How does one even think about going on a date if they suffer from anxiety? We took this question (and some others!) to Dr. Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., author of the new book Freeing Yourself from Anxiety, for her advice about this difficult issue.
eH: First dates can rattle anyones nerves, but if one suffers from anxiety it is something they might want to avoid. How does a person like this even get into the mindset of going on a date?
Dr. Chansky: Tame the narrative. It’s normal to feel anxious in new situations like dating, the important thing is to not interpret that nervous feeling as a sign of trouble: with you, your date, or your potential together; it’s just human nature. We are wired to proceed with caution in situations where we can’t predict the outcome — and especially in those situations where we think we might get hurt. People who suffer from anxiety may have more frequent anxious thoughts, or more extreme catastrophic outcomes in mind, but the solution is the same either way and it’s all about what expectations you have for dating. This is what will turn the pressure up or down.
Give yourself a gift. Rather than going into each date with the mindset that you have to find that one true love tonight, do an expectation makeover: imagine if you saw this date as an isolated event without consequences. Let the date just be a date. Not the be all and end all, not the test of whether it’s worth it, not the test of whether you are lovable. It’s a single data point, that’s all. While the big picture is that you want to find love and companionship, the immediate purpose in the moment is to connect. It won’t jinx you if you let go of the big goal, quite the opposite: it will free you up to be present, pay attention and enjoy. Rather than be dragged around by your imagination which is moving fast and furious, racing ahead, analyzing this and that, be in the moment. Use your true curiosity to find out about the person across from you. They have a life story; you have a life story. Share yours; listen to theirs without worrying about what you’re going to do with it or where it’s going.
eH: How does one manage all the fears and worries?
Dr. Chansky: Anxiety’s way of preparing ourselves for the unknown is to supply us with rapid fire “what if’s.” The problem is, the “what if’s” are more a reflection of the universal reaction to the unknown than to the specifics of your life. So when you start to think –“What if I make a total fool out of myself? What if he doesn’t like me?, What if she finds me boring?” Don’t take it personally. It’s not really about you; it’s about how everyone’s anxious wiring responds to uncertainty.
Rather than doing your pre-game huddle with the worst-case scenarios; do a reality check. Change the question from “What if?” to “What is?” Write lists side by side on a piece of paper. In the first column, write down your fears, in the second column, write down the facts. For instance, your fear may say: What if she doesn’t like me? What if we have nothing in common? What if I never meet anyone? What if I end up alone? Whereas the facts sound like this: I have interests, I have things to talk about that I care about. Even if she’s not interested in everything I say, we are likely to find some things in common, and if we don’t, that’s a no fault thing. It’s not a sign of trouble. It happens. Think of it as the New York Times covering your date rather than The National Enquirer.
eH: What if you’re really nervous that you won’t know what to say?
Dr. Chansky: While we might be totally fine talking to a stranger next to us on a plane or at a conference, somehow when we think about what to say on a date we draw a big blank. We think there’s some other skill, some magic material that we are lacking — something special, something right, something amazing. Again, don’t personalize the universal reaction of anxiety. Everybody feels this way. It’s just the anxiety talking. It always makes us feel like we’ve got nothing. Don’t stick with that first thought — move on to the truth: you have lots to say. Here are three ideas to help you open up:
What was your high school teacher’s advice when you were blocked writing a paper? “Think about how you would tell a friend about the subject.” Imagine this on a date. Take away the pressures and expectations. There’s no magic “right” conversation.
Remember, like a conversation, the success of a date is a 50-50 venture. It’s about chemistry. Don’t be critical of yourself. If there are silences, remember you share the responsibility with your date. Rather than getting derailed with anxious thinking about how you are inadequate or uninteresting or how you can’t keep a conversation going, turn around, get back on track: work together to make it work.
If you’re uncomfortable — say it — chances are the other person feels the same way and by joking about it, this is how you will break the ice together. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, that’s all. It doesn’t mean the end of the world. It’s just this one date; it’s not the end of dating.
eH: How do you lower the stakes about dating?
