by Lisa Peterson
It’s the dating advice lobbed at single people the world over: “Just put yourself out there!” But if you’re dealing with anxiety, “putting yourself out there” to make even a platonic connection can feel nerve-wracking. Throw in the possibility of a potential romantic partner and…cue the nervous sweats.
Dr. Amelia Aldao, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating anxiety disorders, explains that it’s not just an excuse — anxiety really does impact our willingness to go after what we want. “In general, when we are feeling very anxious, it makes us want to avoid things,” she explains. And the signs that you’re using avoidant behavior to cope with anxious feelings aren’t always as obvious as you might expect, even to ourselves.
For example, you might think you’re being proactive about your romantic life by downloading a dating app like Bumble, but if you’ve only uploaded a picture of your dog and a sarcastic one-liner bio, your anxiety symptoms might be working overtime to hold you back.
“No one’s really going to [match with someone]” who hasn’t filled out their profile in earnest, Aldao says, but that variety of ambivalent behavior becomes anxiety’s sneaky way of guarding against rejection.
If that all sounds a little too familiar, Aldao recommends adopting a casual, low-stakes attitude in your approach to dating. “It’s good to remind yourself that it’s a numbers game,” she explains. Putting too much pressure on any one encounter — “even if the person was great when you were chatting them up online and even if they seem to be checking all the boxes” — exacerbates anxious feelings.
It might also be comforting to remember you probably aren’t the only one on your date feeling like they’re on trial. According to author and clinical psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, dates “should be reciprocal” in an ideal world, so you don’t have to do all the entertaining on your own. “You’re trying to get to know each other, so you want it to be two-sided,” Hendriksen says, so try “to give and offer as much of yourself as you are asking [your date] to offer of themselves.”
If the thought of an “awkward” pause in conversation sends you spiraling, she recommends looking out for what she calls “hooks” in whatever your date offers up. For example, she adds, “If your date says, ‘Last weekend I went down to New York and saw this concert with my college buddies,’” you can find all kinds of “hooks” in that one sentence. Ask about the band they saw, their experience in New York, their time in college, or whatever detail catches your interest first.
It’s hard to find those hooks when you’re not really listening to the other person, though, so Hendriksen recommends turning “your attention from the inside to the outside.” In other words: “Pay attention to essentially anything except yourself.” By actively listening to what your date has to say (or even the environment you’re in), Hendriksen says you can “mine the moment” for conversation and turn down the volume on the anxious chatter in your head.
Another way to cope with feelings of anxiousness while on a date is a technique psychotherapist Jonathan Berent calls “surfing.” Instead of furiously paddling in the opposite direction of any adrenaline bubbling up during a first date, he recommends trying to take it for a ride. Accepting that you’re feeling a surge of adrenaline is “the hardest thing,” Berent says, but once you consciously choose to stay in the present moment, “surfing” through that adrenaline can create “the power that takes you into conversation, where you have to trust yourself.”
If your anxiety is at its worst after a date ends, Aldao advises taking a step back. Of course, the uncertainty of waiting for the next step can cause a flare up of negative thoughts (What if it went horribly and it’s all my fault?), but Aldao recommends taking a beat before panicking. “Learn to think of all of your self-critical thoughts as just that: thoughts,” she says. And just because a thought pops up, Aldao points out, “it doesn’t mean it’s true.”
Writing down your “automatic thoughts” about yourself after (or even before) a date can help quell some of those anxious feelings, Aldao says. She describes automatic thoughts as ones that feel like they “come out of nowhere,” but are very intense and self-critical.
By writing them down instead of letting them rattle around in your mind, she says, you can create distance from yourself and the negative thought in question. Once you’ve put those thoughts down on paper, try to evaluate them like a scientist. If your automatic thoughts insist you’re an awkward and boring person, for example, you might ask yourself: What evidence do I have that I’m always boring? Does everyone tell me that I’m boring? Has anyone ever found anything I’ve had to say interesting? Odds are high that once you examine your harsh inner voice from a new perspective, you’ll stop accepting it as factual.
In the end, dating is all about having a little faith in yourself and other people. “You might meet someone great, or you might meet someone not so great,” Aldao says. Maybe the person you matched with on Bumble will be “in a different place in life,” or maybe they really are going to “reinforce some of the negative thoughts that you’ve had” about what dating is like. But you shouldn’t let it make you avoid going after what you want.
“There’s nothing you can do to control other people,” Aldao says. Maybe the advice everyone gives is true after all: “The best you can do,” Aldao says, “is put yourself out there and be open-minded.”