I am Terrible at First Dates!

by Dr. Neil Clark Warren, Clinical Psychologist and eHarmony Founder

I am Terrible at First Dates!

Dear Dr. Warren,

I recently got out of a long-term relationship and after a few months of dating have come to a scary realization. I am terrible at first dates! My nerves usually get the best of me. I just feel painfully awkward and can’t be myself. I feel like I am either too quiet or say all the wrong things. How will I ever end up with someone special if I can’t even get past the first date? Help

- Emily, FL

Thanks for your question, Emily. First of all, let me assure you that first-date jitters are natural. They can even be healthy. After all, they mean you are excited by the possibilities ahead. They mean you are engaged and interested. They mean you want to make a good impression. These are all terrific things to bring to a first encounter with someone!

However, what you’re describing sounds like more than just the typical butterflies. You say you can’t be yourself and that’s a real problem since first dates are all about getting to know each other! It’s likely that you’re just out of practice. Or you may be putting too much pressure on yourself to find that someone special right away. There’s also probably a bit of fear thrown in there because you recently went through the pain of a breakup. 

The good news is that with just a bit of preparation and some vital perspective, you’ll be able to dial down the awkwardness on your next date significantly. Plus, you’ll start securing that prized second date in no time.

First-Date Survival Tip #1: Prepare and shift your perspective

Some people seem to just "wing" things. Whether it’s a business meeting or a social situation, they can sweep in without much forethought and improvise. They feel comfortable and confident and even enjoy the challenge of the unknown. 

Most of us, however, are in a different camp. We need to do a bit of preparation to boost our comfort level and have things go smoothly. So give yourself some time to mentally and emotionally prepare before the date. This will do wonders in calming your nerves during the date. 

The single best thing you can do to prepare for a first date is to keep a healthy, other-centric perspective. Most people who are extremely nervous tend to be very self-conscious. They spend most of the date and the build-up to the date focused on themselves. "How do I look?" "What should I say?" "What does he think about my hair?"

A better, less stressful approach to take is to shift your mental energy and focus to the other person. Try to really listen to every word your date says. Make every effort to really get to know the person. Pay attention to all the details – the way he acts, his mannerisms, etc. By shifting the focus onto your date and away from yourself, you’ll start feeling more at ease, plus you’ll also gather better insight into whether the person has real potential.

I know that becoming other-focused can be a real challenge. But every time you feel a self-conscious thought creeping in, acknowledge it, rein it in, and get back to giving your date your full attention. This is one of the single best ways to make your date feel good and, in turn, interested in you!

First-Date Survival Tip #2: Location, location, location

Next, carefully consider the setting of a first date. Suggest a place/activity that puts you at ease, not one that makes you feel unnecessarily flustered. Keep it casual and loose instead of elaborate and rigid.

You may want to consider a lunch date. A lunch date can feel friendlier and less portentous than a dinner date – thus alleviating some of the romantic pressure that seems to enter the picture once night falls. With a midday rendezvous, if things aren’t clicking, there’s less pressure to keep the date going. You also still have the rest of your day to enjoy, which can be helpful in maintaining that healthy perspective. On the other hand, if you find yourself really connecting with your date, you can keep the fun going through the evening.

Always remember that the key (to the first date and dating in general) is to stay true to yourself. So if trendy hot spots make you self-conscious, speak up. There is plenty of time to be adventurous and try new things later on in a relationship. On the first date, it’s best to keep it simple and low pressure.

First-Date Survival Tip #3: Conversation is an art

Awkward silences. Sharing too much information too quickly. These seem to be the top fears on a first date, for men and women alike. But once again, a little preparation can go a long way.

First and foremost, have some conversation starters at the ready. Though you may not end up needing them, it helps to know you have some icebreakers in your back pocket if you do end up feeling antsy. Pick a handful of topics that are engaging and good get-to-know-you fodder. Inquire about a person’s work, interests, and hobbies. Explore each other’s tastes in leisure activities. Discuss your favorite food spots, the last great film you saw, or a vacation you enjoyed. Try to steer the conversation toward things you discover you have in common and the conversation will tend to flow more freely.

If the conversation is coming easily, you can take it deeper, but proceed carefully. Focus on positives such as your passions, goals, and what you have to offer. Keep in mind that nothing kills a first date faster than regaling a stranger with your dating or relationship horror stories. I understand that you may think it’s good to cut to the chase and get all your issues out on the table. I have heard many people say, "If he/she can’t deal with my baggage or my non-negotiables, then we can’t have a future." But guess what? Treating a date like a therapy session will never get you a second date. If you want a fighting chance at creating a spark, keep things on the positive road.

Final Words of Wisdom

Keep all these tips in mind as you gear up for your next date. Remember that, ultimately, the best advice is to just breathe. Don’t insert too much pressure into the situation. Try to keep your expectations in check. Look at the date as simply an opportunity to have a new experience, meet someone new, and/or learn about yourself. It’s great to be optimistic, but be careful not to set yourself up for disappointment. It’s all about the viewpoint you choose to take going in. Remember that you can’t control how the other person approaches the date, but you have total control about what you bring to the table.

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