Dr. Chansky: Don’t go into a date convinced that your tank is empty, that your cupboard is bare; take stock of who you are. Even if you are feeling lonely, it is important to remember that however much you want more love and companionship in your life, you are living your life before this date and you will be living it after. And in between — have the best time that you can. Your interests, your friends, your purpose will be there waiting for you no matter what happens on the date. Make sure you go into the date remembering this radical thing — you don’t need this to work, you’d just like it to.
Take a minute to jot down four or five things you appreciate most about yourself and the things others have told you they appreciate about you. You always bring your strengths with you wherever you go, but you’ll feel much more confident and at ease when you bring your awareness of those strengths too.
eH: What if things don’t work out, then how does one handle that?
Dr. Chansky: Remember that you can’t control the outcome of a date. You can’t guarantee that it will be great and…importantly…that’s not a reflection on you. Focus on being yourself. The other person has responsibility for the chemistry too. And if it isn’t there, it’s no one’s shortcoming, it’s just not there. That may be disappointing, but it’s essential to have the discipline to resist making up unfounded explanations for why things didn’t work.
How a date turns out is not a reflection on your datability, or loveability, it’s about chemistry, and chemistry is a two-way street. Proceed with the same caution about interpreting the outcome as you did about entering the situation at all. Don’t race ahead with conclusions about your apparent failure that don’t have any validity. When it doesn’t happen, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen somewhere else, it only means that it isn’t happening here.
Neutralize your thinking. Your first thoughts when things don’t work are: “I’ll never find anyone, I’ll be alone the rest of my life. Everyone else finds love, I can’t. There’s something wrong with me.” This is how you are feeling in the moment, but don’t confuse that with the facts. Do the red-pen edit. Edit out the extremes, and replace with words that help you see the temporary nature of these perceptions: I’m having a thought right now that I won’t find anyone. My mind is telling me at this moment that I’ll be alone. It feels like everyone else is going to find love, but I know that’s just a feeling, I just haven’t found that person for me yet. I’m feeling like there’s something wrong with me, but I’m just really upset right now. I wasn’t feeling like there was something wrong with me before I went out on the date. I’m just hurt. These neutral edits not only make you feel better, but they are actually the accurate story of what’s happening.
eH: Why do so many people seem to be very successful in their careers, (cool, calm and confident in this area), but a disastrous, nervous mess when it comes to dating and relationships?
Dr. Chansky: You may have learned in your life at work that you don’t control all the parts and to trust your instincts of when to hold or fold. But somehow when it comes to your heart, you may feel if you can’t protect yourself entirely, you can’t protect yourself at all. The thrill of a new business venture keeps you looking for opportunities and possibilities, not thinking — if I don’t get this, I’m done for. By the same token, go into dating ready for a positive interaction, rather than for rejection. If you have rejection ringing in your ears before you step into the restaurant, how are you going to hear what’s going on? Your date will not be grading you with a red pen and a clipboard (and if they are, signal the waiter for the check!) That’s not what they want to be doing; they’re looking for love too. When you realize that it’s not a critic sitting across the table from you, and you quiet the critic in your head, you can take hold of the opportunity to pay attention and connect.
eH: Do you have any final ideas for curbing your anxiety?
Dr. Chansky: The best way to manage anxiety is to not be afraid of it. If you expect to feel somewhat anxious, you’ll make it worse by thinking — What’s wrong with me? Why is this happening? Instead, take some slow deep breaths and tell yourself that this is normal, millions of people across the globe are feeling the very same thing as you are right now, and see if maybe mixed in with that fear of what could go wrong is actually a sense of excitement, curiosity and the thrill of the possibility of what could be right.
Dr. Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety (Da Capo 2012) is one of the nation’s leading psychologists specializing in freeing adults, teens, and children from everyday worry, anxiety and doubt through a new understanding of the nuts and bolts of how anxiety works.
The Founder and Director of the Children’s and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety in Plymouth Meeting, PA, Dr. Chansky lives with her husband and daughters in Philadelphia where she has helped thousands of patients overcome anxiety. http://www.tamarchansky.com/