Dear Doctor NerdLove,
First of all, thank you for your good work! I’m a long time reader of your blog, and I like the content you put up, your sense of humor, and the hope you give to people who struggle at dating.
The problem I want to talk you about is that I have a clearly irrational (but socially crippling) fear of romantic rejection and I want to know what to do about it.
Just to start, here’s some background information about me: I’m a 34 years old man, single. I have dealt with OCD and depression for years and I’m still in therapy. I have a job I really like as an assistant teacher for special education children, and even though I don’t earn a lot my job perspectives are getting better. I have my own car, but for a series of reasons (including the recent pandemic) I still live with my mother. So, overall, I could do better, but I could do worse, too.
I have never had a lot of success in terms of romantic relationships – I’ve had a semi-serious sexual relationship years ago that didn’t last long, and I’ve been on a few dates during the years – although only very rarely and never to the point of things getting beyond early dates.
My biggest dating problem is, indeed, the one I mentioned before: I’m irrationally afraid of being rejected, so I rarely if ever approach women romantically and I actually often prefer not to. I used to have issues making friends as well (again, mostly due to fear of rejection) but that’s getting better in the last years – I’ve made several friends who like me and respect me, and I like and respect them.
I can have light, funny, flirty conversation – and occasionally, if everything seems to go well, that seems to be enough to casually agree to meet each other again, usually without this explicitly being called “a date”. And on one occasion a woman I met pulled basically all the stops: she sat on my lap, we kissed me and she brought me to her room – we ended up dating for a short period of time.
That happens only very rarely, though, and I realize I can’t rely on the women I meet to do all the work – it’s quite a thing to expect!
However whenever I try to psych myself up to ask out a woman I’m having a fun, breezy conversation with my brain always comes up with fears upon fears and worries upon worries, so I end up either a) folding back to a less flirty and more friendly behavior or b) freezing and making things slightly awkward, then moving on.
The worries always center about the rejection itself – especially around the idea that I’ve somehow deluded myself that the person I was talking to was actually interested in me romantically or sexually, and they’re actually not, so I’m putting them in a difficult situation and they don’t know how to react to break it down gently to me. Somehow I find this thought incredibly scary and painful – I’d really hate to end up in a situation like this, so I prefer bailing out, even though rationally I know that it wouldn’t be such a big deal.
The funny thing is that I don’t have a problem with the concept of rejection per se on a rational basis- I realize I can’t appeal to everyone I meet and that people have their own priorities and preferences.
I’ve also been soft-rejected by phone, social media or email several times after a first or second date and it’s always been no big deal – and when I’m ghosted I’m not happy but I can move on. It’s just the possibility of immediate rejection in presence that for some irrational reason I can’t fully understand fills me with dread.
Things use to be worse in the past – I used to pretend to be in a relationship to give myself the chance to interact with people without having to worry about romantic rejection – which I understand is something that doesn’t make a lick of sense, and isn’t healthy, so I’ve stopped doing that.
(It’s also counterproductive – there have been a couple of occasions when I was having a fun conversation with a woman and things seemed to go well but I lied about seeing someone as a way to avoid having to ask out the woman I was talking to even if they seemed interested – talk about being illogical!)
I’m discussing my problem with my therapist and so far I’m not making any sense of it – so I said to myself that I could try to ask out someone who has specific experience and knowledge about dating issues.
Irrationally Afraid of Rejection
The answer to your problem is fairly simple, IAR. It’s just the execution that’s difficult.
The problem that you’re having is that you’re tying all of this to your self-worth… or lack thereof. You touch on it yourself: you worry that you’ve deluded yourself into thinking that someone could possibly like you and that your expressing interest in them is some sort of great inconvenience to them. So now you’re dealing with the double whammy of a) being brought back to the “reality” that you’re inherently unloveable and unfuckable and b) because you had the temerity to be into somebody, you’ve caused them hardship and inconvenience, which makes you an even bigger asshole. Somehow. It’s a variation of guys who are terrified of creeping women out because they asked her out on a date or otherwise expressed interest. You can even see echoes of this in the constant “be attractive/don’t be unattractive” schtick people bring up about sexual harassment and #metoo.
