A reader asks our agony aunt advice on how to find love when the remnants of his anxiety are still weighing heavy
I’ve had social anxiety to varying degrees ever since I was bullied in middle school. The anxiety forced me to stay alone at home and for many years I had no social contacts with anyone and nobody I could call a friend. I guess being lonely for so long conditioned me to feel completely satisfied with just being friends with anybody. But I’m getting better than I was and I feel a deep desire to seek something romantic.
While I have managed to make solid friendships, I can still feel the huge weight of my anxiety when it comes to the opposite sex. While I can pinpoint the origin of my problem (the remnants of my social anxiety) I have no idea as to what I can do to solve it. I really struggle to interact with people in a way that would lead to a relationship because of it – in those situations I just feel a huge blockage. How can I overcome my anxiety?
Before I get into this, I’m going to first publically give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you are not one of so many terrible men in the world. You don’t seem like it. You tell me that you want romantic love, but you don’t suggest that it’s something you’re entitled to. You don’t tell me that it’s the fault of cold, stuck-up, bitchy modern women that you’re not dating right now. This is a good sign. I don’t have to fight you in an abandoned carpark and put a poster of your face up around the neighbourhood. So here’s the nutritious low-sodium advice you ordered.
As an anxious person with no real romantic experience, your model of dating is going to have to be “scared but doing it anyway”. You’ll have to do a lot of things which are brand new and wildly terrifying. You’re going to have to be brave here. I’m not suggesting you swagger into a bar, sit down next to a hot girl and hand her your number. You’re probably never going to be the guy who does this. But that’s OK. That guy’s a dick who interrupts women who just want to be left alone to play Animal Crossing. No, what you’re going to do is to take a series of small steps, one after another, until your romantic anxiety no longer feels bone deep and life-threatening anymore. Until it’s small and innocuous. A little rash. A slight graze to the elbow. No biggie.
BUT WHAT ARE THESE STEPS? YOU DIDN’T COME HERE FOR VAGUERIES. YOU NEED SPECIFICS. Please do not shout. They are coming.
“The idea that you need to love yourself before you can be loved by someone else is almost total shit”
The first step is that you have to accept your current self as the person who wants and deserves love. It’s not you in some undefinable future place, where you’ve totally recovered from your anxiety and you’re richer and stronger and somehow your hair always looks like it’s moving in the wind even when you’re indoors. No. It’s you right now. The you who’s been shifting mental roadblocks, lifting burning dysfunction and pushing trauma out of the way so you can live a life where romantic love can exist.
Now, this isn’t me saying you have to love yourself. The idea that you need to love yourself before you can be loved by someone else is almost total shit. But I do want you to work towards liking and accepting yourself as much as is possible for you. Not just on Wednesdays or during TV ad breaks. All the time.
The next thing I have to tell you is to forget the friendzone. It’s not real. There’s nothing you could have done. It’s not because you didn’t collect enough coins to unlock the next level or you didn’t demonstrate your strength by opening more jars for her. Be endlessly grateful for the female friends that you have but don’t linger hopefully, waiting to be picked by a woman who only thinks of you platonically. It’s disrespectful to you both. You deserve more. Going forward you’re going to be very honest with yourself about who’s interested and who isn’t, and you’re going to save yourself a lot of twisted thinking as a result.
“Forget the friendzone. It’s not real. There’s nothing you could have done. It’s not because you didn’t collect enough coins to unlock the next level or you didn’t demonstrate your strength by opening more jars for her”
Next: remember you have an illness. You know this. If you’re not currently getting treatment for it, I want you to explore your options. If a therapist or counsellor isn’t feasible, turn to the beloved internet. Internet is not a doctor (something I must remind you of for sexy legal purposes). Internet is also a toilet hell. But there is gold and treasure amongst the burning wreckage. There are so many resources for people who are rebuilding and recovering. Utilize them. Get into them. Find peace and reassurance in the sheer number of us who live in your same swamp.
You also have to do your due diligence and sign up for all the websites and the apps. You have to do this with the full understanding that most of the other users you’ll come across WILL NOT BE YOUR PEOPLE. This is just a statistical fact, nothing to be scared of. And accept the arduousness of swiping and clicking and waiting because it is infinitely better than sitting scared and halted in the middle of your life. There will be failed connections, sure, and more flakes than a dandruff clinic in a tornado, but whatever. That’s the deal we all strike. You’ll persist with it because you know that you want a romantic life and this is a possible portal to that.
You will not be defeated by the nonsense, but on the days where it wears you out, remind yourself that you’re open to love, that you believe it is a thing that exists, but you just don’t know how to access it yet. This is a problem with a solution. It’s only fatal when you let yourself say “this is okay. I can live without this love.” This is an untruth and I want you to resist it. But I also want you to resist the urge to self-define as someone lacking. You’ve worked through severe social anxiety to lead a functional life. You have friends. You’re articulate and kind. There’s strength and hope and self-awareness in you and if you put your life on hold until you’re in love then you’re missing the whole ridiculous point of it all. Do fun shit now. Look right at yourself and ask what would make you more fulfilled and whole. Do those things. Eat a cracker. Laugh. Take up a new hobby.
“As someone regularly snackin’ on their own big bowl of delicious Anxiety-Os, I feel you. It sucks”
And I know that everything I’ve asked you to do is very difficult. You have an anxiety disorder, and you have to fight like Hell to do things that other people seem to do with ease. As someone regularly snackin’ on their own big bowl of delicious Anxiety-Os, I feel you. It sucks. But it’s not an insignificant victory that you’re aware that the anxiety is at the root of this problem. Don’t take for granted how often people (men in particular) have no clue what the root of their misery and disappointment and emptiness is, and how often this turns into rough resentful anger.
In short, don’t squash down your desires. Your recovery rests on slow and deliberate efforts to access joy and wellness, and so will any romantic success. This isn’t an intensive origami course, it’s a lifelong origami course. You can’t just learn a swan and call it a day. I want you to use your two hands, the two hands that have gotten you this far, and I want you to make something spectacular. Something way better than this origami metaphor that I’ve clumsily squeezed in at the end here.