Social anxiety: I'm terrified of dating

From an early age, much of Amy’s life has been consumed by anxiety, especially in social situations.

Dating was especially difficult.

Nerves around dating, are something almost everyone can relate to. But for Amy, it was overwhelming dread. And for many years, it stopped her from even trying to form a relationship.

Now in her 30s, Amy reflects on her early dating experiences.


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Narrator  00:00

Just a heads up - this episode features a personal story of mental health. If this brings up distressing feelings for you, please contact the Beyond Blue Support Service.

Amy  00:13

I had to pull the car over and I was hysterical just sobbing and I called my mom and I said, I would rather die than go on this date. I just couldcl not see a way through it.

Narrator  00:35

Welcome to Not Alone, incredible stories from everyday Australians talking about their mental health to help you with yours. This episode is about what it's like to manage your anxiety in the dating scene.

[Theme music]

Narrator  01:13

Amy grew up in a small town in country Victoria. She liked school got involved in extracurricular activities like calisthenics, and always dreamed of having a family one day. But as she got to the end of her high school years, she began to struggle with the social side of things.

Nerves around dating, are something almost everyone can relate to. For Amy, however, it was overwhelming dread. And for many years, it stopped her from even trying to form a relationship. Now in her 30s, Amy reflects on her early dating experiences. This interview was done remotely.

Amy  01:50

I guess my experience with anxiety started when I was quite young, all through high school and into my early 20s. But it wasn't until in my early 20s that I was officially diagnosed with anxiety and with depression as well.

When I'm reflecting on early experiences of dating or relationships, and what that looked like, I grew up in a small rural town and we had school socials. I was on the student rep council so was always involved in organizing the socials, loved looking at the advertising and ticketing and all those kinds of things, but when it came to actually going, I hated it. I liked being able to, you know, go to a friend's place beforehand, get dressed up, but then when it got to actually going, that's when I would get quite nervous and quite anxious.

Narrator  02:53

Amy wasn't worried about no one wanting to dance with her. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

Amy  02:59

I'd get to those events, and you'd hear that such and such wants to dance with you at the social. And that would just make me feel sick, because the idea of that just made me so anxious. So I would say that in those early days of school, any inkling that I got that a boy was interested in me was not met with excitement, it was met with just feeling physically sick, because I didn't know how to manage it, or how to deal with it.

Instead of thinking, 'Oh, that's great, you know, I'll see if I can dance with him at the social' or whatever that might have been, I would just spend the night avoiding them because I didn't want to have to deal with it. Because that was terrifying. That kind of continued as I got older, you know, people friends would say to me, "oh, you know such and such, really likes you or is interested in you," and I would just go "no, they're not". I didn't want to have to think too much about and it was easier just to avoid the whole thing.

Narrator  03:59

And so, Amy did avoid those situations. But as she came to realize over time, avoiding them only gave them more weight in her head.

Amy  04:08

All of those milestones seem more and more ridiculous for your age in your own head. So, you know, I was in my early to mid 20s and I hadn't even kissed a boy. As I got older it was well I haven't had sex yet. The more you go on, the more you think, 'Oh, well I can't do it now because they'll know I haven't done it before. I'll be so terrible at it and I'll just look ridiculous.'

And that creates more anxiety you know, everyone will find out everyone will talk about me and that was a big part of my anxiety as it was, was worrying what everybody thought about me.

Amy  04:49

My first experience was after I'd been on like a youth leadership kind of camp and one of the guys that I've met there got in touch with me afterwards and said, "you know it was lovely meeting you" - we'd really hit it off - and he wanted to go on a date. And I was beside myself. I was living in Stawell at the time. And we decided to meet in Ballarat.

And I remember that drive was the longest drive of my life. And I just felt physically sick. I got to Ballarat, and I had to pull the car over. And I was hysterical, just sobbing. And I called my mom and I said, I would rather die than go on this date, right now. It sounds so dramatic, in hindsight, but at that moment in time, I honestly would have preferred, that's the state I was in. I just could not see a way through it.

I think in the end, it was I was able to go back to some of the therapy I'd already had, even though we hadn't been focusing on dating yet. And just, you know, some of that cognitive behavioral therapy stuff and go, 'Okay, what's actually going to happen?' So instead of catastrophizing, it, which was where I would always land, just really think it through, take some deep breaths, what's the worst thing that happens? We were going to a very public place, we're going out for dinner and out to the movies. So there weren't a lot of things that could really go wrong. I like to think I'm pretty switched on. So I knew I was being safe.

