Q: A friend’s mom died. Out of nowhere, he told me his mom never liked me very much. Frankly, the feeling was mutual, but I of course never said anything. I’m bothered he told me this. How should I let him know?—Irritated
A: When somebody talks trash about you, it’s natural to want to respond. Unfortunately, sending this woman a “we need to talk” text will require a mediator with a Ouija board.
It does seem rotten that your friend suddenly let his mom’s opinions of you off-leash. However, consider that keeping a secret is mentally and physically stressful. Research finds that in secret-keeping, holding back information causes psychological tension, which brings on physical tension.
Research on secrecy by psychologist Michael Slepian suggests that it isn’t concealing information but having a goal of concealing information that stresses us out. Unlike many other goals, the goal to keep a secret has no endpoint. This turns keeping a secret into a goal that won’t die—or, in researcher terms, “an outstanding intention.” This makes it more accessible in memory—to the point where the mind tends to wander to it. And this mental reflux has some psychological costs: “The frequency of mind-wandering to secrets predicts lower well-being,” explains the Slepian team. “Thus, what seems to be harmful about secrecy is not having to conceal a secret but having to live with it and having it return to one’s thoughts.”
Other research finds that stress and “aversive” emotions like sadness diminish our ability for self-control. So, your friend, under the emotional stress of grieving his mom, maybe lacked the energy he normally had to keep his mom’s feelings stowed. If this guy generally isn’t unkind or insensitive, you might want to let this go—especially considering the advantage you have over a lady who’s now living on somebody’s mantel: “I will come find you and reduce you to ash! Oh. Wait.”
Q: I’m a 32-year-old woman, dating again after a five-year relationship. I’ve got some issues I’m working on. (I can get a little needy.) I’m getting all kinds of advice, from “be you!” to “play hard to get!” I guess acting unavailable works, but shouldn’t somebody like me for me, not because I’m out of reach?—Sincere
A: At fancy supermarkets, they try to sell you smoked salmon with a tiny sample on a cracker; they don’t slap you across the face with a giant fish: “LOVE MEEEEEE!”
In dating, there’s being a bit scarce, and there’s being somebody else. Scarce is good when you’re getting to know a person, leaving them wanting more as opposed to less. Somebody else? Not so good.
What does it mean to “be yourself”? It means being “authentic.” Clinical psychologist Lawrence Josephs and his colleagues explain romantic “authenticity” as a willingness to risk being emotionally vulnerable and a companion unwillingness to “act deceitfully” even when being honest comes with some costs. They find that being authentic in these ways leads to “better relational outcomes.”
If you aren’t yourself, somebody might be attracted to your fake front and then be bummed out when it eventually falls off. Additionally, the researchers’ findings “suggest that individuals engaging in ‘being yourself’ dating behavior are generally preferred as dating partners over more game-playing individuals.” In fact, men who are authentic seem to have a “special antipathy” toward “more game-playing” women.
But let’s say you’re “a little needy.” You can tell somebody you tend to be needy. That’s brave and may lead somebody to admire your honesty. You might also tell a potential partner that you’re working on it, which emotionally healthy partners are likely to respect and admire. The important thing is doing what it takes to not act all needypants, like by using diversionary tactics—say, by repeatedly texting your BFF when you’re dying to text some new guy. Her phone goes off in a meeting. Her boss: “Why does some woman keep sending you pix of her boobs?”