Have you ever been stood up? After being stood up for a date, Peter McGraw processes the experience and shares lessons he learned. If you like this episode, please join the conversation in the Solo community; sign up at petermcgrw.org/solo.
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Solo Thoughts 9 – What I Learned From Getting Stood Up
I had something happen to me. Something that had me shaken. This Solo Thoughts episode is my selfish attempt to make sense of it, impart a lesson or three and move on. What happened? I got stood up, and this was not the run-of-the-mill getting stood up situation. At least, not in my experience. I have been stood up before but not quite like this. This one was spectacular. Perhaps, I’m being hyperbolic. You be the judge.
As you may know, I date but do so with loose goals. I focus on the process more than the outcome. I seek good feelings. That is my main criterion for whether I want to see someone again or not. Does it feel good? If the good feelings continue and a connection develops into something that is more romantic and long-term, I’m happy but I’m not unhappy in the meantime.
There are many reasons that I’m more focused on process than outcome. One is that a long-term romantic relationship is difficult for me to attain. I’m not a good match for most people because of my unconventional life. For example, since I don’t want some of the elements of the Relationship Escalator, such as, regardless of how I feel about a person, I won’t merge my life.
Since most people want to ride the escalator and eventually merge, my dating pool is more limited. Lately, I have started to think that it would be nice to meet someone whom I can see more regularly and intensely. For me, this is the difference between finding someone I want to go out on a date with and someone I want to go on a road trip with. Whereas it’s relatively easy to find the former, I find it difficult to find the latter.
Back to getting stood up. I spent much of the summer on a project, a book proposal that occupied most of my professional life, and frankly, it was challenging. Summer was coming to a close. The weather in Colorado was cooling, and students started arriving back on campus, and the project was wrapping up. It felt good to have it off my plate so I could go back to my important work, writing the book.
At the same time I was wrapping up the project, I met a woman whom I felt I had a good connection with. She was bright, ambitious, and funny. A good copilot for road, perhaps. It felt good. I was excited. It’s nice to get excited on occasion. We texted, talked on the phone, and met and all of it went well. I was feeling good. I’m an optimist, and rather than pitch a run-of-the-mill second date, I suggested something bigger.
How about we drive the Peak To Peak Highway up to Estes Park, the home of Rocky Mountain National Park? The Peak To Peak is a beautiful scenic drive. It’s very Colorado. It’s something I tell people to do when they visit as this park is also home to the Stanley Hotel, which was the inspiration for Stephen King’s book, The Shining, made more famous by Stanley Kubrick’s adaption to the big screen.
We were to leave on a Wednesday. How special? The world works, and we play. She was excited. The Shining is her mother’s favorite movie. It’s their family movie. I was like, “It’s not something like It’s a Wonderful Life. Your family movie involves the husband and father trying to kill the wife and child. She laughs and says, “Yes.” As part of that conversation, she mentions, “What time are we getting back on Thursday?”
I think to myself, “This might be even more fun than I thought.” I got a reservation at the Stanley, and while on the website, “There’s a seance. Are you interested?” “Yes, absolutely.” I will spare you the blow-by-blow text message thread. Let’s say she was excited and encouraging. She even remarked, “I already like you. You don’t have to try so hard.”
The day of the trip arrives. I texted her in the morning asking about the departure time. No response. “That’s strange,” I call a few hours later, closer to when I would have expected us to leave. I left a message. No response. Now, I’m starting to wonder and worry. I call a couple of confidants to ask about how long I should wait. Both replied, “You have already waited too long.”
Getting stood up, this situation was not going to be just unfortunate. It was going to be expensive. There’s no canceling the seance, so I reached out to someone I thought would enjoy it and got a yes. It was a bit of relief. The hotel room, a bigger expense, was past the cancellation window. It was going to go to waste. I called the hotel and told the truth, as embarrassing as it was. The reservation person supervisor took pity on me and granted the cancellation. Some more relief. I never heard from her. No closure. No relief.
The situation bothered me, and continued to do so. I had a hard time shaking it off, and because of who I am, I started to explore why I was so affected. One reason was how much I was looking forward to it. I was savoring the event, and that contributed to my enjoyment. This was also going to be my celebration. A fun, kitschy adventure with the benefit of getting to know someone better. Another reason is that the psychological and emotional pain of rejection is very real. Getting stood up is pretty rejecting.
