Dating is difficult enough without social anxiety. Meeting new people creates new feelings, nerves, and worries about endless issues for those with social anxiety. The good news is that social anxiety does not mean you can’t have meaningful relationships. Focusing on inner relaxation, authenticity, and connection with yourself will ground you when dating with social anxiety.
What Is Social Anxiety Disorder?
Social anxiety disorder, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders1, is summed up as having difficulty in social situations where you are expecting and avoiding being judged for being nervous, so you avoid these situations as a determinant to yourself. Avoiding social engagements and opportunities to connect with others can definitely impact your life satisfaction and meaning long term.
Social anxiety is different from being shy, reserved, or introverted. Social anxiety negatively impacts the daily life and relationships of someone, whereas those who are shy, reserved, or introverted generally feel more comfortable with themselves when they are in social situations that reflect their social preferences in the moment. Those with social anxiety worry excessively about being judged and/or rejected because of their nerves and are uncomfortable with their social preferences. Teenagers often have social anxiety because of the body changes that happen during the teenage years and the developmental emphasis 2 on being accepted/understood. Often, this is a similar trajectory for adults because as adults age, appearances change just as they did while in their teenage years.
How Does Social Anxiety Affect Relationships?
Long before sexual and emotional intimacy, there is a connection. Social anxiety makes connection more difficult because even before a connection happens, there is worry about how the connection will be shut down. Worrying about whether someone will accept you or criticize you creates tension inside the body, and the nerves can prevent further vulnerability and connection. In short, nerves can be a feedback loop for shallow or discontent relationships.
When the mind and body are anxious, the way we think changes. Typically, our thoughts follow the expectations for reality. In a dating context, worrying about appearances, mannerisms, or jokes not landing well can cause someone to be critical with themselves and prevent their true personality from shining. Inner negative self-talk is how we talk about ourselves to ourselves. Negative self-talk is when this conversation about yourself is negative and hurtful to your confidence, happiness, and relational connections. Negativity in our thought life makes it nearly impossible to truly connect with others while we are suppressing ourselves. But this doesn’t have to stop you from being in a great relationship.
Online Dating & Social Anxiety
Meeting new people using technology is a great way to connect casually with others. If it is easy to connect with others, this can be a great confidence boost going into a real-life meeting. This works because if something is too hard to do all at once, the option to take a half-step is always a good one because it keeps you moving forward and gaining momentum over the negative self-talk.
One drawback to online dating is that online life is not real life. Situations have been documented where online and real life are far from similar, as with Manti Te’o in 2012.3 Another problem with dating apps is the general rule that if you are not paying for a product, you are likely the product.4 So the apps could be designed to use your data, advertise to you and keep you in their system searching for love. So while this form of tech can be used for good, there are some inherent difficulties, so it is not a fix-all but can be good if used intentionally.
7 Tips for Dating With Social Anxiety
Social anxiety often comes from undesirable social situations where flaws are emphasized, causing hyperfocus on avoiding these painful moments. Challenging your present anxiety is very challenging but can also prove to help you engage with the present moment as opposed to the present moment influenced/filtered through the past. Reducing anxiety helps you see the present moment for what it is instead of what you hope it to be or are avoiding it becoming.
Here are seven tips for dating with social anxiety:
1. Practice Grounding Before, During, and After
Grounding is an exercise where you focus on the present moment: what is definitely happening in and around you. In therapy, I often use the senses to facilitate grounding: what is smelled, tasted, touched, seen, and heard in the moment. Being aware of what else is happening in and around you gives context to the anxiety experienced so that the worry can be understood as opposed to a senseless symptom that prevents connection to self and others. Choosing Therapy has published a Headspace review and Calm app review, and both are great places to start if you have never practiced grounding or meditation before.
2. Make a Plan and Talk Through it With a Friend or Loved One
Making a plan can reduce anxiety since you are engaging with what you would like to happen. Identifying your preferences for a date can make you more comfortable and grounded to focus on what is happening instead of what you are worried about.
3. Talk it Out With a Friend or Loved One
After you have some ideas of what you would like, talk it through to get feedback or to hear from someone else that your ideas are good. Safety features are built into this process for those worried about safety.
