“My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.” — Mark Twain
I stared at my phone, lying a few feet away on my desk. I’d sat there an hour, sick to my stomach, while trying to avoid the phone call I knew I needed to make. I was 22, and frozen by the fear of asking a girl I liked out. “This is going to go badly.” I thought to myself. “I’m sure I’ll freeze up and say the wrong thing. I know she’s going to say no and it’s going to be so awkward the next time I see her.”
Eventually, after what felt like hours, I picked up my phone and found her name. Here goes nothing. “Please don’t pick up, please don’t pick up, please don’t pick up,” I recited to myself as the phone rang, hoping I could will the call to voicemail. Five rings, almost there! “Hello.” I froze. Oh no. “Umm hey, it’s Luke.”
There’s nothing that scarier in your twenties than dating and the anxiety that comes along with it. While no one wants to admit they struggle with dating anxiety, we all do to some degree. It’s the fear she’ll say no, the butterflies that bombard you as you get ready, and the pit that develops in your stomach as you wonder if he’ll ask you out again. Dating anxiety wreaks havoc in our lives, causing us to go on fewer dates and start fewer relationships.
That’s why understanding and addressing your dating anxiety is so crucial to thriving in your twenties. While dating will always have hard parts, when you start to address the underlying causes for some of the difficult emotions you experience, you can stop seeing a date as a dreaded task and can instead begin to enjoy it. So how do you help resolve your problem with dating anxiety?
what is anxiety?
Before you can do that, though, you have to first understand what anxiety actually is. I like entrepreneur and author Seth Godin’s simple definition: anxiety is experiencing failure in advance. Anxiety is more than just a generic feeling; it’s happens when you look ahead to the future, projecting failure as the most likely outcome, and beginning to experience the effects of that failure in the present. And so your emotions hit the panic alarm, not because anything has actually happened, but rather in anticipation of the bad you think will happen.
Few things affect dating like anxiety, causing us to stumble over words, overanalyze any potential relationship, and act like someone completely different than ourselves. You look ahead at some situation, whether it’s before, during, or after a date, and begin to fear for the worst. You know things will turn out badly and you’ll be rejected and hurt.
For most young people, dating anxiety occurs as fear, frozenness, and a general dread of any dating situations. Here are a few common ways you might experience dating anxiety:
You obsessively check your phone for a response to your text, and grow more and more worried the longer they take to reply.
You’re so afraid of making a bad impression around someone you’re interested in you completely clam up and start behaving strangely.
You’re dreading your date that night and would do anything if you could bail.
You’re nervous your plans for the date will go badly, and nothing will work.
You’re worried you’re going to run out of things to talk about, and you’ll be stuck in awkward silence.
You’re so tense on the date you have no ability to eat or enjoy what you’re doing.
You enjoyed the date, but your mind immediately turns negative afterwards, and begins to attack any hope that they might have had fun, too.
Dating anxiety every young person in different ways, causing you to experience your future fears of bad dates and broken endings in the present. But if that’s what dating anxiety is, then why does it happen?
why does anxiety happen?
It’s no accident that anxiety almost always shows up in dating. Why? Because anxiety, of any kind, always feeds off of one thing: uncertainty. Uncertainty is the warm, moist air that feeds your mind until it turns into an emotional hurricane.
Few things force you out of your safe bubble of control and into uncertainty like dating. Dating requires you to take off your emotional armor and open up at least a little, even if it’s just to the possibility of the other person not liking you. Every time you request someone’s phone number, ask someone out, or go on a date, uncertainty is there, reminding you that the outcome of this interaction is unknown.
While uncertainty alone isn’t enough to create anxiety, when you combine uncertainty with our natural bent towards a negativity bias, anxiety quickly crops up. A negativity bias is our inherent human tendency to expect negative situations to occur much more frequently than positive ones. We over-remember past hurts and heartbreaks, causing us to overestimate the likelihood that future outcomes will be bad.
This is why so many young people struggle with dating: we want the good parts of a relationship, yet are too afraid to leave our safe emotional alcoves to venture out into the sea of uncertainty, sure that we’ll be rejected. How then do you deal with uncertainty in dating?
our answer to uncertainty
Because we all find uncertainty unsettling, we fight against it, trying to regain certainty over our futures. We want to be in control of our lives, so we can ensure we don’t get hurt. The main way most young people do that is through perfectionism. Perfectionism makes this promise to you:
If you’re perfect, then the other person will have to like you, and you’ll never have to experience the hurtful parts of dating.
