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JULY 3, 2012

I’m on a first date with a fellow named William, and I don’t feel like myself.  I’m not laughing, I’m not leaning forward eagerly, I’m not lobbing question after question at him like an overzealous headhunter.

My love coach, Annie Lalla, has told me to stop with all that already, and along with it, get rid of the deference, the modesty (both real and false), the praise, and the stock conversation topics.  Awesome. Pretty much everything I do – except drink – to make the inherently awkward inaugural date into something at least moderately comfortable. And given this is a bike date – as in, we’re riding bicycles – I’m not exactly uncorking a bottle of Merlot as we pedal.

In other words: I’ve been left alone, bereft of defenses, to marinate in the juices of my unease. But where I see coping mechanisms for staying relaxed while interacting with a new person, Annie sees a schtick that’s keeping me from being my most authentic self – and even from true love.  Given that that’s why I hired her in the first place, I’m going to listen.  Or at least try.

According to her website, love coach Annie Lalla helps her clients rid themselves of “toxic patterns, develop romantic esteem, assuage shame/blame and cultivate deep, resilient relationships that last a lifetime.”  During our first session together, she calls me out for using “an impenetrable veneer of persona to manipulate the way the interaction goes” on a date so that I never find myself “cornered, vulnerable, exposed, uncomfortable, confused, looking dumb.”

Busted.  She’s right.  I have a dating shtick, and I’m good at it.  I laugh, I question rapid fire, like Barbara Walters caffeinated by three pumpkin spice lattes.  Then I laugh again, and I question more.  I mix that in with my standard self-deprecating stories, and if all else fails? I ask him about his ex.  Honestly, I’m terrified of of conversational silences.  After all, what if it … gets awkward?

What if, indeed.

Annie encourages me to embrace that “what if,” and cautions me not to confuse habits and patterns with being myself.  I’ll admit – I’ve dated so much, I often go on auto-pilot.  But at what cost?  “The cost,” says Annie, “is organic discovery, connection and intimacy.”  I can see that.  By choosing to keep things safe with my dating schtick, I’ve eliminated both ends of the spectrum of possibilities: having the date from hell, and allowing a dream date, filled with magic.

It occurs to me that I may actually be a bit of a control freak, with a fairly thick (if subconscious) facade that has served as my protection – but also stood in the way of intimacy. I don’t want to get hurt – and bad dates can hurt. “That’s okay,” Annie reassures me that I’m not the only one.  “You were just trying to protect yourself. Now instead of that, shelve your fear and allow yourself to be re-invented anew in this moment, without having to be whoever you were yesterday.”

Annie doesn’t say this, but I get the gist: her specific instructions to me for the date with William are much like stretches for a runner.  They’re not even remotely comfortable at first, but you don’t expect them to be.  They’re just to get your body warm, to loosen you up, to get outside your comfort zone, to make you more flexible.  And even if you’re grasping your toes, hamstrings burning until tears form in your eyes, you’re glad you did them afterward.

That’s pretty much how I feel about Annie’s exercises.  They’re painful at the time. In fact, I sort of want to kill her as I’m sitting there stone-faced through yet another of William’s sardonic musings.  A few things go through my head: 1) I feel like a dick.  2) I want him to like me, and I‘m concerned that without my generous and obvious appreciation of his humor, he won’t, and 3) I’m panicking that he won’t find me intriguing without my arsenal of journalistic interrogatories.

Questions pop up throughout the afternoon: Will he think I expect to just talk about myself (as he has to be the one to query me)? Will my cool body language (“lean back, lean back” orders Annie) turn him off? Will he tell all his friends I’m a selfish, dour bitch who didn’t even crack a smile at any of his jokes?

I feel like I’m doing a cartwheel with one hand tied behind my back, and I have to concentrate harder than I have on any date in the past year.  It’s exhausting.  I would give up dating and move to an ashram if I had to do this every time.

But afterward?  Just as Annie predicted: I have a totally new perspective.  Sometimes you don’t even realize how much of a schtick you have until it’s taken away.

More than that, I realize that my one-schtick-fits-all approach to dating isn’t the most authentic approach – nor is it the most satisfying. While I’m eager to re-integrate laughter back into my repertoire, I’m now careful not to laugh just to fill a silence, but instead to really give the guy a chance to earn that laughter.  And while I do plan to ask questions (I’m a journalist, it’s torture not to), I now see that giving the poor fellow verbal space to play offense, instead of just defensive responding, isn’t such a bad move either.  After all, a real relationship isn’t just me holding the reigns – ostensibly he’ll get a chance to direct, too, and I might as well find out early on where he’d like to go!

As fascinating as I found the first date anti-autopilot exercise, unearthing this pattern was really valuable insomuch as it’s a symptom of a much deeper problem – perhaps the biggest obstacle between me and the relationship I seek: my deep seated insecurity that, should a man discover my flaws, he will no longer love me.  That sounds so obvious when I type it out, but trust me, it hadn’t actually occurred to me that the way this manifests is a disheartening (and by definition, impossible) quest for perfection.  My house must be perfect, my face, perfect, my body, perfect, my career, perfect, my educational history, perfect, my friendships, perfect, my emotional state, perfect, my google search, perfect.

Yeah, so how’s that working out for me?  Ummm … not that well. Nothing about me is “perfect,” I’ll just tell you right now.  Not even close.  And so I’ve been in a constant state of agitation, feeling I’m not good enough, for … well, for about twenty years.  Oops?  During one of her exercises, Annie has me mess up my perfectly made bed, re-arrange my perfectly fluffed pillows, throw my perfectly folded blanket to the floor as “homeopathic amounts of disorganization.”  I can feel my heart palpitating, the disorder is physically uncomfortable.  I feel a loss of control: THINGS AREN’T IN THEIR PERFECT PLACE!

“Perfectionism,” says Annie, “is an invisible shackle keeping you back from being free and letting others be free around you.  Imperfect is real, raw, wanton and sexy.”  And then I learn one of the most important lessons of my adult life: until I’m okay with my own imperfection – no one else can be.

The ah-has kept coming, in waves.  There is no such thing as perfection – frankly, if we were smart, the word shouldn’t even exist.  I’d been living my life, knowing that I wasn’t perfect and ashamed of it, afraid that everyone would catch on and judge me the way I’d been judging myself.  Meanwhile, I was desperately seeking unconditional love – the kind of love that doesn’t peace out if I’m thirty minutes late, ten pounds overweight, face covered in acne, a cranky PMS terrorist or even a selfish, inconsiderate bitch.  Because I have been all those things, and worse.  I have also been all those things – and better, too.  I am just me, made up of beauty and ugliness and love and fear, all mixed together.

Then Annie has me look in my big white floor length mirror – actually look – and see the girl inside of me, the girl I would never judge so harshly.  I began to understand what my perfectionism had done to myself – and how the very walls I had put up because I was afraid of people seeing my messiness had actually kept them away.  I was messy, deep down.  I was messy – but that mess was beautiful. It was my mess, and I was proud of it.

In that moment, I thought to myself for the first time: you know what? I’m pretty great, just the way I am.  In that moment, I realized that one day, someone will love me unconditionally – not because I’ve finally figured out how to be perfect … but because I’ve finally showed them my mess.

And they’ll think it’s beautiful, too.


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