The worst thing in my mind that could happen was that he decided, after all, he didn't like me, I said, or did something stupid. And maybe other people would find out. But we don't really know a lot of the same people. So it would probably be okay. And that still felt terrifying. But I was able to get to a point where I went, 'Okay, I've got to do this', I just need to get through this. And then it will get easier.

It didn't get easier. I was still, it was, the date was fine. We talked for a little while after that, it turned out that he wasn't up for a relationship. And for me with dating, the goal was always a relationship because I wasn't interested in dating for the fun of it. Because it wasn't fun to me.

I wasn't someone who was going to go out, get drunk and meet someone that way. Like I wasn't going to have those hookups at the pub or out at a club in another town or something like that, because that just wasn't how I did things. So I guess as a first date, and the experience after that, it was quite difficult because it was not how I wanted it to turn out.

That was when I went, okay, I can't put myself through that every time. But I also know that I want to find someone to share my life with. And I think I was only in my mid 20s then. I knew I had a lot of work to do before I got to that point. That was when I decided I needed to put a bit more focused time and energy into dating specifically.

Narrator  07:51

Amy had been to a counsellor a few times over the years for her anxiety, but hadn't asked about dating. Once she began seeing a psychologist regularly, she started to understand why she had been feeling this way.

Amy  08:03

I was working with a therapist, about going out in social situations, getting myself to parties, getting myself to even step foot in the you know, the local pub at home. And that took us in itself to just be able to do those things. But I guess going through that therapy, we came to a point where I said, Okay, I'm getting better at this now, but I'm still terrified of dating.

You get that cliché about you have to love yourself before someone else can love you or I'm a big group poll fan. So if you can't love yourself, how in the hell you're going to love somebody else as a report say. For me, that was so true. Like, it was very much a resilience thing, when when we really dug down into it. It was the thought of rejection. That was what really was that the at the centre of it.

You know, I've always been a high achiever. I like to do things right and hated making mistakes or people being upset at me for getting things wrong. When we really unpacked it, it came down to a fear of rejection. And the more we worked through that, the more it was that I had such a low opinion of myself at the time, dealing with not only anxiety, but depression as well, that I just didn't have the resilience to be able to take the rejection.

The starting point was to try and work through finding ways for me to like myself a bit more so that if I did go on a date, and it didn't go well or I did go on a date and it didn't lead to another day. I was able to sit back and go, Okay, you know what, it's not because I'm a bad person. It's not because I did anything wrong. There are so many different factors at play here. So to be able to do that I needed to build a bit more respect and a bit more love for myself.

Amy  10:08

I spent years, so many hours in therapy working through those things with a psychologist, I still remember the day that it got to the point where she went, "Okay, we've done so much work on this, Amy and I, I can't do this for you. We're at the point now where you have to start trying this stuff out. Now you have to practice."

I think the first time after I'd done all of that, some work friends set me up with a mutual friend. And we went out on a double date. And same thing, I hated it, it was awful. We didn't get along particularly well, the person that tried to set me up with so it wasn't a positive experience. But even before that, I remember them trying to get me out the door and I was still, I still really struggled. But each time it just got that little bit easier.

Narrator  11:03

Wanting to get some practice, Amy needed to find some suitors.

Amy  11:15

I'd always been terrified of dating apps, because you're on there because you want to go on dates, and I didn't want to go on dates. Why would I do it? But it got to a point where living in a small town. I mean, I was living in a town of 6000 people, there's not a lot of options. I was getting better at being and a bit more social by then, I'd worked through a lot of my social anxiety and was getting better at going out and meeting people and was ready to, you know, have a decent crack at it.

And I thought okay, um, you know, late 20s now, I've always wanted to have a family and have a baby. So I thought, right, if that's what I want, and that's what I want my future to look like, then I need to take some responsibility for that and get going.

Two of my best friends were single as well who'd had partners in the past. And all of us being able to get on the app and share that experience was kind of a more relaxed and fun way to do it, it didn't feel like such a big deal, because they were doing it too. You had someone to debrief about the weird and wacky kind of experiences you had. And we had a lot of fun with it, it was it was really, really great.

Amy  12:31

The best thing about that was that we were all very aware of each other's safety too. So that was, whenever someone was going on a date, we had to know the person's full name, where they were going, what time they expected to be home. And we would keep in contact with each other the three of us to make sure that the person who was out was safe. So from an anxiety point of view, that was really helpful.

