DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Big fan here, though I admit I’ve been more of a silent observer until now. My situation’s got me stumped, and I could really use your help.
Here’s the deal: I have social anxiety. And while I can handle it reasonably well in my day-to-day life, when it comes to dating, it’s a complete nightmare.
Case in point: A couple of weeks ago, I went to a friend’s party, armed with the hope of meeting new people. But once I got there, the familiar sinking feeling hit. While everyone else chatted and laughed, I stood in a corner, clutching my drink like it was a lifeline. My mind raced with thoughts like, “What if I say something stupid?” or “Everyone probably thinks I’m weird just standing here.” Needless to say, I left early without having any meaningful conversations.
Online dating? Tried that. But my anxiety even creeps in there. I’ll match with someone, and then I’ll agonize over what to say, how long my response should be, whether I’m being too boring or too forward. There have been times where I haven’t replied for days, only because I was overthinking it so much. By the time I muster up the courage, they’ve often moved on.
Another instance was when a colleague tried setting me up on a blind date. The thought of it had me sweating bullets. I mean, what would we talk about? What if there’s an awkward silence? Or worse, what if I panic mid-date? I ended up cancelling last minute with a lame excuse.
Doc, I genuinely want to connect with people, share my passions, and hopefully find that special someone. But every time I take a step forward, my anxiety pushes me two steps back. It’s like I’m stuck in this never-ending loop of “what ifs” and self-doubt.
Have you got any advice for someone like me, trying to find love in the midst of this internal chaos? I don’t expect miracles, but a few pointers to help me brave the dating realm would be legendary.
Thanks in advance, man.
Stuck in Social Anxiety Limbo
DEAR STUCK IN SOCIAL ANXIETY LIMBO: OK this is going to sound harsh at first, SSAL, but stick with me for a second because I’ll make it all make sense.
Your problem is that you think you’re the center of the universe.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that you’re self-aggrandizing or that you believe that you’re the only person that matters. What I’m saying is that you’ve convinced yourself that people are paying far more attention to you than they actually are and that the things that you’re worried about are more significant, more impactful or just more noticeable than reality would suggest.
Trust me: they’re not.
Here’s the thing about social anxiety, SSAL: it’s a weaponized version of the Worst Case Scenario Vision mixed with a surprising amount of egocentrism. It convinces you that you’re the main character on a reality TV show with an editor and production staff rooting for your humiliation, and you can just picture how it’ll all happen in the same reality-breaking resolution as that cursed dome in Las Vegas.
It’s very much a case of feeling like everybody is thinking the way you do, seeing things the way you do and would respond the way you would if the circumstances were reversed. Except none of that is true. Especially the last part.
Most people are too caught up in their own issues to notice to something as immaterial as “dude who’s holding the wall up by himself at the party”, and the folks who do notice don’t care nearly as much as you do. 99% percent of them will forget it as soon as you leave their eye-line and the ones that don’t aren’t going to assign any real meaning to it other than just a factual “SSAL is standing over there”.
Don’t believe me? Check out this video about The Monkey Business Illusion – a famous demonstration of how selective our attention can be. Most of the time we’re convinced that we’re the dude in the monkey suit and everybody is gonna want to know what the f--k is up with the costume. But in reality? People may miss it entirely.
As David Foster Wallace once said: “You’ll stop worrying what others think about you when you realize how seldom they do.”
The thing to understand is that part of the reason you feel this way is that you have an unlimited, 24-7, all access feed to every thought, feeling and notion that goes through your head. Those awkward thoughts or worries feel significant because… well, you are experiencing all of them. But everyone else, lacking any psychic ability to read your mind, doesn’t see or experience any of it. They only see you.
Similarly, you are so familiar with how you look and see yourself so often that you zero in instantly on anything that’s out of place – the inconvenient blemish, the weird thing your hair is doing in the back, and so on. But that’s entirely because you are so used to looking at yourself that the differences and changes leap out at you in stunning 4D. That increases the amount of importance and significance you assign to it. The vast majority of people, however, don’t spend that same amount of time studying your every feature and thus don’t notice every minor detail. And when they do? They never care. They have no reason to; it’s not nearly as big of a deal as you think it is.
