I’ve been struggling for over a decade to express my interest and sexual desire to women in any meaningful way. When opportunity is there, I instinctively disengage and mentally collapse inward. I become physically anxious and upset, even while my thoughts are calm or elsewhere altogether. Call it shyness, call it social anxiety, I call it self-sabotage.
Living like this for my entire adult life (currently 30) has left me with what I can only describe as a voice in my head that routinely speaks up with the facade of caring, concerned protection. But what it says is less than helpful with commentary like:
“You shouldn’t talk to her”
“You’re here to (#activity), not talk to people”
“You don’t need this anxiety/stress”
“It’s better to be lonely than stressed and anxious being with her”
“This (flirting) isn’t you”
“This (love) isn’t for you”
This endless and repetitive chatter has me locked in place. I try to put myself in as many situations as possible where it’s socially acceptable and expected to at the very least mingle with people (taking dance and yoga classes, going out with friends and coworkers for drinks, to name a few examples). But I always lock up. My mind goes blank or I focus on anything else and keep things platonic. Or worse, I don’t engage at all. Occasionally I’ve even given myself a good old fashion panic attack, simply by thinking about approaching the girl and asking her out. In my day to day life I often don’t even make eye contact with women, instinctively getting tunnel vision and going along with my day like they’re not even there. I easily talk myself out of being more adventurous, always relying on others to initiate activities or conversations. Weekends are often spent alone because I cannot motivate myself to go out and explore, be social.
From digging deep with my therapist, I’ve determined I hold a strong fear of both rejection, and attraction, caused by the betrayal of a friendship in my early childhood which established the core belief that no one can be completely trusted. This birthed the “helping” voice in my head that tells me I shouldn’t open up more to anyone, I shouldn’t express myself, and I cannot be completely comfortable with anyone.
So the question then is how do I break the fear of attraction? How do I learn to express myself freely, express my sexuality, and embrace attraction and compassion from others instead of avoiding it?
Thanks for your time.
The other day, I published a column about self-limiting beliefs and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. The TL;DR version is that a lot of anxieties and self-limiting beliefs are reactions to fear and trauma — ways our minds try to protect us from having similar events happen to us again. We anchor those beliefs in our minds by means of the story we tell ourselves — why those experiences happened to us and why we “can’t” Do The Thing we very clearly want to do. It’s a perverse form of self-protection, but our brains are wired for survival, not for happiness.
A lot of what you describe is a prime example of this phenomena: that inner voice is, functionally, telling stories. You’re telling yourself a story about what will happen, based on the story you tell yourself about what has happened and why it will definitely happen again. They’re stories you tell yourself that create that permission structure to Not Do The Thing; you’re Not The Guy Who Does This, that you’re here to do other things or that they would only think X, Y or Z about you and so on.
Now, part of the problem here is that — much like depression — this is your jerkbrain talking and dripping poison in your ear. And, again, much like depression, part of what makes this so insidious is that it’s your jerkbrain speaking to you in your own voice, giving you VERY REASONABLE sounding narratives that JUST HAPPEN to coincide with your anxieties and fears. That makes it much, much harder to disregard and ignore because hey, didn’t that happen to you already? Isn’t this a thing that you’ve already experienced? Well, how awful would it be to feel that again? Best to not risk it. Best to not even try.
As I said in that column, part of how you break these beliefs is that you change the story you tell yourself. You can’t change the past, nor do you want to pretend that the past never happened. What you want to do is change the story you tell yourself about your future — the Redemption Story of how you found yourself at your lowest point and were able to climb your way back out. It’s not about making an instantaneous recovery and suddenly being Captain Smooth (and looking like
Dork Dark Peter in Spider-Man 3), it’s about the process of recognizing how these feelings and beliefs are self-imposed and working to overcome them.
One of the most important ways you do this is by challenging that voice and those beliefs with a very simple question: “what if you’re wrong?” Challenging that belief isn’t about proving with charts and graphs that it’s incorrect; it’s about challenging the authority it has over you, the way that you have accepted its validity without question. By saying “what if you’re wrong”, what you’re doing is saying “…why should I listen to you? Why should I believe this? Why shouldn’t I disregard you and Do The Thing anyway?” To misquote the sage, authority resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick. A shadow on the wall. And the moment you start to challenge the validity of that voice, the harder it is for that voice to control you.
One thing that often helps is to give the voice a name and a face. Yes, it’s a part of you, the voice of your own fears and trauma, but externalizing it in this way makes it that much easier to tell it to fuck off. It’s much easier to challenge its authority when you treat it as someone you would never accept as an authority in your external life.
Another thing that helps is to change the story you imagine in your head. If you’re imagining — as all nerds with the Worst Superpower In The World does — all the ways things could go wrong, then play that scenario again… except this time, imagine people’s voices keep changing to childish cartoon voices — something you could never take seriously. If you’re imagining being told off because you dared to ask someone out, imagine them speaking like Soundwave, instead of a person. Or that they have the same high-pitched voice as Rainbow Dash or Elmira from Tiny Toons. Then imagine it again, except this time, every time they insult you, their head inflates like a balloon, until it gets caught by a breeze and they just float away. Or imagine it happening, except upside down and backwards. The more you separate those scenarios from reality — and the more absurd you make them — the harder it is for you to take them seriously as an emotional threat.