Narrator  12:58

Amy went on about six or seven dates. And while she was getting more comfortable with going out, she was getting tired of things not going anywhere. Then she met Chris.

Amy  13:09

I remember when he first got in touch with me and asked if I wanted to go out. I was at the point where this was - and I'd said to my girlfriends, I was like, "I'll go on a date with this guy. But if this doesn't work out, I'm taking a break." Because I've gotten better at this. But I'm human. And I just I'm done for a bit, like I'm over putting time and energy into people and it's not going anywhere. I don't enjoy dating, I just want to meet someone and settle down. That's all I want. So if this guy is no good, I'm going to take a break.

I even said to Chris, look, I'd love to catch up. I'd love to see you. But if you're not in this with the idea of finding a relationship, then I'm probably not the right person for you to go on a date with. And I'd rather not. I said if we meet and we don't get along, then we can be adults and just say, "You know what, there wasn't much there. Thanks. You know, it was nice to meet you." I said, but unless you're genuinely looking for someone that you want to have a relationship with then I don't want to do it. Which is pretty straightforward for me, because that's about the kind of person I was at that time in my life.

And he was like, "No, I totally get it. That's that's what I'm looking for as well. Let's just catch up and see what happens." And it's cheesy, but from that very first date, we hit it off and I was pretty convinced from the first time I met him that we were going to spend a long time together. Luckily, it didn't get to the point of me having to take a break and see what happens next, but that was the plan.

Amy  14:45

One of the tactics I had early on as I started dating more was to try and set myself like a little treat or a little reward on the other side of the date. So that I had something to think of beyond that. I remember when I had my first date with Chris, I was planning to stay overnight in Ballarat, where I met him. And I thought, okay, there's a new car that I would like to go and look at, and maybe take it for a test drive.

And the date went so well, and I was just on cloud nine, And not only did I go and look at the car, I bought the car, and ended up with a brand new car all because I'd gotten through a date with the person who turned out to be the love of my life. So I guess I've got a partner for life, and the man who's going to be the Dad of our baby. And a new car! So it was a good weekend.

Narrator  15:47

Amy and Chris welcomed their first child in mid 2022. Together with their dog, Harley, they plan to build their life in Ballarat, Victoria. Reflecting on everything she's been through, Amy shared her advice for others who find dating challenging.

Amy  16:04

So Chris, and I will have been together for five years, this Thursday, I've just turned 35, pregnant with our first baby, and I think that, you know, you hear people say this a lot, but if I'd heard that, that is how this was all going to end back when I was in the depths of that anxiety and trying to work through it, that would have just seemed so unrealistic.

I'm often really proud when I reflect on how much work I did to be able to get to this point, because it wasn't easy. I had to be incredibly vulnerable, and work through all those things that were holding me back. And that's hard work. I can't imagine what it would be like for people who aren't straight or white or able bodied like I am. Anyone who has seen a psychologist and had ongoing therapy will know that often you have to get into a mess to get out of one, is how I often phrase it with people. There's a lot of stuff that you have to unpack and work through, to be able to make progress.

The advice I would give to people who are having dating anxiety is that as cliché and as corny as it sounds, you really have to do the work on yourself first. And I think before you throw yourself out into the world of dating, you've really got to be in a comfortable position with yourself and have that resilience so that you can, like I said before, come out of a date and be able to see that it's, if it didn't go well that it's not anything you've done, that not everyone out there is going to be the right person for you. And that's okay. Getting yourself in a position where you've got that resilience to be able to be kind to yourself while you're dating. And that's easier said than done.

The other thing for me that was really helpful, like I said was having a group of friends that I could debrief with and talk to without judgment was really important. And then also, know what you are and aren't willing to accept for yourself. So for me, finding someone who understood mental health was really important. And I'm lucky that I have a partner now who has a really good understanding of mental health. There are people out there who will understand that part of you, and you don't have to hide it.

Narrator  18:35

We want to say a huge thank you to Amy for sharing her story with us.

We've covered a range of mental health issues and if anything has been upsetting for you, contact the Beyond Blue Support Service on 130 22 4636. We've also listed a number of resources in our show notes.

This podcast was recorded and produced on Wurundjeri country and we pay respect to the traditional owners of these lands.

Thanks for listening to Not Alone.

Auslan translation

Our theme song is Friends With Feelings, written and performed by Alice Skye, produced by CAAMA Music and published by Sony Music Publishing Pty Ltd.

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