Unlearning flirting and letting go of “feigned fascination”

I’ve worked with a mentee of mine for about a year who, while immensely bright, struggles with some sexual compulsivity issues. (Yes, this mentee is also in therapy; I’m not overstepping my role.) “Kelly” read this old post of mine about flirtation, and brought the subject up with me last week. Kelly asked: “How do I go about unlearning flirting? It’s like second nature to me, and it gets me in so much trouble.” I gave Kelly some tips, and thought I’d roll them into a post.

First off, I realize that when I talk about “unlearning flirting” it raises an obvious question: why would someone want to unlearn such a pleasurable and innocent pastime? For most people, flirting (once they figure out what it is) is exciting and pleasant; it offers an opportunity for thrilling little boosts to one’s self-esteem without great risk. It makes a lot of people feel just a bit more alive. Then again, the same might be said for alcohol. Some of my friends can take one or two drinks and stop; my experience over many years was that I couldn’t. I tried for years to drink in moderation, and failed spectacularly — all of my growth in the past decade or so has come since I became completely sober. No half measures for me in this area of my life. Kelly is someone also struggling with chemical dependency, but the primary addiction seems, to my experienced layperson’s eye, to be sexual compulsiveness. It is something with which I am all too familiar from my own life — and it is something which led me to conclude that at least for me (I speak for no one but a select group of my fellow addicts), flirtation was unhealthy and destructive.

I’ve written before about flirting, but never in detail about how I “unlearned it.” It was more difficult to do than quitting drinking, but for my recovery, just as essential. And the first step, of course, was acknowledging that flirting (or as I called it in Twelve Step programs, “intriguing” – used as a gerund) was making my life unmanageable. I was good at it, if by good we mean able to elicit positive responses from the folks with whom I flirted. I wasn’t always looking for sex itself (though I rarely turned that down); rather, I was looking for validation. The addict in me cared far more about ego gratification than about orgasm; knowing that I had aroused interest or desire was usually sufficient to satisfy me. At times, sex itself became a rather tedious, obligatory postlude to what had really mattered, which was getting the reassurance that someone wanted to sleep with me, or was at least interested in me on a physical/romantic level. It took me a while to realize that this was what I was doing; it was much more flattering to think of myself as a hyper-libidinous (if decidedly nerdy) Don Juan figure than to acknowledge the truth that I was just pathetically insecure, trading on chemical attraction and all of its attendant rituals to get the attention I craved.

I made an inventory of what I did when I flirted. I’d been practicing flirting since eighth grade, and over many years I’d developed a “bag of tricks” that tended to serve me well. (Parenthetically, these tricks were hopelessly ineffective in certain other countries. Traveling through Italy one summer when I was twenty, I gave up early on — whatever “game” I had had been developed with North Americans very much in mind!) Flirting was about words, of course, but also glances and the gentle but insistent erosion of normative physical boundaries. I realized I changed my voice, very slightly, and tended to hold a gaze just a second or two longer than the American standard. I leaned in towards people, affecting shyness or boldness based on what my intuitition told me would work. And I remembered the cardinal rule that my uncle Wolfgang had taught me when I was about ten: “Hugo, if you want to be popular, remember to be interested in what other people tell you. Even if they bore you, remember a few things that they say and ask them questions about what interests them. They will be fascinated that you find them fascinating.” I’ve never forgotten that last line, and it was the foundation stone on which all the little tricks were built.

It’s normally a good thing to find other people interesting. My problem, of course, was that I didn’t generally find other people interesting — I was just very good at pretending that I did. While I feigned fascination and curiosity, I was “scanning for trailheads” — ways to take the conversation in a more intimate direction without appearing too aggressive, rude, or scary. (This is why I always had trouble with women raised outside this culture, and why I “did well” with those accustomed to the American style of instant confessional intimacy with near strangers!) I had spent years and years taking acting classes (from age seven to age eighteen), and those gave me tips about how to summon up the outer appearance of passion and make it convincing. And it worked, and it worked all too well, and the whole thing nearly killed me. My insecurity drove me to flirt and to seduce and to act out, and my conscience, which was fully aware of my dishonesty and my fraudulence, drove me to drink and use drugs to soothe my sense of horror at my own manipulative, narcissistic, self-centeredness.

Of course, I couldn’t unlearn flirting by becoming distant and cold and stand-offiish; rudeness was not the goal or even an appropriate means to an end. Rather, I noted how I talked to my cousins and my sisters. I come from an affectionate family (surprisingly non-WASPy in that regard), and my relatives had long modeled safe, non-sexualized interactions. (I realize that not everyone grows up in that sort of environment; some families are not safe.) I noted the ways in which I could express concern and interest without that deadly accompanying frisson of sexualized curiosity. With other women I interacted with, I took one step back physically; I made myself hyper-conscious of boundaries around things like gaze and space and touch, all the while trying to turn what had once been the outer appearance of interest into the genuine article. (I wrote about one technique I used in this post.)