That’s why you have this dread of in-person rejection in the moment: to you, it feels like a judgement of you as a person. It’s the confirmation of all the worst things you believe about yourself, telling you that yes, you are as bad as you’re afraid you are. That’s a hard outlook to shake, because it’s very easy to find confirmation when you look for it. You’ll see dude after dude insisting that the reason they’re “creepy” is because they’re unattractive, that women are looking for reasons to reject men and that if you don’t have the six sixes (that is: six feet tall, six figure salary, six pack, six inch (or bigger) penis and 600 horsepower car) women will just call you a creep. You’ll read horror stories about dudes who don’t take no for an answer or who bug women constantly and how awful that all is. And you’ll take it all in because it feels real. It feels like truth. But it isn’t. It’s just your brain fucking with you. We all have an inherent negativity bias that means that negative thoughts and experiences affect us five times more than positive ones. That bias means that you’re going to give more credence to the horror stories and internalize them more. And since they will often align with what you already believe and already fear, then they just serve to confirm those beliefs.
Here’s the thing: part of the reason why you’ll see those stories is because… well, they’re stories. They get attention because there’s a distinct narrative, a good guy (or girl or enbie), a bad guy (or girl or enbie) and the inherent voyeuristic appeal of them all. It’s not that they’re all that happens, it’s that those are the only ones that people tell. After all, there’s nothing terribly notable about a guy who politely asks a woman out on a date, she says no and he says “no problem, have a great night.” Nobody is going to tell stories about the guy who was courteous, made a socially acceptable overture and took rejection with good grace because… well, there’s no drama to it. It’s the same reason why nobody tells the story about how they went to the coffeeshop, got their order and had a pleasant experience, but will tell the story of the asshole in line or the barista who royally screwed up their order.
I mean, there’s a reason why the movie wasn’t called “Blackhawk Up!” after all.
But while those stories of things going horribly get the attention, they’re not representative of anything. They’re outliers, events that are notable enough to be a story. A guy who’s polite and friendly, who makes a reasonable move (“I’m really enjoying talking to you; would you like to get coffee next week?” vs. “Hey, how about you and me cut to the chace and just fuck, dollface?”) isn’t putting somebody in an awkward position. They’re showing that they have good social and emotional intelligence; doubly so if they take rejection well. And look: I’ve been rejected more times than you’ve had hot meals, and I can tell you from experience: it’s never as bad as you think it’s going to be. It’s not dramatic, it doesn’t get you kicked out of the club or the city, it’s just being told “thanks, but I’m not interested” and moving on. It kinda sucks — nobody likes getting turned down — but it’s a minor annoyance. It’s a speed-bump over the course of the night.
The key is threefold.
First: you have to work on your sense of self-worth. Since you’re already talking to a therapist, you’re already in position to work with them on helping resolve that. The more you can value yourself and not see your interest in others as being an imposition, the easier it becomes.
Second: you have to take your ego out of it. Most of the time, when you’re getting turned down, it has nothing to do with you as a person. It’s usually a case of the two of you just not being compatible, which is value neutral. It’s not bad, it’s not good, you just don’t mesh correctly. No harm, no foul. Other times, you’re getting turned down for reasons that are entirely about them. They’re just out of a relationship, they’ve had a shitty day at work, they just saw their ex and they can’t deal with things right now or they just plain aren’t in a place where they are interested in going on a date. That’s all them, not you.
Third: you have to get used to getting rejected. Sorry. There isn’t really any way of avoiding that. Asking people out on dates means opening yourself up to being turned down; it’s part and parcel of the whole “dating” thing. It’s impossible to play the game so well that you won’t get rejected. In fact, as a wise man once said: it’s possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That’s not weakness. That’s life. But part of getting used to rejection means realizing that it’s not that bad. It sucks, yeah, but it’s not going to destroy you. You say “ok, not a problem” and either go back to talking about something else or wish them a nice night and move on, and the whole thing will just wash away as the non-event it actually is.
Now, one of the things that can help when it comes to learning to overcome your fear of rejection is to be outcome independent. I realize this seems like an impossibility; how can you be outcome independent when you’re looking for a relationship? A relationship is, after all, an outcome you’re specifically interested in. But here’s the trick: you take the end goal out of it. You don’t focus on anything other than “this is an interesting or awesome person, and you would like to see if they are, in fact, that awesome.” So you ask them out on a date — a date where you’re ultimately trying to see whether they are worth your time. If you two click… brilliant! Maybe there’ll be a second date. If you don’t… well, they may not be a future romantic partner, but they may be a cool new friend. Or it may be a nice night with pleasant conversation and company and nothing more.
And if they turn you down? Well, then you got your answer: you two weren’t right for each other, and now you’re free to go meeting other people who are right for you.
By taking the importance out of the answer and focusing only on the immediate future — a date or not — then you help defang the fear. It’s not a judgement on you and your entire future, it’s just a change of plans for the weekend.
