Growing up, I had such terrible anxiety that I actively avoided talking to boys my own age until I was 16. I finally realized that if I ever wanted to get married and have a family — two vocations that I felt called to -— I would have to date, and in order to do that, I would first have to face my anxiety and talk to a member of the opposite sex.
Having learned a thing or two about dating when you have anxiety, I’m happily married now. Here’s some advice I’d offer:
Put your mental health first
There is an unfortunate trope in movies and books: if you just have a boyfriend, all your worries and problems magically disappear. Not only is this untrue, but for people with anxiety, dating can bring on even more worries. Don’t wait for someone to “save” you. Instead, take care of yourself. That means getting your anxiety to a manageable level.
For me, that entailed counseling, joining a self-help group called Recovery International, and taking medication with the help of a psychiatrist. I found that when I got my anxiety under control, I was happier and more confident, which also made me more attractive. Dates will come and go, but your mental health is always with you. Take care of yourself, and the other pieces will fall into place.
The more you practice dating or socializing with strangers, the less nervous you will be. For me, this came in the form of joining swing and ballroom dance clubs in college. We rotated partners every five minutes or so, which forced me to practice talking to strangers, and soon I became comfortable chatting with men. Before all this practice, I used to turn dates down to avoid anxiety. Once I started practicing talking with strangers at dance lessons, I also started actually going on dates.
Even if you connect with someone who isn’t someone you’d look to marry, going out will build up confidence and give you practice dating. When someone you are really interested in comes along, you will have the courage and experience to relax and enjoy the evening. There are plenty of opportunities to practice outside of a dance class: community and church events, speed dating, singles mixers, young professionals groups, alumni events, or clubs that meet to discuss any number of interests.
Give yourself credit for your efforts, even if there is no positive outcome
People with anxiety have a tendency to beat themselves up over anything that goes wrong. This only leads to more anxiety and the fear of repeating that mistake in the future. Instead, praise yourself for all your efforts. In the mental health group that I lead, we call this “endorsing yourself.” When you endorse yourself for the effort you put in, regardless of the outcome, you are building a vitalizing cycle of calmness and confidence instead of a vicious cycle of anxiety and shame.
If going out is really nerve-wracking, endorse yourself after each small step. For example, when you text your date to confirm, tell yourself, “good job!” When you go to work even though you are anxious for the date that night, think, “I did it. I faced my fears.” When you get dressed for the date, say, “Endorse!” Each action can be an opportunity to build yourself up or tear yourself down. You will be more likely to go out again and feel less nervous if you give yourself credit for facing your fears.
You can learn something from every dating experience
Even terrible dates can be a blessing in disguise. There is something to be learned from every dating experience — even if it is what you don’t want in a partner. A bad date can also make you appreciate someone you truly connect with. Bad dates can show your anxiety that you can survive a boring evening or an annoying dinner partner and come out unscathed. If you give yourself credit for your effort, you can grow in confidence.
Even a long-term relationship that ends can teach you something about yourself and your anxiety that will be useful in the future. From past relationships, I learned that I had to communicate my feelings and not assume the other person knows what I’m thinking. I improved at managing conflict and learned how to accept compliments instead of brushing them off. I also learned that I wanted to be with someone who shares my core values and faith. I learned that I am happier with someone who is not sarcastic but clearly says what they mean. Most importantly, I found out that my future husband needed to be a man who built me up and supported me especially when I am having anxiety.
These are lessons I had to learn the hard way, but I grew from each experience. I don’t think I would have been ready to date and eventually marry my husband if I had not first learned important lessons from exes. Every date and relationship can bring you closer to finding that life-long partner.
Try online dating
Although I did not meet my husband online, I did have a good experience with online dating. A friend encouraged me to sign up, and although I was very uncomfortable, I built my profile and was very proud of myself for overcoming my anxiety. Then someone contacted me, and I started to panic.
My friend calmed me down by showing me that online dating can actually be a lot easier for someone with anxiety: all you have to do is click a button, and they can never contact you again. Turning someone down online is a lot less anxiety-inducing than turning someone down face-to-face. There is a wider pool of people to meet, so if you do turn someone down, you don’t have to worry that you may not meet someone again soon.
Another added bonus with online dating is that you can get to know someone via messages and phone calls before meeting in person. This way, a first date will be less anxious because they are already someone you’ve gotten to know.
If you do try online dating, choose a site that allows you to build a comprehensive profile based on your core values. These types of sites will match you with like-minded people, and you’ll have a higher probability of a good date. Avoid apps and sites that match solely based on location or looks.
Remember, you are supposed to be having fun!
When I first started dating, I was so anxious that I thought all dating was supposed to be nerve-wracking, even after going out with the same person several times. However, if you truly have a connection with your date, you will begin to relax and have fun. If you are still tense by the end of the date, it’s okay to decline a future get-together.
Nervous people tend to be people-pleasers and blame any discomfort on their own anxiety. If you aren’t having fun, the problem isn’t your anxiety — it’s the connection between the two of you. It’s better to be honest and call things off than to try to force yourself to endure future dates.
Eventually, you need to tell them you have anxiety
If the relationship gets serious, you are going to have to tell the person you are dating about your anxiety. This could be a good litmus test for the relationship: If you feel comfortable sharing something deeply personal and private with your significant other, and if they are supportive and accepting, then that is a sign of mutual trust in the relationship. If the opposite is the case — if you are uncomfortable sharing or they are not accepting — then there are probably deeper issues.
If you are called to marriage, don’t give up on looking for someone who will love all of you, anxiety included. Don’t settle for a mediocre relationship or someone who just puts up with your anxiety. Keep looking for that someone who loves you exactly as God made you!