What Was I Thinking?

"What was I thinking?  How could I have gone out with him in the first place?"

Lots of us have been there at least once in our lives. Sometimes it's indicative of a pathological relationship pattern but often it's just a function of common human tendencies that cloud the judgment of smart, healthy people with good self-esteem. Here are four examples.

1. We Lie to Each Other
When you're attracted to someone it's normal to present a slightly embellished version of yourself since you want to be as desirable as possible. Online dating studies back this up, showing that people routinely fudge their virtues a little in their profiles (especially height and income for men, weight and age for women). When newly dating, people also tend to play down their past relational wreckage and personal liabilities. Have you ever fudged "the number" when asked about your sexual history or not completely owned up to your own role in a messy break-up?

When you're crushing on someone you also (unconsciously and consciously) begin to mirror your love interest's mannerisms and embrace his or her preferences to some degree. It's a normal part of the mating dance and adds sizzle to romantic chemistry. But weeks or months later it's also natural for your warts-and-all self to show up — which can lead to that "what was I thinking?" moment — if the difference between the persona you presented initially and who you are when the infatuation stage cools is steep. Who are you and how do you behave when you think no one is looking? How closely does it match up with who you are when you first meet someone who makes your heart beat faster?

2. We Lie to Ourselves
More than 50 percent of us think we're better than average at just about anything we're asked about. For example, 95 percent of a random group of professors surveyed said their teaching was better than the average and over 80 percent of a random sample of drivers claimed they were better than average drivers. This is impossible, of course, since "average" by definition is the midpoint below which half of a random group falls. Like the fictitious Lake Wobegon where "all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average," daters with normal or high self-esteem are also typically a little deluded about their own assets, which can fool them into thinking they deserve a better match than they've got.

Along with thinking you can do better than an average Joe or Jane you're more likely to look at a partner's faults than your own after a break-up (unless you have low self-esteem, which inclines you to do the opposite). Without meaning to, friends and family often become enablers. Hoping to be supportive, they reinforce your distorted beliefs by telling you how great you are and how you deserved better anyway. Maybe you did...but maybe you didn't. (See my earlier post on Sexual Chemistry that explains why you gravitate to people with the same level of psychological maturity (for better or worse) 

To get a 360 view of yourself, ask for really honest feedback on your personality, appearance and habits from people you trust that have your best interest at heart. Let them know you are prepared to take in the negatives as well as the positives (and make sure you are prepared before you ask). One caveat: some of your family and friends may be revealing more about themselves than you when they give you their opinions but if you gather enough data, you will begin to see some characteristics that are tough to deny.

3. We Choose Junk Food and Junk Partners When We're Famished
Everything at the grocery store or buffet table looks more mouthwatering and becomes more irresistible if you go when you're really hungry, so having a little meal beforehand can help stop you from eating too much stuff that's bad for you. Every guy or girl in a bar also looks and becomes more irresistible when you're sex or relationship-starved.  Deliberately limiting exposure to a human buffet when coming off a drought (such as military deployment, prison, recent divorce, break-up or self-imposed celibacy) can also help keep you from making choices you regret later. This might mean staying away from bars and clubs altogether and socializing in groups of friends that include new people, or going to a club with a buddy who makes sure you don't drink too much or leave with someone other than him or her. This is one of the reasons it's also a good idea to consciously limit how much time you spend, and the level of sexual contact you have with a new love interest - even if (especially if) you think they're amazing.

4. Our Present Scenery Messes With Our Predictions of Future Satisfaction
In an interesting study students were asked to estimate how much they thought they'd like a bag of potato chips that was placed front of them. Then they ate the chips and rated how much they actually liked them. Some students made their estimates in a room that also contained appetizing foods like chocolate bars while others guessed in a room with less appealing stuff like sardines and Spam. (They assumed the Spam was less appealing but I personally would take one of those Hawaiian Spam Musubi treats over chocolate any day. But I digress). Although no one was told to consider the other items in the room, the students in the "Spam room" predicted they would like the chips much more than the ones in the "chocolate room" did. How much they actually liked the chips was not affected by spam versus chocolate surroundings. The study's authors concluded: "We use different rulers for experiencing and prediction. Forecasters overestimate the extent to which they will be able to think about what they did not get while experiencing what they got."1

The same contextual distortion and poor "affective forecasting" can happen if you scan a roomful of singles while deciding whether to go out with the one that's making a move on you. In a room full of Spam the woman in front of you might seem more delicious than she actually is and set you up for that "what was I thinking?" moment down the road. In a room full of chocolate, you might pass over a perfectly scrumptious man because he seems deceptively dull by comparison. Speed daters beware.

The moral of the story is twofold. Don't beat yourself up too much for making some funky relationship decisions. It's part of being human. But keep some of these typical tendancies in mind next time to help you look a little further before you leap.

1. Morwedge, C. K., Gilber, D. T., Myrseth, K. O. R., Kassam, K.S., & Wilson, T. (2010). Consuming experiences: Why affective forecasters overestimate comparative value. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 (6), 986-992

About the Author

Linda Young

Linda Young, Ph.D., is a psychologist and relationship coach whose work has appeared on or in CNN, NPR, The Oprah Magazine, and USA Today, among others.

You are reading

Love in Limbo

Truth and Lies About Sex

Debunking bonking myths

A Tribute to Love: Steve and Laurene Jobs

A most intimate kind of touch

Is Your Fidelity Line Fuzzy?

Do you know your partner's definition of fidelity?