Remember what I said about how you feel like people would react the way you would if you saw something similar? Well… think about that for a moment. How often have you noticed the wallflower and thought that they were being weird just hanging out? Likely very few. How often have you been talking to someone and they made the same verbal flubs or awkward phrasings that everyone makes on occasion… and just how often have you noticed or cared? Odds are very good that if you noticed at all, you breezed right past it because hey, everyone stumbles over their words occasionally. It’s not a big deal; it’s just standard software/hardware conflicts that crop up in the human experience.
Now, while this is helpful for some cognitive reframing, that doesn’t necessarily help in the moment. What does help is understanding what makes social anxiety worse: hesitation. Social anxiety makes you pause, and in that moment, your brain has the chance to go into Worst Case Scenario Mode and come up with all the horrible things that could go wrong. This is why part of the way that you overcome social anxiety is to give yourself less time to think.
When we talk about beating approach anxiety with the 3 second rule – if you see someone you want to talk to, you have three seconds to start going over to talk to them – this is why. By forcing yourself into action, you give yourself less time to think – or, more specifically, over think. You’re already in motion and now you’re right next to them, so you don’t have time to stop and come up with a list of excuses as to why it’s not a good time to say “hi!”. If you take that initial emotional momentum and work with it, instead of against it, then you continue to put yourself in a position of not having time to think of all the awful things that could (but won’t) go wrong.
A similar technique for pushing through social anxiety is to actually be in the moment and pay attention to the people you’re interacting with. Social anxiety is a condition of inattention to others. If you’ve got time to think about what you should be saying or cringe about what you flubbed, then you’re not actually paying attention to what they are saying or doing. You’re focusing your attention inward, on yourself, instead of outward, on the other person. So now, not only are you lost in your own little world (and rapidly running out of oxygen), but you’re not being authentic. You’re too focused on what you’ve done “wrong” or trying to be “perfect” and thus aren’t being genuine with them. You’re trying to give the version of you that you think other people require instead of being the real you. And if the real you is occasionally awkward? Well… roll with it. Sometimes people are awkward. Everybody. That includes every celebrity you can think of. Yes, even him.
(And let me tell you, talking with some well-known, very popular figures in geek circles – names you would unquestionably recognize – and watching them have the same “aw f--k did I actually say that?” moment that everyone experiences is a great reminder of how much people’s “smoothness” or “perfection” is in the edit, not in reality.)
Yeah, occasionally you’ll say or do something awkward. Or maybe you’ll be on a date and you’ll have a moment of quiet. Guess what? Not only are these normal, but being comfortable with them is actually a mark in your favor. It can help to think of those pauses as “companionable silence” rather than “awkward silence” and not rush to fill the air with verbal flack.
Similarly, calling out the awkward is an amazing way to make things less awkward, even make people laugh because you actually have the confidence to call attention to it. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of making a joke of those moments – saying “and then a hush fell over the crowd, injuring ten” during those mid-conversation pauses, for example. Hell, I’ve had moments where I choked trying to talk to a pair of lovely young women at a bar. And I don’t mean “I couldn’t think of anything to say” or “I shot my shot but f--ked it up because I did badly”, I mean I literally aspirated on my own saliva as I walked over and introduced myself. But instead of running away, I paused until I quit coughing, said “hang on, I can do that better, let’s try that again,” and then literally backed up before walking towards them a second time to reintroduce myself. “I liked that one better, did you like that one better? I felt that one was better”.
Spoiler alert: I got both of their numbers after that – precisely because I was willing to push through the awkwardness of it all and just laugh it off.
Your mistakes, weird quirks or really inconvenient blemishes aren’t nearly as noticeable as you think, and pretty much everybody has experienced them. While you work on reframing these issues in your mind, give yourself less time to think and put more effort into paying attention to other people instead of yourself. That will cut down on your self-consciousness that leads to the anxiety.
And if things do get awkward? Call it out, instead of letting it freak you out. Trust me: those moments that you’re afraid of may well be the very thing that brings you and your future partner together and become the thing you laugh about fondly in 20 years.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com