And why it was the totally wrong approach
This article is cross-posted from my weekly newsletter, The Sunday Soother, a newsletter about clarity, intention, and useful tips for creating more meaning in your life that goes out every Sunday morning. Subscribe here. I am also a coach who works with sensitive people so they can stop second-guessing, make decisions confidently and live the life they’ve always dreamed of. You can learn more about working with me here.
I’m a very anxious person — and nothing used to cause me more anxiety than dating.
Maybe you can relate?
But first, wow, thanks for your dozens of emails in response to my return newsletter last week. It officially got the most responses of any Soother I’ve written since I’ve started, and all of your words meant so much to me. The general theme of the responses was, “I am so angry too, but wasn’t sure exactly why, and you’ve put my rage into words and also made me feel less alone in it.” Thank you for all your kind words and your welcomes back. 💖
(psst: you can listen to an audio version of this email here)
Now for something a bit less global and urgent than collective rage about white supremacy and capitalism, but something that may affect your life more at a micro-level, and I think is truly important, too, and shouldn’t be dismissed: dating. And the stress around dating. And the anxiety around dating. And the vulnerability around dating.
(And maybe you don’t deal with dating anxiety, but have anxiety in another area of your life; I think you may still relate to this.)
Like I said, and like you all likely know, I have dealt with anxiety my whole life and have been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. A lot of stuff would cause my anxiety: work. The state of the world. Being unsure of my purpose, or if I was enough. My relationships with friends or family. Politics. You know, life.
But nowhere did my anxiety find a warm, cozy spot and settle in for the long haul more than in dating, romance, and my relationships with men.
I knew, objectively, that I struggled with dating anxiety. I would overthink interactions, get nervous before, during and after dates, spend time ruminating about if a person liked me, if I liked them, exactly what I was going to text them or say to make just the right impact.
“It’s just that I haven’t met the right guy yet,” I assured myself. “For some reason I keep dating guys who ruffle my anxiety. But when I meet the right one, it won’t be an issue.”
Reader, this was incorrect.
Let me explain.
If you have followed me for a while you know I’ve been with my boyfriend for just over a year now. He is somebody I pined over for years and when we got together I was so happy.
“This is it! I’m not anxious! I feel secure! Ah ha! I have finally dealt with this anxiety in dating issue by finding the ‘right’ guy!” I thought triumphantly.
But a few months into our relationship, anxiety nudged its head around the corner. It was so stealthy at first that I hardly even noticed it, but eventually, its thrum got louder.
“Why hasn’t he texted you today?”
“He didn’t want to stay as long during that last visit — is he losing interest?” (We’re long distance, DC to NYC, I mean at least we were before we basically formlessly moved in together thanks to COVID)
“Where is this even going?!”
Once again, despite congratulating myself on finally dating a guy who would not cause my anxiety and insecurity to skyrocket… I found myself at the mercy of my anxiety and insecurities.
This is the thing about anxiety or disordered thinking: it doesn’t make any damn sense. It’s tricky. It has its ways of undermining logic and intelligence. And it’s wildly powerful and seductive.
My boyfriend, who is in fact the most reliable, communicative, and trustworthy person, wasn’t doing anything that I could attribute my increased anxiety to. But my brain was so used to these old patterns of fear that it inevitably settled back into them, especially as things got objectively good in the relationship.
It was then I started to realize that maybe my dating anxiety wasn’t actually caused by any of the guys I had ever dated.
Maybe this was not something that could be solved by an external circumstance or by endless reassurances and displays of affection.
Maybe the only person who could resolve this particular form of anxiety was, you know… me.
That moment I realized that was when I started my journey on personal accountability with my dating anxiety.
I’ve spoken previously about my realization in the last year that I could be categorized as codependent. I always had thought that term meant a couple who was unhealthily reliant on and enmeshed with one another, but it turns out that it actually has a different meaning. It refers to a pattern of prioritizing needs of relationship partners or others over personal needs and desires; crucially, for me, it also often involves an excessive reliance on other people for approval, reassurance, and a sense of identity.