I realized that one “trick” that had always worked for me had been to be constantly in motion; caffeinated and bouncy as I normally was, I had this way of always adjusting (semi-unconsciously) the space between myself and the person with whom I was flirting. I played that famous game of “go away closer” pretty well! Flirtation, after all, needs a foundation of authenticity to work; I am authentically a hyper person and so I used that hyperness to good effect. One trick was to appear to grow slowly and steadlily calmer and more centered as I interacted with someone; the goal was to convey the message “I’m normally so easily distracted, but I find you so intensely fascinating that I’m quieting down everything else to focus on just you.” (That was a winner.) So as part of unlearning flirting, I did my best to remove the artifice from that; if I was feeling bouncy, I’d stay bouncy; if I was feeling solemn, I’d stay solemn. I’d offer my attention, but wouldn’t feign that kind of gently delighted wonder that had been one of my aces.

But changing how I moved and how I respected physical boundaries was alll secondary to the real trick of unlearning flirting, which was to become genuinely rather than spuriously interested in the people I talked to. I’m an ENFP, after all; I find other human beings genuinely fascinating. But that authentic fascination can only flourish if I quiet my own imperious needs for a while, long enough for me to stop worrying what the other person thinks of me and to start focusing on how I can genuinely be of service in this particular interaction. It took a lot of time to learn how to do that, and I can’t say that I don’t have tiny little relapses of self-absorption from time to time! Yet, with focus and intentionality and with trial and error, I’ve unlearned a lot of old behavior. Today, I can say that I am as committed to being safe as I was once committed to seducing. I can’t think of many things of which I am prouder, and the rewards I have in my life today (my marriage, my daughter, my friends, my sense of well-being, my sobriety) could not have come if I had not made these changes.

For those who can flirt safely, without hurting or misleading or betraying, I say more to power to the lot of you. But to folks like me, like Kelly, and like so many of my fellow addicts touched by our peculiar fire, there is no safe flirting. Without withdrawing into curmudgeonliness, we’ve got to find a way to relate to people that is honest, that is respectful of boundaries, and that puts their needs at least on an equal footing with our own.

19 thoughts on “Unlearning flirting and letting go of “feigned fascination”

  1. I’m not an inveterate flirt, but I do use techniques to avoid the appearance of flirting with professors. (Since I usually have crushes on my professors that I have no intention of acting upon, but that still lead to me wanting to talk to them, etc., I want to be careful.) For me it’s just about keeping a kind of neutral tone, not looking at them more than a normal amount, and not making personal remarks. I think it works reasonably well – at least, I’ve never seen signs that I’ve made one uncomfortable (or excited).

  2. I to, am a compulsive flirter, which naturally irritates my husband. I think for me, the reaction of the person I’m flirting with gets me off most. I like seeing them twiterpated and excited. I have no interest in sleeping with any of the guys I flirt with; I think it’s just this culturally ingrained need-to-please attitude I’ve learned. The idea that women are supposed to be charming and witty and cute, all at the expense of making me look like a dumb blonde. Most of the time I’d rather just discuss my disseration. I to, am trying to unlearn this destructive behavior. I think it’s kind of a way of degrading myself because sometimes I feel I have nothing to offer other than my body. Kinda sad actually…

  3. Katie and Tam, thank you; you both in different ways raise an interesting question, perhaps one for another post: to what extent is it male privilege that allows me to give up flirting, confident I will be still be heard and taken seriously even if I am totally desexualized? I need to flesh that idea out a bit — but you’ve got the chinchilla in my brain running fast on her wheel.

  4. Hugo,

    hmm, I’m getting the impression that your “unlearning” to flirt was as much driven by your desire to be safe from yourself (as you were trying to become your “congruent” self as you have defined for yourself) as your flirting seems to have been driven by your desires to transcend your self before. Your radicalism starts to make sense to me – and I’m happy it is offset by your intelligence and your ability to question yourself.

    “Without withdrawing into curmudgeonliness, we’ve got to find a way to relate to people that is honest, that is respectful of boundaries, and that puts their needs at least on an equal footing with our own.”

    I think that’s exactly what most people are trying to do. It’s not easy, though.

    I, for one, got repeatedly told (by girls) to stop worrying about other people’s feelings so much and think about myself a bit more. In that respect, learning how to flirt has been the best thing in my life, probably since learning how to walk. Sure, it’s always partly a performance, but it’s making all my interactions much more fun. I can flirt with a 60yo woman at a cash desk in a supermarket and the hot lady in the club who has been eyeing me for years and I’ve never noticed. Learning how to flirt has made me more comfortable in every interaction, from the bouncers of the club to business meetings.

    Learning to flirt has given me a sense of self, it has made me a better person to be around for everyone, women and men. It has made me realise that people prefer coded language to verbal honesty, relational and emotional ambiguity to unambigousness. We all want to transcend ourselves. Flirting offers an easy and mostly risk-free way of escapism – it’s like telling someone a story they always wanted to hear and live through.