Recent research reveals that social rejection, even in mild forms, is akin to physical pain in the brain, and pain captures attention and emotions. The good thing about bad things, though, is that bad things cause reflection and change. No one ever looks at their perfect life and says, “Let’s blow it up and start over.” Finally, I was struggling because when I replayed the interactions, the conversations, and the messages looking for a clue, there was none. No hint. No red flag. Nothing that I had overlooked that should have led me to behave differently or explain the no-show.
With no benefit of hindsight to learn from, I sought solace and what I could learn from this experience for when it happens next time. This is my attempt to articulate those insights. Two notes before I get to those lessons. First, while this is set in a dating context, I realized that not all of you care about dating. You are unlikely to get ghosted or stood up, yet I hope you can learn from them for situations that extend beyond dates. Second, it’s difficult to excuse this behavior but I will. If she wakes up from a coma and calls me to apologize, I would give her a second chance. Otherwise, no way.
To the lessons. Let’s get started. The first lesson is not to let this incident affect your subsequent interactions. This one was a reminder of a previous life lesson I had many years ago. If a bad experience is not part of a pattern, don’t overreact. I will tell you the story. Before the final year of my PhD, I started dating a woman, and we had been friends for many years.
Once we started dating, we fell hard. We were good together. I was building a life in my mind with her. I was smitten. I was in love. I even thought I would marry her. If I had, it would have altered the trajectory of my life. I would have taken a different job. I probably would have had kids and certainly, wouldn’t be talking to you.
Obviously, that didn’t happen. What brought that relationship to an end? At the time, we were long-distance and going to be united in the same state a few months later. One Sunday evening, I got a call, and she told me that she had cheated on me the night before with a coworker. I was devastated. It was pure grief, and it took me a long time to get over it. That relationship ended, and I’ve seen this thing play out before with other people. I dated some of them.
Someone gets hurt by a person, and they extend that wound and that protection to every new relationship, and I never saw that as fair. There’s no such thing as all women or all men. Bad experiences dating or otherwise too often beget bad experiences. You get cut off by someone in traffic, and then you become more aggressive to others. Someone goes to you, and then you feel like it’s okay to do it to others.
My realization occurred like in the movies. I found myself looking at myself in the bathroom mirror and talking to myself, “Peter, you are not going to let this affect your future relationships. This is not a pattern. This is one person. One act. Don’t overreact. It’s simply an unfortunate incident.” I think the same can be said for this one.
The second lesson. When deciding between malice and weakness, choose weakness, at least at first. I will likely never find out why I got stood up. I can make up reasons for this incident and the natural one, besides a coma-inducing car accident is to think, “This is a terrible person. Who does that?” Science, however, suggests an alternative perspective. One of the early findings in social psychology and one of the strongest is called the fundamental attribution error.
When attributing the reasons for behavior, people tend to think that someone who does something bad does so because they are a bad person but if I do something bad, it’s because I was in a bad situation. Essentially, people realize that context matters for them but don’t tend to think that context matters for others. Other people act because of their disposition and the kind of person they are.
To demonstrate the power of context, researchers at Princeton many years ago ran a study with seminary students, seemingly, good people, asking them to give a sermon about the Good Samaritan, thus priming them to think about helping someone else. In the study, these seminary students were told they were going to give this sermon and that it was going to be down the roadways, down this alley. What these researchers did was they planted someone in the alley who appeared to be in some desperation and not doing very well. They sent the seminary students down the alley and then recorded whether the students stopped to inquire to help this poor soul along the way.
What they found was that whether or not the seminary students were likely to help had to do with how much of a rush they were in. In some situations, in some conditions in the study, they were told you have plenty of time to get there, and in others, they were told, “You are already too late.” Those students who were “late” were less likely to stop. The context overrode their inclinations. Perhaps, there are some contexts, there’s some reason that I am not taking into account here.
Moreover, when it comes to someone’s disposition, I find that it is often better to attribute their behavior to weakness or insecurity rather than just being bad. I will give you my experience in academia. There’s a lot of bad behavior, bullies abound, and some of it has to do with the competitive context and a focus on status and winning but what I noticed as I got into the business was that much of this behavior comes from people being insecure. You have to understand the average academic. They were nerds.