4. Make a Decision on Alcohol and Activities
Many first dates/meet-ups happen at bars since alcohol is known as a social lubricant and inhibits inhibitions.5 There are inherent risks involved as well as difficulties in connecting socially with someone. Alcohol can make social connections seem easier but can also decrease experiences of genuine connection with another person. If one of the problems with anxiety in dating is that anxiety takes you away from the present moment, alcohol does the same thing.
On the other hand, finding a place to meet with a structured activity and opportunities to share, listen and engage can be more meaningful than meeting up at a random bar and walking away, having a weird conversation and an okay drink. Meaningful dates often have experiences that are beyond the basic get-to-know-you questions.
5. Focus on Yourself
You are the best expert of you. Not even your therapist knows exactly what happens inside you. In a dating context, it is crucial to notice when you have feelings, anxieties, or intuitions, which we call mindfulness. These data points will help you make sense of the situation and see it for what it is. Finding yourself on a bad date often has several cues, usually starting when you do not feel good about what is happening. Pay attention to these details. The opposite is also true; a good date also has several cues, so it is important to calibrate based on your feelings.
6. Make a Plan for After the Date
Planning will help you stick to your preferences and needs before opportunities present themselves. Consider what would be ideal for you and make decisions based on that. You can always keep your plans loose for after a date, but deciding beforehand on sex, time spent together, money spent, etc, will help you consistently make the best decisions for yourself. If you think it would be best to debrief with someone, then plan to talk with them. If you think you will be tired, plan to rest. If hungry, plan for nourishment. You get the point!
7. Remind Yourself You Cannot Plan Everything
Relationships require flexibility, safety, openness, and collaboration, meaning the other person needs influence in what you do with them. Having a game plan will help manage the anxiety about the unknowns but keep in mind that the unknowns also can be exciting and good for you. It’s also realistic and accurate knowing that you can plan but still not get all the details perfect.
How to Date Someone Who Has Social Anxiety
Dating someone who struggles with social anxiety can be difficult, but there are some tips for dating someone with anxiety that can help. Remembering that your date could be struggling at any moment is a good first step to accepting the reality that some things are hard for your date while others are easier. Asking questions about the current date climate for your date can create a sense of safety while they are in discomfort. Knowing when things are tough is half the battle for you and them.
Here are some tips for dating someone who has social anxiety:
- Ask how your date is feeling before or after changes. This could be before or after you leave somewhere or during transition activities. Making sure they are ok and talking it through when they are not is a proactive step in making the dating season of your relationship more enjoyable together.
- Be empathetic. Even if you don’t think something is a big deal, it could actually hurt the other person by not accepting their distress. Empathy focuses on words that express you seeing the other’s emotions/experiences. Here’s an example: I can see that this is hard for you, do you know why that is? Or Wow, that makes me feel sad too.
- Introduce new activities to your relationship. Many people have positive experiences when the activity is shared. Even when something isn’t going as planned, the shared experience is what counts over time.
- Be flexible. Keeping a general plan could be helpful to make sure the date actually happens, but if your partner feels overwhelmed, sometimes the best thing to do is to collaborate together on what to do next, which may include changing, canceling, rearranging, or pausing plans already in motion.
- Talk about what’s working in the relationship and what isn’t. After dates that don’t go well, discussing what made the date go poorly would be important. It’s also essential to do this after lovely times together so that you can do more of what works again in the future.
When to Seek Professional Help
Professional help can be for those with extreme distress or avoidances impacting life satisfaction, work performance, social relationships, or daily mood. Online therapy options or in-person therapy are great options for working on anxiety. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for social anxiety can be a great tool if you are interested in understanding the impact of your thoughts on your feelings and beliefs about meeting others.
Meeting new people is difficult, which creates anxiety for some. This anxiety, if left unmanaged, can prevent connection and meaning in life. The good news is that social anxiety does not have to keep you isolated if you want to be with others. By focusing on yourself, your needs, and your desires, you can have the type of relationship you want. Dialoguing with others, your date, or your therapist about what’s going on for you can be a great first step to take.
For Further Reading
- 8 Dates by Drs. John and Julie Gottman
- Best Books for Social Anxiety
- The 333 Rule:Benefits & How to Use It
- Breathwrk Review
- Natural Remedies for Anxiety