Struggle with social anxiety, but feeling an urge to dip your toe in the dating pool? Please know that this path is not closed to you!

Dating is a great way to challenge your social anxiety and challenge your comfort zone a bit. If you decide to try dating, it is important not to be perfectionistic about it. Instead, embrace a growth mindset. A growth mindset is the belief that with time and practice, anyone can achieve what they want-which is essentially the way things really work! Casually dating is a great way to build confidence, find support, and practice your people skills.

Take your time

Proceeding at your own pace with dating can help you grow. It offers the opportunity to observe, learn, and practice social skills. How does your date interact, start conversations, and what are their manners like? Pretend you are a researcher. Use some of your conversation starters on your date, and watch their reactions. Which of your repertoire of conversational topics and stories is a hit?

Dating also offers lessons in cooperation. How do you smoothly decide on activities and where to go next? Discover what is negotiable for you, and what is not. Going out with another person is also a good way to learn to balance thinking only of yourself with considering someone else.

Social interaction is good for you!

Dating gets you out of the house, and getting out helps with depression and loneliness. Social interaction also helps put worries in perspective. It is useful in distracting anxious people from letting their imaginations and catastrophic thoughts take over. Even if the date you go on doesn’t go perfectly, or you are not a good romantic match, you might simply find a friend who gets you, supports you, and is an ally for your growth.

Dating tips to ease your anxiety

When you decide to put yourself out there, here are some helpful mindset hacks that you can apply as you begin setting up dates.

1. Reality-test your automatic thoughts. If you have been through cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety, remember to check on those sneaky automatic thoughts and assumptions that you fall into, and counter them. Work on conquering negative thoughts. Some people have irrational, extreme, negative thoughts that pop up when they are under stress. These kinds of thoughts aren’t true and need to be realty-tested, and replaced with more rational thoughts. These automatic negative thoughts are thoughts like: “I’m dumb”, “Nobody likes me”, or “I’m going to mess this up”.

Attack these thoughts with these three questions:

  1. What is the evidence for this thought?
  2. Is this ALWAYS true?
  3. Am I using old, past experiences to overgeneralize the situation?

Get rid of all of the “shoulds.” “Shoulds” occur when we put irrational,  unnecessary pressure on ourselves with extreme imperatives such as “I must,” “I have to,” or “I should.”

An example of this would be telling yourself, “I should know how to navigate this date perfectly and smoothly.” How exactly would you know how to do this? You haven’t been on many dates, you are just learning. Take it easy on yourself. The dogmatic “should” self-talk is not necessary and tends to trigger anxiety.

It can be helpful to reframe your “shoulds” as instead “things that you would like to happen”. Framing them this way is much less anxiety-provoking. For example, you could tell yourself, “I would like to be relaxed, confident, and pleasant on dates.” You are already dating more, so you are practicing and making progress. You will get there!

2. Share your feelings. Talk about your anxiety about the date. It may be helpful to tell a friend or your therapist about the specific things that you are anxious about happening during your date, instead of just ruminating about them in your mind over and over. Once you put your fears to words, you two might be able to make a plan in case you run into the specific problem you are worried about.

You might even see that your feared situation is quite unlikely to happen when you put it into words and get it out into the open. You might even consider telling your date briefly that you are feeling anxious.  Saying your feelings can take away their negative power. Many people have experienced anxious times in their lives, and if your date can empathize, this could be a bonding moment.

3. Preparing is not cheating! You know those “life of the party” types? By reading about social skills coaching, I learned that many of them have a secret. They prepare beforehand. They carefully think about the people who are going to be at the party and what they know if their backgrounds, such as likes and dislikes and hobbies, and prepare things to say that might engage them. These social butterflies also think about fun facts they have discovered, stories in the news to discuss, and funny and interesting things they themselves have done recently.  They may even practice several ways to tell the story out loud. It seems spontaneous, but they have done some homework.

Before your date, you might think about things you could bring up about yourself.  Some examples are: things you have done this summer, viral videos you have enjoyed, things you have read, hobbies or interests you pursued, or anecdotes about your job or school. Easy conversation questions you could ask your date include the old standby, “what are you doing this weekend?” If it is a Monday or Tuesday, modify it to ask, “Did you do anything fun last weekend?” Ask them about their job or school, or summer vacation. If you have heard about talents or hobbies they have, ask about them. Complementing an item of clothing or accessory always goes over well. Follow up by asking them where they got it. Ask them about their future plans, where they would like to be in five years, or what is on their bucket list. If these ideas seem tedious, come up with your own. It can be very helpful to have some ideas in your head that you can easily call up during a lull.

4. Stay busy the next day. Many people with anxiety will spend the day following a  perfectly successful social experience “Monday Morning Quarterbacking” it. This means picking apart every little detail of the date, and trying to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. They ruminate about the date until they have found some small detail to catastrophize. They eventually reframe the whole experience as negative if they are not careful. That is why it is very important that after a date, you try your best to stay as mentally busy as possible. Prevent catastrophizing from happening by talking to people on the phone, going out with your best friend, or surrounding yourself with technology and humor (like watching funny videos on your phone). Continue over the next few days. You must use all of your distraction and reality testing skills. Your goal is to avoid allowing your automatic negative thoughts and overthinking to pick apart your performance and falsely “find” all of the things you have done wrong.  That is a trap that can be very damaging, both for your self-esteem and for your ability to go on future dates. So stay as busy and vigilant as possible so that these thoughts can’t creep in.

Challenge yourself to increase confidence

My final tip is for you is to challenge yourself to go out and have more dating experiences, despite your social anxiety. The more you persevere and experience what dating life has for you, the more you’ll find that you’re able to be confident in yourself around others. You will start to develop a repertory of subjects to bring up and eventually relax and find a more positive perspective. Dating, despite being socially anxious, may be worth the effort for you because it offers so many chances to practice and grow your  social skills. Dating also provides the perk of an increased likelihood of finding love and companionship.