Dr. G: Social anxiety and the dating game

Dear Dr. G,
I am a 35 yr old divorced woman who rarely dates. When I do go out, I have bad thoughts about how people are going to judge me in person since they already know me online. I think I’m the same person both places, but I don’t really know. Also, if I go out on a date with somebody and then I don’t hear back fairly soon over text, I start freaking out in my brain. I make up a story about why he hasn’t texted and I practically break up before there’s a relationship even to start. I feel like I’m going crazy sometimes. I am better off staying single and not dating at all, but I like being in a relationship. What is wrong with me?
Single forever

Dear fairly normal gal,
First of all, if you like being in a relationship, then do not keep yourself from something that you enjoy. You may want to find some new skills to help with this adventure, but there is nothing inherently wrong with the way you are feeling. I assure you that you are not alone with what you have described. It sounds like some adjustment anxiety that is fairly typical when reentering the dating/single world.

For many of us, the methods of dating have changed since the last time we were involved. Social media can be a burden as much as a boon. You’ve hit one of the nails right on the head (that colloquialism just fits so well in a sex column) with your fear of perception. The fear of how you are going to be perceived is understandable because Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram all give us the opportunity to put our best selves out there. It isn’t a lie to show that side of us, but we have the rest of us that might be anxious, angry, sad, and scared, though that side doesn’t get shown to the world quite as much.

Knowing that we have those feelings, and realizing that the person we are meeting for the first time might not know the other half of us, can produce fear and trepidation. What if you aren’t funny enough? What if your pictures only show your best side? What if you need time to think before speaking, and it feels awkward in a face-to-face conversation? What if your butt looks fat in that dress? Those thoughts are not just in YOUR head. They are probably in the head of the guy you are meeting with too (He may or may not wonder how he looks in a dress, but he will have some insecurities too).

Most people are actually too worried about how they are being perceived in the moment to care much about judging anyone else. It’s been said that you can overcome your fear of public speaking by pretending to see everyone as if they were naked. I’m not promoting imagining your date naked, but that might work. I am suggesting switching the context of the date. Do you feel much anxiety about meeting the cashier at checkout? That is a context you could imagine. What about the waiter taking your order? Much anxiety talking to him? With one of those scenarios in mind, rather than one where you feel you are being assessed, you may feel more calm.

As for wanting a response from him, unless he said he would contact you within a certain amount of time, your expectation is unrealistic. We live in a world where we have come to expect instant gratification everywhere, but humans aren’t programmed to run on autopilot. We all still have choice, and none of us can read minds. Expecting immediate responses has ruined many relationships. Furthermore, a date is your chance to see what YOU like. Whether you do the asking or you are the one being asked, it is still an opportunity for you to see how this person fits with what you want.

If you are going out looking to get acceptance from him, you are seeking external validation for your self worth. That kind of assessment rarely has any lasting impact that is positive. Luckily you are not still in high school. Things are different in the adult relationship world. You are no longer that girl standing on the side of the dance floor waiting to be asked to dance.

Now you get to decide who it is you would like to dance with and go ask him. You also get to set expectations for yourself while on the date, but only for yourself! If expectations are set in your mind for BOTH of you, then you react emotionally to what you believe should happen. One way to reign in your emotions is to set some personal boundaries. Something like, “I will go on a date and enjoy my time with this guy, but no matter how I feel after, I will not expect a reply from him.”

Write that on a piece of paper and tape it to your phone, so each time you have the urge to check for communication, you remember that when you are rational, you do NOT expect anything. It will lower your anxiety, and it can remind you that YOU get to choose, you aren’t waiting to be chosen. When you set boundaries for yourself, you understand the expectations that go along with them. That “I’m going crazy” feeling is a result of not knowing where those boundaries lie, and from setting expectations for other people that they might not be aware you have set.

The great thing about being single again is that you get choose how you want to feel within the boundaries you have set for yourself, and no one gets to influence you in that area unless you allow it to happen. Remember “Men at Work, You can dance if you want to?” Get out there and enjoy the music!

Gretchen Lambert-Wiltbank is a licensed associate mental health counselor. She has a bachelor’s degree in special education, and a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling. (“Dr. G” is her pen name. She isn’t a REAL doctor.) Get in touch with her at [email protected].