I got my start with courting women by comforting one who’d had her heart broken.
The surroundings were far from ideal, not anyone’s idea of romantic. I’d spotted a small figure curled up in a bathroom stall. Sobbing because the boy she liked had gone off with one of my friends instead.
But I climbed in beside her, put my arms around her, and hugged her on the bathroom floor.
I crawled into her pain, the feelings of unworthiness and rejection being quite familiar to me, and I looked into her eyes and saw what I would want to hear if I were in her situation. So I said those things. The things that I desperately wanted to be true but didn’t always have the will to believe about myself.
I told her how lovely she was, how valuable, how easy it would be to fall in love with her.
At first she argued with me. She resisted the comfort. Which was understandable. She was miserable, besieged by brain weasels.
But I tried again. And again. And again. Each time rotating the current problem space, pointing out parts that she’d missed. Bright sides. Future possibilities.
And I focused on how beautiful she was. How intelligent. How lovable.
We were there for over an hour, with Bryan Adams and Ace of Base blaring at the dance just barely audible and forming a weird sort of ambiance.
Finally, she caved. Cheered up. We spent the rest of the evening drinking Sprites and watching other couples, playing Waldorf and Statler, until another boy happened upon us and asked her to dance, whisking her away from me.
When I saw her at school the next day, she was glowing. And a few weeks later, she kissed me at a sleepover. It was a “dare” situation in Truth or Dare, but I felt something behind it that told me that wouldn’t be the last time she ever kissed me.
And I turned out to be right.
Taking Personal Offense When Your Reassurance Efforts Aren’t Instantly Effective
It was a curious thing, growing into my dating life as the one who primarily provided reassurance. But it was what girls my age always seemed to want. And since it was something I myself desperately craved at that time, I knew exactly what to say. How to give reassurance.
It was natural to me, both sides of it: To want reassurance and to be expected to provide it. It made sense.
But when I went on to date boys and later men, I found a striking difference in those interactions. Where I’d been able to turn to girlfriends and ask for reassurance, the men I dated would respond rather negatively. Sometimes this was an outright rejection of the request. Something like “Jesus, Page, I can’t make you feel good about yourself, leave me alone.”
At best, it was a halfhearted effort. “I think you’re awesome,” they’d say. And if I said anything contrarian, even a simple, “well, I don’t feel that way right now,” that’d be the end of any nice talk. “It’s like you want to be unhappy! Don’t ask for reassurance and then argue with me. What’s wrong with you?”
Many times, the act of asking for reassurance would backfire spectacularly, leave me in a place where I felt even more insecure and alone.
Meanwhile, I continued to reassure these same partners when they were insecure, something they took for granted, even as they argued with me a bit on the way to being comforted by me.
Perhaps if my partner had said to me, “I’m not good at giving reassurance,” or had asked for any help, things would have gone better. When I tried to offer that kind of help, something like, “Well, I think it goes better if you talk to me a little more like this,” it went so poorly. More blowups.
So I learned to not ask. Reassure myself the best I could. And to tamp down any resentment that sprung up in response to the reality that I was getting so little reassurance back from someone I was actively reassuring.
Persuasion Often Involves Overcoming Objections
In my 20s I took a job as a telemarketer to pay my bills. It was miserable work and something that didn’t at all match my personality, but I needed it to survive. And it was one of only a few options that were available in my Maine town, and because it was hourly plus commission, it was one that could pay pretty well if you were good at it. I hated annoying people, interrupting their dinner, but to me it presented the best chance of managing the Herculean feat of paying my rent and staying in school.
Before I started that job, I’d never given any thought to sales or persuasion, but they provided a lot of instruction during the orientation. Some of it was just scripts for us to read, but there was theory, too, behind it — which I found to be the most interesting part of training to become a salesperson. The theory behind sales.
A big focus of that training was that overcoming objections is a normal part of closing the deal. My instructor told us that people rarely say yes the first time you ask them to buy something. They usually say no and tell you why. In credit card sales, the reasons were pretty predictable, the vast majority of these objections being said over and over again.
We were taught these common objections and ways to argue with them. And we also practiced arguing against novel objections our instructor came up with on the spot.
I’ll be the first to say that I didn’t enjoy that sales job (a few times it sent me to the bathroom where I cried in the stall before returning back to my desk), but I made a pretty good living at it for a few years.
Perhaps because I had practice overcoming objections in trying to provide reassurance to other people. This was a completely different task values-wise (selling someone something as opposed to trying to make them feel better), but a lot of the skills were the same.
It Might Take Some Time and Effort to Reassure Someone
I’d think of that job and what it taught me about persuasion later when others would get frustrated that their first attempt at reassurance didn’t magically “fix” my mood.
When they were effectively trying to persuade me to feel better and took personal offense to the reality that to persuade someone you will likely have to overcome their objections.
This doesn’t mean that they don’t want to feel better. Or that it’s impossible. Instead, it’s the way that reassurance typically functions, like all attempts to persuade someone else of something. You don’t start out at agreeing; you need to be persuaded.
That’s not a sign that there’s something wrong with the person you’re trying to help. That’s how reassurance is.
True, there are times when a person can be so distraught that they’re obstinate, really sticking to their self-hatred, their illogical worries. It happens. Fear and insecurity don’t play by the rules.
But I’ve found it’s much more common that people will provide a partner one reassuring comment and then give up when it doesn’t instantly make their partner happy, or worse when their partner argues, providing evidence that contradicts what they just said. Never realizing of course, how they’ve approached it feels like this conversation to the person they’re trying to help:
“Because I said so.”