How to Cope with First-Date Anxiety Part II (expanding on my Interview with Georgia Straight with a clinical twist)

Disclaimer: Reading this article or following the advice therein contained may or may not contribute to your happily ever after but it is sure nice to have a fantasy, right? 😉

The first of July came and went along with the intense heat wave that had baked the West Coast. Although I am sure that the fiery inferno made many sullen, suffering hobbits happy at last to have been able to cut their trips short by finding Mount Doom on the nearest mountain or hill, it was the burning desire anxiety that emanated from my clients that made me realize how hot the rest of this summer will be…

I always say that we all need a bit of nervousness to adapt and prioritize important events, such as your dates; however, too much of it in the form of anxiety is maladaptive. In the case of anxiety, many of my clients would try to put out the fire by fanning it with more self-defeating thoughts or literally running away, which often ends up fueling the distress. Therefore, when I see another client starting to set themselves aflame with cognitive distortions and negative automatic thoughts then berate themselves for having them, I remind them to:

#3: Identify and Validate the Feelings behind the Thoughts

Rather than watching my clients roast themselves to mental anguish, I would encourage them to name the feeling associated with the anxiety – be it shame, fear, disappointment, etc. – and validate it. This is NOT equivalent to saying that you are to simply do nothing but accept defeat and emotional distress; however, many people would usually become so overwhelmed by their own thoughts and feelings that they end up resorting to deleterious strategies of emotional escape, such as avoidance, numbing/withdrawing, or anger. Adopting escape-avoidant coping styles to deal with uncomfortable emotions can lead to a continuation of problems in the long term. For many people, prompting them to examine their own thoughts about themselves and about the date often elicits expectations of discomfort and futility:

“It is going to be horrible and I will embarrass myself and go home as another lonely loser.”

“Who’s going to like me? I gained so much weight during the pandemic and now I’m too fat to date!”

“I’m going to mess it up. I’m going to mess it up. I’m going to mess it up.”

And so on.

These maladaptive anticipations often trigger visceral, aversive emotions that justify people’s strategies for emotional escape, which could lead to procrastination (e.g., changing or delaying the dates multiple times) or giving up altogether. Therefore, before I help my clients learn strategies to regulate themselves, I would encourage them to identify and validate the feelings behind the thoughts so as to understand their function and meaning. After all, it is harder to change emotions without first understanding them, such as how they motivate your behavior or how they are rooted in past experiences, low self-esteem, and/or poor attachment. It is first by identifying, validating, and understanding these emotions that we can proceed with change.

Running from your emotions will only work in the short term. Your mental-health professional can support you to approach and confront them at your own pace. In the process, you will foster good distress tolerance and work on improving your emotional experience so that you can go into your date with less “baggage.”

#4: Setting Parameters after Determining Your Needs and Wants

How many times have you gone on a first date, only to find that the other person just expects to have a hookup with you after dinner? Or, after dating the person for 3 months, you “inevitably” find that they only want a monogamous relationship when you thought they’d be open to a ménage à trois from time to time even after marriage? I had a client who, by conventional standards, would be described as a highly attractive individual: not only did she show promise in her career, but she was also what people would call a “blond, blue-eyed beauty.” However, following a devastating breakup with a serious long-term boyfriend, who turned out to be someone with no ambitions and goals and who was satisfied to live off of the rent from his tenant/roommates, she started setting standards so high that no one could meet them. I remember meeting her after she had a year of failed dates and short-lived relationships until she finally concluded that there is no good men in Vancouver. Another client would meet people from dating apps. However, not knowing whether he wants friends, dates, or relationships, would come into sessions to ask me, “what do I do?” Too many times I have seen people go on dates with either no expectations or too-high expectations, which leaves them confused or disappointed afterwards. Ask yourself the following questions before you return to the dating scene:

  1. What are the indicators that tell me I am ready to date?
  2. What do I want from the date?
  3. What kind of person am I romantically attracted to and what do I like?
  4. What do I offer to the table?

Also, if you are using dating apps, take advantage of the profile settings to specify what you want: a hookup, friendship, short-term relationship, long-term relationship, marriage, etc. Set parameters to meet them but allow yourself the flexibility to modify them at your discretion. Discuss some of your expectations with your date in a tactful way if you are able to find the opportunity to bring it up. There is no need to force the topic or discuss it in detail if the conversation flow is not heading into that direction: do not follow the tragic footsteps of the family and youth counsellor I mentioned in Part I and interrogate your date. Remember: it is only the first date. Your goal is most likely to simply make this person’s acquaintance, so setting parameters would be useful to help you gauge whether or not you have a good enough impression to see them again.

If you are concerned about not being able to define your parameters or balance them in a way that does not set your expectations too high or low, remember that your mental-health professional can help to either guide or facilitate this self-exploration. I will be happy to have the privilege of assisting you in the process.

Good luck, fellow daters! 🙂

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