DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: So, I’m not sure what the start of my issues are. I know I lack romantic confidence, but have no idea how to build it, especially since the pandemic. I’m not really timid in the rest of my life (anymore) and even confident at times, but when I actually try to meet someone it’s like a switch flips and I can’t stop feeling like I’m unwanted and harassing a woman, even just to ask her out. I know this kills any chance I might have had, but it’s like I’m not the one driving anymore and just shouting from the backseat. I also seem to have a lot of “downtime”. If I get rejected it can take months for me to try asking someone out again, and even weeks to feel any sort of attraction again. I know it’s partially a numbers game, but when people say move on, what I hear is give up on weeks to months of invested feelings just so you can be in the position to allow the process to happen all over again.
This makes me wary to hear a first real relationship probably won’t last. My first instinct that if I find myself in a relationship, I should end it as soon as possible because is probably doomed and I might as well minimize losses (I know this has no basis in reality, but my emotions keep running with it).
All in all I know I’m still a mess, and I’m working with a therapist (which has been marginally helpful), but I don’t know how to get experience to be less of one.
Bless This Mess
DEAR BLESS THIS MESS: A couple things in your letter leap out at me, BTM. The first is the idea that you need to give up weeks or months of invested feelings, and that it takes you weeks to feel attraction in the first place. The way you phrase this leaves things a little ambiguous; do you mean that you take weeks to develop an attraction to an individual, or do you mean that if you’ve been rejected, you take weeks to feel any attraction to anyone afterwards? If it’s the former, that sounds a little like being demisexual — someone who doesn’t develop strong sexual attraction to someone without getting to know them or having a strong emotional connection to them first. If it’s the latter… that sounds more like depression. Obviously, this distinction makes a rather crucial distinction as to the best way to move forward.
(And if it IS the former, then I suggest you check out the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network at asexuality.org. They have resources to help you learn more about what demisexuality means, as well as suggestions to help you navigate dating without pressuring yourself into trying to force yourself a mold of sexual performance that doesn’t actually match who you are.)
Similarly, mentioning giving up weeks or months of invested feelings sounds like you mean that you’ve spent weeks and months building yourself up to the point of trying to ask someone out. If that’s the case… well, that’s part of your problem. By spending that much time before actually making a move, you’ve invested far more in a person than is actually warranted. You end up making that person — someone you often barely even know — so important that their turning you down could destroy you emotionally. Needless to say, that’s far more power than a relative stranger deserves over you. Part of the way that you avoid this is fairly simple: you don’t wait that long in the first place. Being more proactive and not waiting for weeks, trying to get 100% assurance they’d say yes or trying to find the “perfect” moment, you don’t invest so much in any one person that they can wreck you with a word.
But if we’re being perfectly honest, I think that’s a lesser problem right now, and not the problem you should be trying to deal with. Yet.
When it comes to trying to fix one’s life, I like to focus on the order of operations. After all, it doesn’t do you any good to work on being more proactive about meeting women and asking them out when a single rejection is going to put you out of the game for weeks at a time. So that is where I would suggest putting your focus for now.
Now, I want to preface this with the reminder that Dr. NerdLove is NOT a real doctor and the acknowledgement that I’ve recently been diagnosed with ADHD, so a lot of the co-morbidities of ADHD are in the forefront of my mind. With that being said: what you describe sounds a lot like rejection-sensitive dysphoria to me. Rejection-sensitive dysphoria is an extreme response to the pain and anxiety of being rejected by someone or feeling like you’ve failed someone important in your life. It can lead to people anticipating rejection and trying to avoid it at all costs — to the point of turning into a social phobia, and causing them to stop even trying anything that might lead to rejection.
Like, say, approaching women they’re attracted to.
Now, if that sounds like you, then that’s something I would suggest you bring up with your therapist the next time you talk to them. Your therapist is in a better position to determine whether this is a possibility for you and, if it is, recommend potential treatments. They may adjust your therapy to help you find coping strategies, or they may suggest medication that can help address the problems.
Getting that under control will make it easier to work on other issues, such as your feeling that your being attracted to someone is inherently unwelcome before you’ve even said anything. Each step forward will make each following step that much easier for you.
You’re in a tough place, BTM, but you’re taking the right steps. Focus on that order of operations, take care of those underlying issues, and you’ll get through to the other side and be all the stronger for it.
You’ve got this.
All will be well.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org