“You should write a blog post about how to date when you’re an anxious person!” my friend said excitedly, as we gossiped about boys (and mental health struggles) over lattes and cupcakes.
“HAAHAHAHAHAhahahaha,” I replied. “I have no idea how to deal with my anxiety while dating. I barely even manage it myself. How can I tell other people how to do it?”
The more that I thought about this exchange, though, the more I wondered if I could actually be more helpful than I’d realized. I don’t think you have to be an expert in order to help someone. The experiences you’ve had, and the lessons you’ve learned, can be of use to others even if you’re still in the midst of your own journey.
So, with that in mind, here are some things I’ve learned about navigating the dating world when your brain’s fear-meter is a little out of whack. I hope this helps you, at least a little.
1. Enlist socially competent friends.
It feels a little “high school” to constantly text friends whenever anything happens with your crush, I know. But if you’re lucky enough, as I am, to have friends who appreciate (or at least tolerate) this behavior instead of blocking your number, I think you should let those friends support you and help you.
Here are some examples of ways my more socially skilled friends have saved my ass when anxiety was clouding my brain:
• I texted my pal E., “[Boy] said he might want to see a movie with me today, but now I feel like it would be too forward for me to text him and ask him about it!” E. reminded me, “[Boy] said he wanted to see a movie with you, so it’s not forward,” and then suggested a possible wording for the text I could send. What an angel.
• I spoke to a number of friends about the situation with a boy I liked, and several of them said, “Go for it!” I wasn’t really sure what this meant, precisely. I asked my friend E. what he meant when he said “Go for it” and he said, “Tell him you like him, or ask him out.” Ahhh, okay, I thought. The specificity helped.
• While chatting with my friend A., I listed a bunch of things that [Boy] had said and done the last time we hung out, all of which I thought were ambiguous and could have been flirty or just friendly; I really didn’t know. When I finished, A. laughed for a good minute and said, very sarcastically, “Yeah, he’s totally just into you as a friend.” Her third-party viewpoint helped me see what my anxiety had been hiding from me.
• Soon before my last break-up, I realized I didn’t actually know how to break up with someone. People kept telling me, “Just get it over with!” and “Be respectful but firm!” but I was missing basic information like where to do it and what to actually say. My pal A. helped me rehearse a little script and weighed the pros and cons of various break-up locations with me. We even discussed what to wear to a break-up, because that’s the kind of thing I worry about.
See? Friends can be sooooo helpful when your brain is being your worst enemy.
2. Journal about it.
Where would I be without journaling? Maybe dead. Definitely sad and confused.
I find journaling absolutely essential as an anxious person because it helps me process all my zillions of thoughts. I can go on a 5-page-long ramble about all the worries and insecurities I have around a particular situation, and by the end of it, a) those thoughts no longer occupy my brain quite so firmly, and b) I can see very clearly just how ridiculous those thoughts are. Journaling gives me some distance, some objectivity.
I can also tell you from firsthand experience that it is hilarious to re-read your old journal entries from the nervous beginnings of relationships. “You silly twit,” you’ll shout at your past self, “of COURSE he meant he liked you when he said ‘I like you’!!”
3. It’s okay to be honest.
Sometimes when I start dating someone, or even when dating seems possibly imminent, I’ll bust out a little speech. It goes something like this:
“Hey, so, just so you know, I have anxiety. That means that sometimes I’ll get really nervous around you and act weird. It doesn’t mean I feel uncomfortable or unsafe with you; it’s just how my brain works. I also might need a little extra reassurance and validation from you sometimes, because my anxiety is always telling me that people don’t like me and that I’m worthless. So if you could try to assure me once in a while that you actually do like me, that would be really helpful. I’ll try not to be too weird.”
People tend to respond favorably to this kind of honesty, actually. Some people even find it adorable. (That’s a whole other can of worms – my mental health issue is not cute, okay?! – but it’s certainly better than them shaming me for my anxiety or dumping me because of it.)
4. Find your self-care practices and use them.
Here are some things I like to do when I’m getting ready to go on a date or to spend time with someone I like:
• Spend ages choosing the ideal outfit, doing my makeup and hair, and making sure I look adorable. (Some would call this obsessive, maybe, but it helps me calm down.)
• Make sure I know, with 100% certainty, where we are going, how much it’s going to cost, what time I have to leave my house in order to get there on time, and any other relevant information. (I eliminate all possible stressors. This is an act of self-love and self-protection.)
• Play Scrabble on my phone while traveling to the destination. (It calms my brain somewhat, by giving me something to focus on besides my stomach-curdling fear. Podcasts and music also help.)
• Breathe deeply and slowly. (“Fear is just excitement without breath,” after all.)
Whatever your own self-care and self-calming practices are, make sure you actually remember to do them when you need to. It might be helpful to write them on a card and keep them in your wallet, or set them as your phone background, or whatever. Keep ’em close and do ’em often.
5. Assess the situation objectively.
As objectively as you can, anyway. I know it’s difficult.
If you find yourself thinking an anxious thought – for example, “He doesn’t like me anymore!” – look for evidence of that thought. Odds are, there won’t be as much as you thought (or any).
Then look for evidence of the opposite thought (e.g. “He likes me a lot!”). There will probably be some.
Breathe. It’s okay. Your fear is inside your own head and nowhere else. You don’t have to listen to it. It doesn’t reflect reality.
Anxious folks: how do YOU navigate the dating world without vomiting on your suitors’ shoes?