First dates can be nerve wracking for many people, whether or not they have social anxiety. People often have thoughts about whether the other person will like them, find them attractive, interesting or boring, and of course, will there be enough to talk about or a lot of awkward silences?
After all, social anxiety is rooted in a fear of negative evaluation and a date is certainly an evaluative experience. Do I like this person enough to want to see them again? It can feel like a lot of pressure! Described below are some common challenges that people with social anxiety may experience while dating, and also some evidence-based strategies to help them cope and engage more effectively.
Before going on a date, many people will spend time preparing what they might talk about and even create scripts in their heads for possible conversations. This is known as mental rehearsal or scripting. While on the surface, this may seem like a helpful strategy, it almost always backfires and interferes with connecting with someone else. This is because the other person is very unlikely to respond in the exact way that is scripted. Then the person who has rehearsed is caught off guard and on the fly must come up with a different response. Often, there is an increase in pressure and anxiety which can impact their ability to be in the moment and connect with someone. Paradoxically, it is also problematic if mental rehearsal “works,” because then the socially anxious person becomes more reliant on this strategy and will feel even less able to have spontaneous conversations effectively. Rather than creating scripts for a date, it might be helpful to think about general topics to discuss or things you want to share with another person.
Focus of Attention
Related to the problem of mental rehearsal is that socially anxious people tend to have an internal focus of attention. This means that while on a date, they are more likely to be thinking about how they are coming across (“Was that a dumb thing to say?”, “Can she tell that my face is red?”, “I don’t know what to say next!”) rather than being present in the conversation. This can result in people appearing aloof or uninterested since it takes a lot of energy to attend internally while also trying to get to know someone. It is helpful for people to intentionally shift their focus externally. Notice what the other person looks like, notice their facial features, the sound of their voice, their hair, etc. Get engrossed in the conversation itself, rather than in our thoughts. The more that the evaluative voice in one’s head is not dominating the experience, the more one will be able to actively engage in the conversation.
Finally, an important point about making conversation: Many people with social anxiety dislike being the focus of attention. This results in an over-reliance on asking questions of others as opposed to sharing about oneself. While it is important to ask questions to demonstrate interest in someone else, it is also important to be open and share in order to create a reciprocal connection. People can’t feel close to someone that they don’t know!
There is a strategy from RO-DBT (Radically Open Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) called Match Plus One. This skill encourages people to consider the level of intimacy related to something that was shared, and to increase that level if they want to be closer to someone. The levels are ranked 1-10 in terms of how open/vulnerable someone might be. For example, there are different levels of intimacy between “Wow, can you believe all the snow we’ve gotten!” (Level 1) and “I’m having a difficult time after my father passed away” (Level 7).” If on a date, it can be important to consider the level of intimacy being shared and then increase it by just one step in order to establish a deeper connection. For example, if someone says “I went for a nice long jog outside today,” maybe a step towards increasing intimacy could be, “That sounds nice! I love being outdoors; I actually volunteer during the summer at a camp for children with special needs.” This skill can be helpful in gradually building a relationship as opposed to not sharing much at all, or sharing too much too quickly. Then as the conversation continues, people can evaluate the level of intimacy and if it feels like a safe and appropriate level, or if they want to increase it.
Whenever dating, remember that our best life experience is created when we allow ourselves to be in the moment, to really get to know people, and to experience deeper relationships in general.
Lauren Neaman, PsyD, A-CBT
(DASC: The Depression and Anxiety Specialty Clinic of Chicago)