    As with all things, if you’re only approaching an interaction teleological, if you’re not actually interested in the moment, the connection itself but only the outcome, you’ll feel the emptiness afterwards, because your reward wasn’t the interaction itself. Post coitum omne animal triste est.

    So, long story short, I think you had what pickup people would call “outer game” but you lacked “inner game”. Maybe unlearning your “outer game” was what was necessary to get to your “inner game”. But for others, I’d say the biggest majority of people, both men and women, learning to flirt is a way to get to their inner game.

  5. Hugo,

    “to what extent is it male privilege that allows me to give up flirting, confident I will be still be heard and taken seriously even if I am totally desexualized”

    I think this has almost nothing to do with gender and almost everything with self-awareness and confidence. It’s like “beauty and the geek”. As opposed to Katie, discussing my dissertation (and believe me, I have done that for a long time) would not make me feel more taken seriously or congruent. I had enough intellectual confidence, but not enough sexual confidence, I needed confirmation of my physical self, not my intellect. Was I taken seriously as a desexualised person? No. Was I heard? Not as a person, but as an expert – you probably get the difference. Many women get more physical attention than they want, but those who don’t crave “being sexualised” as much as I did. Those who get too much of it prefer to discuss their dissertation – and that would be flirting, too, in my opinion.

  6. I’m rubbish at flirting and have the opposite problem. I wish I could flirt instictively, always makes me quite sad that I’m not good at this.

  7. “It took me a while to realize that this was what I was doing; it was much more flattering to think of myself as a hyper-libidinous (if decidedly nerdy) Don Juan figure than to acknowledge the truth that I was just pathetically insecure, trading on chemical attraction and all of its attendant rituals to get the attention I craved.”

    Wow, Hugo. Very, very few people, in my experience, can bear to even come close to this level of self-reflection and brutal honesty. I salute you, seriously. I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that nearly the very hardest thing (and most seldom achieved successfully) that most people can manage is a truly honest and bare-bones self-appraisal.

  8. “For those who can flirt safely, without hurting or misleading or betraying, I say more to power to the lot of you.”

    I’ve never encountered this. The only harmless flirting I’ve ever witnessed was between two people who were both either unattached or both attached to people who were equally flirtatious with others, and this is not that common. I know people just luuuv to flirt and that they in consequence come up with all kinds of justifications for it being “harmless/unbetraying/unmisleading,” generally, it is always some degree of one or more of those things.

  9. Very insightful post and comments.

    Makes me wonder if some slippage in understanding is happening because flirting has not been defined.

    How would you define flirting, Hugo?

    To what degree is intent important to make something flirting?

    (I tend to think that intent is everything. Consequently, an activity like the discussion of a dissortation with someone can be flirting. Is my definition too broad?)

  10. Pingback: Musing on Flirtation at PunkAssBlog.com

  11. Alternately nodding earnestly and laughing a lot, cracking dumb academic jokes, telling someone you think her or his work sounds really fascinating or important, making lots more eye contact than necessary – discussing a dissertation can definitely be flirtatious.

  12. I’m a quite-a-long-time lurker on your blog, an older woman (in my 50s) and not an American. (Australian) I’m de-lurking because I actually found this post really informative from the other end of the spectrum, because I am one of those people who has never flirted in my life, and feel simply confused (and a little frightened) on the rare occasions when I pick up those signals from men. As a teenager who had been an abused child, I was far too shy and self-conscious to go there, and honestly had no idea how to do it. I married in my early 20s, and after that I regarded anything remotely sexual with anyone except my husband as wildly inappropriate. I tend to treat all my male friends as the brothers I never had, and have very safe, comfortable relationships.

    But thanks to this post I now understand flirtation a little better, and will be a little more aware of what is happening when others try it on me, and a little less thrown by what, to me, is behaviour I have no personal category for.

  13. Conversely, I’ve found that if you are making a lot of eye contact because you really are sincerely listening, people sometimes read more into that than they should. Kind of frustrating, and does sometimes make me think that being “distant and cold and stand-offish” really is the solution.

    Anyway, my boyfriend and I started out discussing our masters theses. So I’ll concur with the people here saying that dissertation discussions can indeed be flirtatious.

  14. Hugo,
    you are a very non-flirtatious mentor and professor, and I would never have trusted you if you weren’t. I wish some of your collegues would learn from you! I am so thankful I knew you now and not ten years ago. The change is real, my friend, and you should be proud.

  15. Michael, for some of us talking about (or listening to someone talk about) one’s dissertation is the highest form of flirtation. Tastes and methods differ; Hugo’s, for instance, isn’t the standard jock version of flirting.

  16. But changing how I moved and how I respected physical boundaries was alll secondary to the real trick of unlearning flirting, which was to become genuinely rather than spuriously interested in the people I talked to.

    I don’t know that the problem is so much ‘faking interest’ as having an ulterior motive for that interest. Also, the difference between polite interest and flirting is the level of warmth involved.

  17. Anybody noticed how much nicer and sometimes flirtatious the waitstaff at restaurants has gotten since the recession started? Chicago will never be the south for hospitality, but everybody seems a lot friendlier.

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