience real belonging on a date and in a relationship is by connecting. A connection is when two people relate to each other in a way that makes them both feel known and valued. That’s why performing behind a mask never creates a real connection; you may get the other person to value you, but they don’t actually know you. So how do you connect, then?
You can only connect with your date when you quit performing and engage with your authentic self, the person you actually are, and not who you’d like to be. You are your authentic self when you’re expressing the interests, abilities, and experiences that are most true to who you are; the things that make you you! It’s the person you are when you feel safe to be yourself, whether that’s around your friends, family, or maybe just your dog.
how to be your authentic self
“You want me to be my authentic self???” I hear you thinking in a questioning tone. “On a date in front of someone I’m interested in!?!” That’s sound terrifying to all of us, at first, and it is. But if you ever want to connect with someone, you have to allow yourself to be known and take the risk that you’ll be valued. That risk is called being vulnerable, and it’s a requirement if you ever want to experience being both known and valued that true connection requires.
We often mis-define vulnerability as telling everything in your life to every person. But that’s not what vulnerability is at all. Vulnerability is fighting through the risk and uncertainty of being emotional open with another person. Brene Brown puts it this way:
“Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them.”
Being vulnerable while dating doesn’t mean you need to start every date with your top 10 most embarrassing moments, but rather that you’re willing to talk about the emotions around your life experiences, even if they don’t fit what’s culturally acceptable among your peers.
Human beings, as much as we might try to resist, only connect through shared emotions, not shared information. That’s how God made us, and to try to experience life together without sharing our emotions with each other is counter-productive. When two people on date engage with their authentic and vulnerable selves, they mutually create a safe place to share their emotions and experiences. Performers approach dates as an individualistic status grab, while connectors see dates as an opportunity to engage as a team and encourage each other.
the only answer
So how do you get the courage to be your vulnerable, authentic self? It sounds great in theory, but in practice it’s not easy to be emotionally open and authentic on a date. While we’re all drawn to vulnerability, few people ever want to be vulnerable themselves. What if the other person doesn’t like us? What if they disagree with us, subtly shame us, or worst of all, reject us?
Brene Brown writes that you can only give true belonging if you’ve experienced it yourself. You’ll only have the ability to be your true self if you solve your inherent insecurity around you self-worth. That’s why if you want to ever experience true belonging in a relationship, you have to first find your belonging in Jesus. Jesus completely knows you, yet also completely values you, and invites you into an eternal relationship with Him.
When the Son of God approves of you, the real you, and invites you to an eternal connection with Him, it melts your insecurities, and gives you the confidence to be yourself, no matter what your another person might say. God didn’t give you your inherent personality, abilities, and interests in order for you to perform and hide them behind a mask. When you center your soul on God and his invitation to belong with Him, you no longer have to perform for a date or relationship in order to gain approval.
When you struggle with performing, and we all do, remember Jesus message to his disciples right before he died. He told them: you’re no longer my servants, but my friends. While the shift seems subtle to us, Jesus radically redefined all relationships. Because of his death and resurrection, you’re not a servant performing to please a master, but rather are a friend of God, accepted into God’s family because of who you are in Christ. Performing is finished, forever!
so how should date?
When your self-worth is secure in God, how you approach dating completely changes. You can stop trying to solve your insecurities through performing, and can instead be yourself, knowing that your self-worth is based on being known and valued by Christ. So while rejection, in any form, is never easy, finding our identity in Christ, and not the other person’s opinion of us, will keep us moving forward. When you have Christ’s internal validation, you no longer need another person’s external validation.
Now, a successful date isn’t about making the other person like you, but rather being yourself. You want to be likable, of course, but you no longer have to become someone you’re not in an attempt to control them. There will be people who get to know the real you and won’t be interested, but that’s life in an uncertain world. Vulnerability is scary, that’s why we all find dating nerve-wracking and uncomfortable. But it will all be worth it when you find the person who wants to know and value you for only one reason: you’re being you.