They were the 97-pound weaklings who had sand kicked in their faces but they ended up in a world, a world where they were good at something. In a world that gave them status for it, and they haven’t handled it well. What ends up happening oftentimes is when I look at someone’s bad behavior, and I look at what’s underlying it, it has to do with their insecurity that might be lifelong, and that allows me to be a little bit more understanding and thus, I strive to act with compassion with grace to be magnanimous.
It was not always easy but I find that it helps. If I think that when someone is behaving badly, perhaps it’s weakness or laziness. Third, perhaps it is badness. Indeed, there were a few people who were just bad people. The Jersey boy in me is no pushover. Though my mom didn’t want her kids fighting, she would always say to us, “If someone is going to hurt you, you hurt them.” Fortunately, I don’t have to deal with this very often, if at all but if you put me in a situation in which I’m with a bad person, I will fight back.
This is not one of those situations. In this case, that might be some sort of text message response, and frankly, there’s no good response. The third lesson. Bad experiences like this one are necessary for the good experience I was hoping to have. Frequent readers know that I’m not terribly woo-woo. Though I don’t pay attention to Tarot cards and don’t care whether or not Mercury is in retrograde, I do pay attention to coincidence.
I was gifted with a date, an iron maiden record, and the book Tao Te Ching by Laozi. I will let you guess which one is more important in this situation. Laozi was a Chinese philosopher, a Taoist, and a contemporary of Confucius. If you are not familiar with Taoism, one of the elements is the notion of emptiness, restraint, and letting things be. That’s difficult for me. I’m a man of action. It’s part of my identity. That means I do things. I problem solve. I’m a fixer.
That’s not terribly unusual. People, in general, have a bias toward action to act rather than not act to solve a problem. For example, a research study on penalty kicks in soccer reveals a bias towards action. In a penalty kick, a goalie is at a huge disadvantage. Seventy-five percent of penalty kicks score, and only about 17% of the time does the goalie make a save. The remainder missed the goal.
What the scientists found is that the best strategy for a goalie is to not move. It’s to stand in place. That maximizes the likelihood that they make a save, but goalies tend to leap right or leap left, guessing at what direction the kick is going to come. As I was reading this book, I realized that the only good response was to do nothing. Though I still made this episode, so I have a lot to learn about restraint.
Another element of the Tao is the need for opposing forces. That is, yin needs yang and vice versa. I will read part of a passage, “When people see things as beautiful, ugliness is created. When people see things as good, evil is created. Being and non-being produce each other. Difficult and easy complement each other. Long and short define each other. High and low oppose each other. Fore and aft follow each other.”
Therefore, the master can act without doing anything and teach without saying a word. Things come her way, and she does not stop them. Things leave, and she lets them go. She has without possessing and acts without any expectation. When her work is done, she takes no credit. That is why it will last forever. This bad thing is necessary for me to appreciate the good things, and if you want good things, you need to risk the bad. That’s a powerful lesson. What makes a date good is the fact that it may be bad.
This idea got me thinking a little bit about one of my favorite quotes from Steven Pressfield in his wonderful little book, The War of Art: Winning The Inner Creative Battle. He writes, and I feel like he’s speaking to me. “It’s better to be in the arena getting stomped by the bull than to be up in the stands or out in the parking lot.” I just happened to get stomped or rather stood up this time.
As I reflect and bring this episode to a conclusion, a theme emerges for me. “Peter, don’t overreact. Loosen your grip. Let it go.” This is likely an isolated incident that has less to do with me than it does with this person. This person likely needs my compassion more than my antipathy, and this incident will help me enjoy the company of a more suitable co-pilot.
Thank you for reading. I already feel a lot better. If you have thoughts or advice, I would love to hear from you, and you can do so in this Solo Community. Sign up at PeterMcGraw.org/solo, and as always, please share this show with singles who you think will benefit from it. If you have not rated or reviewed the show, please take a moment to do that. It matters. Cheers.
About Peter McGraw
The host of Solo, Peter McGraw is a behavioral economist, b-school professor, and bachelor.