That was what was going on with me and AJ, and my past romantic partners. I was consistently looking to them for reassurance. For stability. For approval. For signs that everything was okay. For signs that I was okay.
I realized it had to stop. If I kept subscribing to this pattern, no relationship was going to ever work out (much less this one, which I cared so deeply about). Because when you make another person responsible for your emotions, you are eventually going to drain them of their life force. That is a burden too heavy for anybody to carry.
So I committed to stopping.
I stopped expecting my boyfriend to solve my anxiety for me.
I stopped asking for increased reassurances or increased communications from him to settle my anxiety (which only ever worked momentarily anyways).
In short, I stopped expecting another person’s actions to solve my emotional state.
How did I do it?
It was a long process, and if you recognize yourself in any of the above, it’s also a very personal process, so what worked for me may be different than what works for you. This isn’t totally a checklist, road map, easy step-by-step, accomplish this is 6 weeks or less! version of personal growth. It’s a rocky emotional coast, and a journey with a lot of shadows and inlets, peaks and valleys, and any other geographical metaphors that you could think of.
But there were three steps that did significantly help me, and I would be remiss if I didn’t share them with you in case they were useful to you.
- I developed a grounding and centering ritual and committed to it. If you have a baseline level of anxiety and you aren’t creating habits, especially physical ones, to settle your nervous system on a regular basis, your anxiety is going to take over everything. For me, this involved yoga, baths, breathing exercises and meditation. This is not a one-and-done sort of ritual; I do this at least twice a week. Anxiety lives in your nervous system and body, not necessarily in your mind, so settling things physically is super important for any of us who deal with anxiety. I’m releasing my 7-day grounding protocol over on my coaching listserv in a week or two if you’re into this and need inspiration.
- I rigorously questioned my automatic narratives and worked to create new ones. Any time I had an automatic reaction or assumption, I stopped. Was there literal proof of that thought? Did the fact AJ hadn’t texted me that day mean… anything? Other than probably he was busy? I also looked at what these automatic reactions really meant at their core. Did I really think that AJ didn’t care about me? That he was constantly on the verge of leaving me? Why was I so committed to believing those things and searching for evidence of them, instead of working to see more beautiful, meaningful, positive things?
- Anytime I felt the pull to ask my boyfriend for reassurance, I invested in an act of self-care. This was a practice. But I committed to one month of sitting with myself before reaching out to AJ to try to reassure me, and doing something like cooking a meal, taking a bath, going for a run or journaling. In short, this was a retraining of myself; previously I had been conditioned to get reassurance from somebody else. So this turn inwards to acts of self-care for me, by me, was creating a new habit of getting that soothing, if you will, from the only person who can truly provide it: me.
After a few months of these practices, I started to realize something: I was feeling secure in my relationship. I texted AJ when I wanted to, if I felt like it, and never worried about his communication levels back. We became closer and more invested in our relationship because my anxiety wasn’t holding everything at arms-length. I became more settled generally, and confident in asking for what I needed, when I truly needed it, not because anxiety was in the driver’s seat.
Now, I still struggle with anxiety. I believe it to be a part of my nature, and that’s okay. But it doesn’t master me in the way it used to, especially in dating.
And I want this for everybody else, too. If you struggle with anxiety in dating, it’s not inevitable that this will be a lifelong issue. It’s something you can take personal agency over. It will be a huge part of what I teach in my upcoming course, An Introduction to Intentional Dating. I’m really excited for it, because I don’t think there’s a dating course out there like this; one that explores automatic patterns and helps you rewrite them; one that teaches you nervous system and emotional regulation so you can stand steady and secure in your needs while you date; one that teaches you topics like romantic values, setting dating intentions, and more.
The course opens up for purchase on Wednesday, and you can sign up to be notified of that on the waitlist here. Don’t hesitate to ask me any questions about the course; just hit “reply” to this email and I will write back.
We all deserve to have love; we all deserve to feel steady, settled and secure in our lives, in whatever areas we struggle with, whether it’s dating, family, work, money, or anything else. And it’s possible for us all to feel that way.
Have a beautiful week ahead!