We all think that in the midst of an uncertain world, perfectionism is our best bet at relational certainty. That’s why we try to be perfect for and on dates. As I went through my twenties, perfectionism caused me to put intense pressure while dating. I thought that if I was perfect, if I wore the right clothes, picked the right activities, and said the right things, then I would be safe, or at least safer, from the pain of being rejection.
My quest for perfection caused my to become very self-analytical, obsessing over every part of myself before, during, and after dates, hoping I could spot imperfections first and fix them before she’d notice. I’d stress out about every little detail on a date, afraid that if I wasn’t perfect she wouldn’t like me. Then afterwards, I’d replay it all, checking to see if I’d done or said the wrong thing. I had to be perfect, I thought, if I ever wanted to get someone to like me.
the problem with perfectionism
There’s just one small problem with trying to be perfect: none of us are. Sure, you can appear “perfect” for a date or two, but eventually something will happen that reveals your true, and flawed, self. And even if you could reach your version of dating perfection, who’s to say that’s what the other person considers perfect?
When you try to solve the uncertainty of dating by being perfect, you will grow more and more fixated on your inevitable flaws, moving from being self-analysis to self-judgment, finding and hating any part of yourself you feel is imperfect. So you hate your body, your personality, and your past, blaming your dating anxiety on the fact that you’re just not perfect enough.
This drive to be perfect while dating left me in a catch-22: I was either anxiously hating myself for how flawed and imperfect I was, or I was exhausted from trying to over-control and be perfect while dating. Neither outcome solved my dating anxiety, instead just feeding it more and more. The real outcome was that I’d withdraw from dating, since it felt safer to be single yet certain, than dating and exhausted.
so what’s the answer?
This is where so many of us end up: struggling with dating anxiety, yet assuming there’s no way to fix it. We treat fear and dread in dating like gravity, something we just have to learn to deal with. But there is a way to solve your dating anxiety, if you’re willing to dig deeper into your underlying belief system.
The key is to solving your dating anxiety is to understand how you deal with uncertainty. Uncertainty hasn’t always existed, but only started when humans rebelled against God. Adam and Eve had perfect certainty over life, but they didn’t like submitting to God’s control, so they rejected him. We’re the same way; we don’t like God being in control of our lives, so we reject him, hoping that we can run our own lives. But we’re finite, imperfect people who quickly hit our limits, causing us to feel anxious and out of control over all of our self-induced uncertainty.
When we date, we experience uncertainty because we’re trusting in ourselves and our own ability to control the future, rather than trusting in God. Billy Graham sums up our struggle with anxiety with this quote: “Anxiety is the natural result when our hopes are centered in anything short of God and His will for us.” So, if you want to solve your anxiety, you have to stop trying to suppress it, deny it, or control it, but rather take it to God. This is what the Apostle Paul says to do:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
When Paul says, “Do not be anxious,” he’s not telling us to get our lives together and that only weak people struggle with anxiety. He’s admitting that fear, uncertainty, and anxiety are a normal part of the human condition, and can never be solved by using our willpower to put it into an emotional straitjacket.
Instead, Paul tells you the only way to solve your anxiety isn’t to avoid uncertainty or to try to control life yourself, but by taking your anxious thoughts to God through prayer and petition, reflecting on Him and His promises. As you do that with your dating life, remember these two promises:
God’s in total control: God promises that He has a plan for your life and that He’s working out everything according to it. That means, no matter how good or bad you do on a date, you can’t mess up God’s plan for your life.
God loves you: Not only does God have a plan, but it’s one crafted out of His love for you. Everything in it is for your absolute best, because He loves you and wants to see you thrive.
In the midst of all of the unknowns surrounding dating and relationships, will you believe that God is both in control of your life and working for your good? You might look at past rejection as proof that you can’t trust God, but look at how God worked through the cross. Jesus was hanging on a cross, rejected by the people he had come to save. But after Jesus died, when it looked like God has either lost control or wasn’t working for our good, Jesus was resurrected, and rose from the dead to give you new life and prove God’s character true.
The only answer to the uncertainty of dating isn’t anxiety or perfectionism, but the certainty of God. The same God who raised Jesus from the dead is the one who’s writing your story. That doesn’t mean dating will be easy or without uncertainty, but it does mean you can rest in God’s plan for your life. Paul says that when you trust God with your dating life, you’ll not just get through it, but experience peace in it. Rest in this: that whatever happens, your future is not uncertain: God will only give you his best.
Just a note: in using the term anxiety above, I recognize there’s lots of different kinds of anxiety. I’m referring to acute anxiety, not general anxiety, which is different. I’m not writing about or trying to speak to general anxiety, which is a more complex problem and may require professional help to work through.
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