DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Lately, I’ve had these recurring thoughts, that maybe the only reasons I want to seek romantic relationships with women is a combination of curiosity, fear of missing out and a sort of jealousy towards happy couples I’ve known.
Some background: I’m in my late 30s, and have basically zero experience when it comes to relationships. Never kissed, been on an actual date or had sex. The reasons as I’ve seen them are ones you’ve probably heard a bunch of times: Low confidence, social anxiety, difficulty expressing myself, a general lack of assertivity, the works.
Over the years, I’ve become aware of these shortcomings. As you might imagine, they’ve had an impact on my life beyond my (lack of) dating life. Up until relatively recently, I couldn’t hold a job beyond a few months. I got into this awful cycle of starting out optimistically, but my lack of communication and reluctance to ask for help were seen as apathy and incompetence, and I’d inevitably reach a point where I just didn’t make the cut and lost my job. This happened at least 3 or 4 times, before I resolved to look for help on my issues.
Now, with a combination of some rounds of therapy, reading self-help books and blogs, and support from close friends and family, I’ve managed to regain a bit of control over my life. I’m in a pretty good position in my current job, and I’ve had some victories in dealing with my anxiety (Phone calls no longer terrify me the way they used to). Obviously, I’ve still faced some situations that make me freeze in panic and indecision, but progress has been visible at least.
However, one aspect where I have not been able to see progress is in interpersonal relationships. I have some small groups of friends, some pretty close, but pretty much all of them revolving around my hobbies. Most of the time I have to interact one on one with someone (and specially with women), I’ll either blank out on what to talk about or do the nerd-ranting thing when a familiar topic pops up. Not to say that all I’ve had is bad experiences, but here’s the thing: Even in the occasions where I’ve had positive social experiences, I can’t seem to enjoy myself, and that brings me to the original premise.
I’m not sure if it’s the more avoidant parts of my personality that cause a lack of trying in regards to dating because it’s “not worth the hassle”, but I can’t help but think it might be something else. I mean, I do feel attracted to women and as far as I can tell I’m not asexual. However, I just can’t see myself in a relationship and find it hard to find motivation to pursue one.
Owner of An Indecisive Heart
DEAR OWNER OF AN INDECISIVE HEART: Hey man, I think you’re doing yourself a disservice here. You’ve made a lot of progress, in what seems like a relatively short amount of time. I mean, look at what you’ve accomplished. You’ve gotten help, you’ve been proactive in making your life better, building your social skills, working on your communication and building up your confidence and emotional resilience. That’s pretty damn huge. You should be proud of what you’ve achieved! You’ve come a long, long damn way, and that’s incredible. I’m really proud of you for that.
I think part of the problem that you’re running into is that you’re pushing yourself pretty hard and it’s making you stall out a little. One of the things that people often don’t think about as they’re working on themselves is that self-improvement, especially when it comes to things like overcoming social anxiety, takes time and energy. The problem is that sometimes you can get caught up in the excitement of your progress and push yourself a little too hard. Much like when you’re starting an exercise program or beginning to train for a sport, you can overtrain and overexert yourself and end up hitting a wall. It’s not that you aren’t ready or that you haven’t progressed to this point, but that you’ve basically exhausted yourself and drained your reserves. As a result, you actually end up running the risk of injuring yourself or losing a little ground because you have nothing left in the tank.
… ok, this metaphor may have gotten away from me a little.
The point is that you’ve made a lot of progress, and that’s taken time and energy. And while I totally get the desire to keep pushing forward and get to that next level in your development, I think you may need to take a moment to breath and recoup your energy. It’s hard to enjoy yourself when it feels like you have to give everything you’ve got to being present and social AND focus on all the other things you’ve learned.
Small wonder that you don’t have much motivation to try to pursue a relationship; you’re still working on not exhausting yourself while you practice your newfound social skills.
Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that you should want a relationship. It may well be that it’s just not your thing. There’s such a thing as being aromantic; you can be attracted to people and interested in sex, but not interested in romantic relationships. But I think it’s just as likely that you don’t have the bandwidth for pursuing one yet. What I think you should do right now is focus on what you’ve already accomplished. There’re four stages to developing a skill set:
1) Unconscious incompetence (you don’t know anything about it at all, including how unskilled you are)
2) Conscious incompetence (you’re aware of what you don’t know)
3) Conscious competence (you can do it, but you have to think about it as you do it)
4) Unconscious competence (you can do it without thinking)
Right now, you’re at stage 3; you’re aware of what you’re doing, you know how to do it, but it requires that you pay attention. That takes up a fair amount of mental RAM, so it’s not surprising there’re other areas where you still go blank or feel like you’re struggling. Taking a little time to develop those skills you’ve already learned into metaphorical muscle memory so that you reach stage 4 will go a long way towards freeing up that RAM so that you’re ready to start applying it to talking to people and enjoying social situations. When you don’t feel like you’re struggling, you’ll be in a better position to enjoy things. When you get to that point, it’ll be a lot easier for you to gauge just what it is you want when it comes to companionship and relationships.
And hey, you may well realize that while you like sex and friendship… you just aren’t looking for romance. And that’s fine. That’s a perfectly valid option if that’s where you decide you fall on that spectrum.
But for now: take a victory lap and a victory nap, my dude. You’ve earned both. Take some time practicing your newfound skills and then move on to the next stage. Despite what you may be feeling, there really is no rush. You aren’t on anyone’s schedule but your own and there is no deadline that you have to meet. Love and relationships — if that’s what you want — will be waiting for you when you’re ready.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org