Love, Lust, & Self-Esteem
I wrote the title of this blog a long time ago. Like, over a year ago. But I couldn't bring myself to flesh it out because I was scared. We avoid the things that scare us most, and if anything scares me entirely, it's love. The idea for this blog came on the heels of a years-long relationship that unceremoniously ended with much shouting and slamming of doors. The dissolution of relationship can be a quick incineration or a slow burn. This particular relationship was the later and by the time everything imploded, I'd been emotionally disconnected for quite some time.
A few months later, I entered the wild, weird, exhausting world of dating and felt lust and infatuation for the first time in years. Men were drowning me in compliments, and the lines between love and lust became blurred. Did I like someone, or did I just like how they made me feel? Receiving praise and compliments from the opposite sex can be a quick hit. We feel loved. We feel special. Our brains release dopamine, and our reward circuit starts humming. We glow. We feel motivated, focused, and special. It's natural human biology. But relying on praise to motivate you, or to feel loved and/or worthy of love, is a steep, slippery slope that mimics the high you might get from heroine. The first hit is amazing, but you're always left chasing that first high, each subsequent high less and less tantalizing.
It didn't take long for me to realize that most men were flinging around compliments about things that don't really matter (my hair, my body, my face), until they either slept with me or figured out that they'd never sleep with me. Far rarer were the compliments about things that actually did matter: my brain, my hobbies, my body-not for how it looks but what it can do, or my witty-but-often-misunderstood sense of humor. In other words, I was receiving compliments about what I was, not who I was, and that's something most women have likely experienced. This is problematic because when we receive repeated compliments about our looks/bodies, we internalize the message that our looks/bodies are all that matter. We learn that our looks/bodies are what make us worthy of love. Obviously, this isn't true, but it can be confusing, frustrating, and simply annoying.
Some of you may be rolling your eyes at this point, and I don't blame you. After all, men and women are wired to like physically attractive people, though physical attractiveness is hard to neatly define. However, this Pew Research study shows how disproportionately women are judged based on their looks: men are valued for morality/honesty while women are valued for their appearance. This is not to say that men aren't also valued for their looks, but that their looks aren't overtly important. I'd be a hypocrite if I said I was attracted to a man just because he was smart or virtuous, when really, he was smart/virtuous and had long nose hairs or never brushed his teeth.
The sheer number of men who pursued me before they really knew me was astonishing. Doubly damning were the men who pursued me for my face, got to know me, and expressed surprise that the head that holds my face also holds a brain. As the love/lust line became blurred, the temporary self-esteem boost I received from incessant dating began to wane, hard. I wondered for a while if some women like being pursued just for their face, and I figured, some women must. For every vapid and narcissistic women, there is a vapid and narcissistic man. As I struggled to discern who liked me, or if I liked them, or if I even cared anymore, I took the path of least resistance and deleted my dating apps.
I deleted my apps in part because I was tired of the inherent vapid and narcissistic nature of them, and in part because I was tired. Tired of maintaining multiple conversations, of planning when and where to meet, what to wear, or how much to divulge to a complete stranger. I was tired of having the same first-date conversations, "where are you from, what do you do?" But most of all, I was tired of trying to explain myself to men who didn't seem to care that much. I'm not saying dating apps can't work, I'm just saying they require a good amount of time and effort. Time and effort are two scarce resources we can't get back. My biggest dating tip is to be exquisitely wary of spending too much time on apps or on people that aren't enriching your life.
Lust is not love. Lust can feel great though, and provide a temporary dopamine rush. It can make you feel sexy and admired and wanted. But that glow can't last long, and if you're always chasing it, you'll never really be happy. Worse yet, if you're always looking to someone else to give you praise, to give you that dopamine hit, you'll never find it. After a long string of bad first dates, I decided I'd rather be alone than engage in terrible conversations over expensive cocktails. Which brings me to my final point in this love/lust/dating ramble: sometimes, solitude is fucking amazing.
Here's why. You can wear what you want, eat what you want, sleep when you want. You can throw yourself headfirst into a passion project, into a book, or TV series without having to explain your absence to anyone. And perhaps most importantly, the more time you spend with yourself, the more you'll like yourself. If you don't like spending time with you, why should anyone else?
Love doesn't blossom overnight, or even in a few weeks, despite what The Bachelor or Love Is Blind will have us believe. I recently sat beside a stranger at a poetry show and they were on Bumble for the better part of two hours, swiping through faces, chatting with multiple robot humans, and mostly ignoring the real human interactions taking place all around them. I couldn't help but wonder what this person was searching for that couldn't wait until they were alone. Attention? Companionship? Fun? Whatever it was, they seemed to be missing the point.