But that means you have to be willing to put yourself out there. Which is scary at first. I totally get that, especially when you’re not used to it. But whether it’s taking your car onto the freeway or asking somebody out for a date: you may be nervous the first couple times, but do it enough times and it becomes second nature to you. You just have to be willing to power through the fear the first few times.
You’ve got this, IAR.
So I’ve not been looking much into dating with the pandemic going on. But since things seem to be turning the corner I’ve been reconsidering and thinking about what I can improve from the past.
The past year has had some personal changes not just pandemic related. The first is finally getting a good combo of meds and finally managing my anxiety and depression. The other is that while thinking about what interests me in someone, I’ve realized I’m demiromantic. I realize this knowledge is helpful, but I’m seeing trouble. I realize I don’t want to date someone until I have a sense of who they are, but almost any woman I’m likely interested in has made up her mind by then.
I’ve noticed a pattern: I catch feelings for someone I’ve known for a bit, usually a friend, but they don’t feel the same way and want to stay friends.
You and others have said that attraction should be established early on, since people will decide what kind of relationship that have and want based on early interactions. The problem is that I don’t know if I want to date someone until we’re already somewhat friendly.
How can I keep the possibility of a relationship open until I know if I’m interested?
As a general rule, I believe that folks should make their interest known early on. This encourages people to be direct and up front, helps eliminate confusion and mixed signals and helps folks avoid getting stuck in “The Friend Zone”.1 It’s easier, faster and more efficient over all.
But while I believe this is the best practice, it’s not the only way people meet or start to date. Demisexuals and demiromantics, for example, will take time to develop attraction to someone as they build emotional intimacy or get to know people. That means that making your intentions known early on difficult because… well, most of the time, you either don’t know your intentions or your intentions are friendship.
The issue in play here is the idea that folks have two settings: “friend” or “romantic/sexual interest”, and once you’re locked in on one of those… that’s it. Which is demonstrably not true — ex-lovers will can and do stay friends afterwards, for example — but that doesn’t mean that people don’t treat it like a rule handed down on carved tablets.
The thing to keep in mind is that while some folks do keep their friends and potential lovers strictly separate, there are plenty of people for whom the line is a little squishier. Not that they see their friends as potential fuck-buddies but that they can acknowledge that hey, Slow Burn is kinda hot, y’know? And hey, if he were to ask them out on a date… well, they’d definitely have to think about it, but they’d probably be down.
Now that’s obviously not going to be the case with everyone, and there are definitely folks who will just not be into you romantically or sexually no matter what. But if you’re starting to be into someone, you can throw out a light ping and see if they’re at least interested. A little light flirting or even “hey, you’re gorgeous, you know?” can give you an opportunity to gauge potential interest from them and see if they’re interested in more. If you do catch a vibe, then you can tell them “hey, I really like you and I’m interested in seeing if there’s something more here than just friendship. If you’re down, I would love to take you on an actual date.”
Part of the key to making this work is to invite the no. Tell them up front that it’s totally ok if they’re not interested and you’re cool with them saying ‘no’ helps make it a little less awkward; you’re letting them know in advance that it’s ok to let you down and that you’re not going to be one of the asshats who is going to turn around and make everything about “BUT WHY WON’T YOU GIVE ME A CHAAAAAANCE”.
The other key is, simply be a good, socially calibrated and well-liked guy. While this may seem like a “duh, George” kind of thing, the people who tend to move from friends to lovers are usually the ones who are confident, who are socially well-calibrated and who are all around good people. That doesn’t mean that you need to be the shiniest penny in the jar, don’t get me wrong. It just means that folks who are good boyfriend material overall do better. Being your best self, the kind of person who folks like to hang around with, makes it much more likely that when you start catching feelings for someone, they’re more likely to have some feelings of their own.
And here’s the thing: playing the long game can work in your favor. The more someone gets to know you, the more attractive they tend to find you to be.
Will there be times that the person you start to be into will date someone else? Yes… but that’s always going to be a risk, even if you make your intentions known early on. And while you could, theoretically, be the kind of person who tries to keep people’s interest until they’re ready… that gets tedious really damn fast, and it’s not fair to the other person.
So, while it may not be as quick, easy or efficient for folks who form attractions quickly, being demisexual or demiromantic isn’t the one-way ticket to The Friend Zone that folks often assume it is. As it often is for folks who have more common attraction patterns, it’s about being your best, most attractive self and knowing when someone may be interested in exploring something more with you. The only difference is, ultimately, the timing.
- Standard disclaimer: there is no such thing as the Friend Zone. There are only people who don’t want to date or fuck you. [↩]