Q: A man asked me for my number at an event, saying he wanted to take me to dinner. I told him I’d just ended a relationship and wasn’t ready to date. Of course, he then said it’d be a business dinner, and I consented and wrote my number down. I feel that I had bad boundaries and wish (a) he hadn’t been so forward and (b) I hadn’t given my number. How could I handle this better in the future? I’m a pretty assertive woman, so my collapsing under pressure was disturbing.—Jell-O
A: This is like your telling somebody who wants you to dog-sit, “Sorry, I’m allergic to dogs” and having her come back with “Actually, he identifies as a parrot.”
There are five major domains of personality that drive how a person acts, and they tend to be fairly stable across time and situations. These include conscientiousness—which reflects a person’s level of self-control and sense of responsibility to others. Another is extroversion—reflecting where a person falls on a spectrum from outgoingness to seeing social events as a form of torture. Researchers find that women across cultures consistently come out higher than men in one of these personality domains: “agreeableness.” This is a “nice girl/nice guy” personality trait that plays out in kindness, generosity warmth and a strong motivation to have positive interactions with others. Psychologist Joyce Benenson, who researches sex differences from infancy on, believes that women’s tendency to default to polite acquiescence in the face of conflict is an evolved tactic to reduce their chances of being physically harmed.
It’s likely that, as a woman, you’re a high scorer in the agreeableness department. However, as anthropologist Jerome Barkow points out, “biology is destiny only if we ignore it.” Recognizing your propensity to be “nice” allows you to preplan and have prepared answers for creative pursuers like this guy. For example: 1. You’re not ready to date. 2. You’re happy to take a phone call to see whether there might be a business opportunity. This should help you separate potentially lucrative business propositions from tarted-up versions of “There’s a very important meeting you simply must attend—in my pants.”
Q: I lost a bunch of weight after a horrible breakup. I’m eating healthful food now—yay. But I’m very aware that I’m one of those flabby skinny people. I used to go to the gym regularly, but I stopped, and now it’s been two years. How can I motivate myself?—Stick Figure
A: There is an unorthodox but excuse-proof way to get yourself back to the gym: Hire a psychopath to chase you there with an axe. If, however, the psychopaths in your area are busy servicing their regular clients, you might try rethinking the power you give your feelings over your behavior. The fact that you have a feeling—“Waah . . . I don’t wanna go to the gym”—is no reason to listen to it and obey it as if you were its feudal serf.
Consider that unless there’s a national disaster or a wizard turns you into a decorative porch owl, you are physically capable of getting to the gym. Make a pledge to yourself that no matter how unmotivated you are to go there, you will just go. Giving yourself no choice in the matter, is important, because according to studies by psychologist Phillippa Lally, and others, repetition leads to habit acquisition—behaviors you repeat become automatic.
To kick off the campaign for the new gym-going you, do this robo-gym-going thing every day for two weeks, and then you can pull back to whatever your normal gym schedule would be. Give yourself a sense of accomplishment by monitoring your behavior. Check off days you go work out on a goal attainment app, or just color them in on a calendar. Giving yourself visual evidence of your progress should help you stay motivated during that time period before the physical results start to show. Kind of a bummer when you tell people you’ve been going to the gym and their response is, “And doing 20 sets of I’m not getting out of this car?”