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Dating Maze #355: Performance Anxiety

March 25, 2012 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

When speaking with a good prospect, I get intimidated and close up.

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

Thank you so much for your insightful column. Often when I struggle with dating issue I check the Dating Maze archives and find that you've addressed my exact question.

Here’s an issue that’s been really bothering me: I struggle to relax around people. More accurately, I struggle to relax around people who I want to like me.

I tend to subconsciously classify people as being “above” or “below” (or “better” or “worse”) than I am. When I'm with people I view as 'below' me, I can completely relax and be myself. I'm not embarrassed to do funny/crazy/stupid things or to be assertive.

When I'm with people I view as “above” me, I'm generally on edge, subconsciously worrying what they'll think of me. I measure my words much more carefully and suppress my true personality. These people tend to think that I'm a shy, boring, under-achiever.

I have trouble being myself with women I want to connect with.

I realize that putting people into these categories is a negative trait, and that what really counts is how God sees each of us. I'd like to be able to stop doing this, but I don't know how. It's become a problem in dating, because although I'm relaxed around women I view as 'below' me, I'm generally not excited to be with them!

On the other hand, I have trouble being myself with women I want to connect with. And so, it's happened a number of times that although I'm keen and on paper we're a great match, she doesn't want to continue.

Would you say that the challenge is for me to work on my self-esteem/character until I reach a point that I'm completely comfortable around all people? Or would you say that the right woman for me is someone around whom I'll feel both relaxed and excited?

I've spoken to a number of my friends and they all seem to share this issue. So any advice would be greatly appreciated.


Dear Jeff,

We've often hear from men who are dating for marriage and wonder why they become so anxious when they are out with a woman they think might be right for them. The anxiety cuts across many personality lines – it can affect men who often feel sure of themselves, as well as people who are not as self-confident. It seems that when they are dating a woman who has qualities they admire, a personality they like, and whom they are attracted to, they begin to worry that she may not feel they same way as they do.

As they worry, their level of anxiety increases. When they are out with the woman they hope to impress, they start to think "too much." They begin to analyze everything that comes out of their mouth, worrying about what she will think and how she'll react. Instead of being able to relax and have a normal, flowing conversation, they may freeze up, or babble, or keep on talking without letting their date say very much.

They feel doubly uncomfortable during the pauses in conversation that normally occur during the early stage of a courtship. The worry that, "I afraid I'm going to ruin something good" can actually become a self-fulfilling prophesy, as anxiety keeps them from being themselves.

Six Performance Tools

There are many ways that you can learn to minimize your anxious feelings, in order to have calmer and more enjoyable dates:

(1) Use this simple breathing exercise whenever you sense your inner level of tension rising: Cup your hands over your mouth and breathing into them for a few minutes. This will help even out your carbon dioxide levels and calm your physical symptoms.

(2) Another easy exercise is to breathe in from your nose, and then out from your mouth, for a series of ten in-and-out cycles. Try to make each cycle a bit longer than the one before, quietly focusing on your breathing. This exercise only takes a few minutes and gradually allows your heart rate to slow down so that you’ll feel physically and mentally more relaxed. You can do it anywhere, without anyone noticing what you're doing. You can use this regularly, multiple times daily: during your morning routine, during your commute to work, before or after a coffee break, on your commute back home, and before going to sleep.

(3) One of the best ways to reduce anxiety is to incorporate exercise into your daily routine. Try for 30 minutes of exercise 3-to-5 times a week. Not only does exercise cause your body to release endorphins, which elevate your mood, but it can also help you feel that you are more proactive about your life and build self-confidence.

(4) Develop a few ice-breaker lines that you can use to help lower your own anxiety and alleviate any discomfort your date might feel because you're nervous. For example: "I bet I can make you smile in five seconds." Or, if you say something silly: "Excuse me while I take my foot out of my mouth."

(5) Try not to think about the meaning behind what your date said or did, how she'll react to your words or actions, whether she'll go out with you again, if she likes you, she could be "The One," or what it would like to be married to her. Not only do these thoughts cause you to become more anxious, they also keep you from experiencing the date in "real time." You can train yourself to push these thoughts out of your mind by telling yourself, "Thinking about this is not going to help me now. I'm simply not going to do it."

(6) One good approach is to tell yourself, "I'm going to make the best of this date and focus on the experience of being on a date with a nice woman.” Pay attention to the sound of her voice, and what she's saying. Is there something else you'd like to know about the subject she's discussing? Notice the taste of the food, the background music, the décor and overall atmosphere, the scenery as you walk together. To get used to this process, practice how to "be in the moment" when you're not on a date. Take five minutes at any time during your day, and pay attention to all of your senses, thoughts and feelings.

These strategies can help you have more positive dating experiences and can time keep you from spending your date wondering whether or not you're "good enough" for the woman you're with.

Identifying Triggers

Here’s another suggestion to help address your tendency to characterize women you date as "better” or "worse" than you. Intellectually, we know that each of us is strong in some areas and less strong in others, and that we shouldn't be making judgments about people's relative qualitative "values." This is especially true with external qualities like wealth, education, looks, or social standing. Nevertheless, it's a hard habit to break.

Is there a life event that made you think in terms of "better" or "worse”?

It will help you to understand why you tend to quickly categorize people into "better" or "worse." Spend some time remembering when you first began to think along these lines. Is there a person or event in your life that made you think that you were "better" or "worse" than someone else? What did you feel when you thought this way? What other situations or people triggered those thoughts and feelings on other occasions, or reinforced your judgment about yourself?

Think about what were the criteria that you first used, and continue to use, to compare yourself to others. Write these ideas down and then review them. What common threads do you see? Are there situations, circumstances, or types of people that trigger your tendency to compare and judge? Once you understand how this process began and how you repeat it today, you can develop a way to change your habit.

The best way to make this change is to notice when you start engaging in judgmentalism and then "talk” yourself out of it:

"There I go again, thinking I'm better or worse than someone else. I know why I do this. I have always felt uncomfortable about my looks. Susie is very pretty, and I jump to the conclusion that she's a "better quality" person than me because she is better looking than I feel I am.

“I have to stop making these judgments. I have to look at Susie as a whole person, just as I want her to see me as a whole person. I'm not going to get stuck in an unhealthy way of thinking, but instead try to get to know her better and hope that she'll want to get to know me, too."

Work out a good self-talk script that will help you get unstuck in the future. With a little practice, these suggestions can help you approach dating with a healthier attitude.

We wish you success in navigating the dating maze,

Rosie & Sherry

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