Once you’ve finished imagining all the various absurdities you care to think of… imagine it the way you want it to go. It goes smoothly, folks like you and are happy to talk to you and hey, looks like you got a phone number! Or a date!
It’s also worth telling yourself a different story about your history. Sure, your friend — who, I must stress, was an asshole — betrayed you and hurt you. But you can also look around and see the folks around you who haven’t betrayed your trust. You can see the people who’ve been in your life who’ve been patient and kind and caring. You can even fold this into your personal redemption story — someone who learns to trust and let others in, like a feral cat learning to accept love and care. Framing things like this makes it possible for you to see how things could be different and to choose those outcomes, instead of the ones your jerkbrain whispers to you.
What complicates things is that it sounds like you’ve got a physical component to these self-limiting beliefs; you’ve actually put yourself into a panic attack over a theoretical. That sounds to my absolutely-positively-NOT-a-real-doctor ass like an anxiety disorder, above and beyond bog-standard issues with approach anxiety or fear of rejection. If that’s the case, then that’s emphatically something to discuss with your therapist. Part of why this can complicate things is how much our brains and bodies interact and amplify one another. The physical effects of an anxiety disorder can make those intrusive thoughts that much worse, and — as you’ve found — those thoughts can trigger physical effects that can cascade into full-blown panic attacks. You may be hurting your own feelings, as it were, but that doesn’t change just how awful those effects are.
We are bad at understanding why we feel the way we do; rather than our emotions causing physical reactions, our brains tend to take in the physical sensations we’re experiencing and flail about for context clues as to why we feel this way. Are our hearts pounding and our adrenal glands pumping fight-or-flight juice into our bloodstream because there’s a tiger in the brush nearby, or is it because we’re standing so close Lupita Nyong’o? Are we scared for our lives or falling in love? The physical sensations are the same; the context makes a difference. And since the brain can trigger physical symptoms and physical symptoms can cause particular thoughts or feelings, the two can reinforce each other and make life a hell of a lot harder.
If you’re having anxiety attacks and such, then handling the physical symptoms can go a long, long way towards calming your emotional anxieties. Controlling your breathing is a big one. When you start to panic, you tend to take faster, shorter breaths and your heart rate jumps. If you focus on breathing in and out in a slow and measured rhythm — breathing in for five seconds, holding it for five, then breathing out for five seconds — you force your heart to stop racing and let your limbic system calm down. There’re also a number of anti-anxiety medications that can help you get a handle on things and make it much easier to function in day to day life. Beta-blockers, for instance, help keep your heart-rate under control, which helps short-circuit anxiety spikes. None of these are going to fix any anxiety issues on their own, but they will go a long, long way towards making life less of a minefield for you.
(And again: Dr. NerdLove is VERY EMPHATICALLY NOT A DOCTOR, so talk to your therapist about any possible medications that may help.)
However, there’s one more thing you need to do if you want to start breaking these fears: you need to be willing to forgive yourself for having them.
Yeah, I know, this sounds absurd and blame-y, but stick with me for a second. Part of what makes dealing with these anxieties and self-limiting beliefs so difficult is that we tend to judge ourselves for having them in the first place. We feel both angry and embarrassed over the fact that we feel this way and we castigate ourselves for it. Look at how weak you are, can’t even look at a girl, how much of a chicken shit are you that you THINK yourself into a panic attack, etc. etc. Unfortunately, we are often our own worst enemies, and nobody — not our parents, not our friends, not our worst bullies — will ever beat us down as hard or as thoroughly as we will beat ourselves for our perceived failures and weaknesses.
But as I’ve said many times before: you can’t shame yourself into self-improvement. No amount of yelling, screaming or berating yourself is going to make you get better.
Forgiveness, on the other hand, will. Forgiveness is about accepting the past and the present — yes, you experienced this, you reacted by doing that — and telling yourself that it’s ok. That what you experienced and how it affected you doesn’t make you weak or cowardly or worthless; it makes you someone who went through some shit and responded as best you could. You — like so many others — made the best choices that you could, with the information and experience you had at the time. Those choices seemed right at the time, but they no longer serve you — if they ever did. So you forgive yourself for making decisions that were less than perfect and for responding to pain and fear in natural and understandable ways. And while all of that sucked, it got you to this point, here and now, when you’re ready and able to let go of the past and make a change.
That’s not sad or pitiful; this has been your path towards improvement. Would it have been nice to have overcome this earlier? Of course it would have, who are we kidding? But you weren’t in a place where that was possible yet; you had to get to where you are now, first. And now that you’re here, you’re doing the work and starting the climb out of the pit, the first tentative steps on your Redemption Story. Will it be easy? No; it’s going to be a challenge. You’ll be trying to undo years — a literal lifetime, from the sounds of it — of anxiety and pain. That’s always going to be rough. Healing — even when you’re working with a therapist — is always a challenge. But the point of a challenge is that challenges can be overcome. Healing and forgiveness are signs of inner strength.
Keep working with your therapist, PB. Talk to them about whether medication would help and is appropriate in your case and ways you can help calm yourself in the moment. Challenge that inner voice and refuse to let it have authority. But more than anything else: forgive yourself for having a perfectly normal and natural reaction to pain and for taking longer than you would have preferred to heal. You’re digging yourself out of that pit, pulling yourself from your darkest hour, step by step and inch by inch.
You’ve got this.