Love, Anxiety, and Fear

Izzybelle
asks:
I want to find out if I'm alone. I know I'm not, but I feel that I need proof that shows I'm not the only one dealing with this. I have anxiety, OCD, and phobias, and I'm also very emotionally sensitive. That doesn't sound like much, but it actually is a big deal. I am terrified of romantic relationships. Before I knew I had this fear, I went to the movies with a guy and he wanted to hold my hand. I'm not capable of saying no, so I said yes. When I got home, I started to spasm and shake. I didn't know why but I know now that it was because I am scared of anything romantic. I also am really sensitive when it comes to friendships. I am the kind of person that thinks my friend doesn't like me anymore if they haven't texted me in a month or even a week (my friend lives halfway across the country). I always assume that my friend(s) don't/doesn't care about me and I realized that I need constant physical reminders that they do, such as a text or a phone call.
Sam W replies:

Izzybelle's question continued:

A few years ago, I met a guy and we became really close friends. After a year, we stopped being friends because I felt (my parents also felt this way) that he didn't care about me; he never texted me (literally never) and he never wanted to hang out, but I was blind and I didn't see that. He really hurt me and left me scarred. When I wasn't with him, he treated me like nothing, and when I was with him, he would treat me like I was the only girl in the world. That's all he did to me. But because of how emotionally sensitive I am, I am now terrified of him and any place we went together. I deleted any photos I had of him and any other trace or contact I would have of him.

I am hoping that I am not alone being scared of romantic relationships for no reason at all.

Before I say anything else, let me address your statement that you're scared of relationships "for no reason at all." You are dealing with anxiety, the kind that's (most likely) wired into your brain and body. Anxiety is a powerful creature, and it is, from your description, the driving force behind the fear you feel around connecting with other people. Anxiety is a survival strategy gone haywire, a liar, and a pain. But it is not nothing. So, if you can, do not make yourself feel worse by making your story one about a person who is afraid for no reason. Yes, anxiety is all in your head, but that doesn't mean it's without real consequences.

The good news is, you're not alone. Anxiety disorders are among the most commonly diagnosed mental health issues, so there are plenty of people reading this who can relate to what you're feeling.

The bad news is that knowing you're not alone does not necessarily make having anxiety and its cousins any easier. In fact, anxiety is quite good at isolating us from other people.

So what can you do?

You've got some heavy stuff to deal with, and some of that is ultimately beyond the scope of what I can help with. If you are not already doing so, seeking out a therapist or other mental healthcare provider is a sound move. Counseling doesn't work for everyone, and sometimes it takes multiple tries before you find a therapist who clicks with you. But it's certainly worth trying, if for no other reason that to have someone who is trained to recognize when it's your anxiety brain speaking and help you work out tools for making that voice quieter.

If you are already seeing a counselor, talk with them about your fears and worries around relationships (both romantic and platonic) and see if the two of you can come up with some strategies for what to do when you start being overwhelmed by these fears. Too, talk about what to do when you start getting stuck in the reassurance cycle of your anxiety brain trying to convince you that no one likes you.

The reason for this is that, even in your letter, I see that need for reassurance. It makes sense, of course, because anxiety is great at telling you that unless you get evidence right now that x bad thing is not true, it must mean that x bad thing is absolutely true and is also all your fault. But when you show it the evidence, it's never good enough, never solid enough, there's always room for the "what if." Or, as soon as you're not looking at the evidence (a text from a friend, a good test grade, a negative pregnancy test, etc) you start to doubt that the proof was even real. It's a maddening and exhausting cycle to be trapped in. So, looking for ways to break that pattern of reassurance seeking can go a long way to making you feel better over all.

You may also want to sit down and articulate for yourself (your therapist can help you, or you can do it in a journal or other space where you can just set your mind loose and see where it goes) what the source of your fears around romance and intimacy. The more you can do to understand where they're coming from, the more prepared you can be to deal with them. You may also want to leave time after these self-exploration sessions for some self-care, since digging into your own brain that way can be very draining.

But at the same time, it's not realistic of me to say that all of your fear is self generated. Because relationships are frightening for a lot of people, regardless of how they're wired. We still have a tendency in western culture to frame relationships, especially romantic ones, as these BIG IMPORTANT THINGS that are also so fragile that a single error will cause you to be alone forever and ever. So, you know, no pressure or anything.

We see this a lot with our users. This fear of making errors in relationships, or of relationships not working out. The fear that having a relationship end means that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. So, let us make the record clear: relationships are things that require work and practice, and they are fluid in a way that means that they often end without anyone being at fault. Some of us have an easier time making and maintaining connections with people, and some of us find it more difficult.

And sometimes, yes, we do in fact screw up a relationship in such a way that means that we lose that other person entirely. That happens, and while it sucks, we can use the knowledge that comes from a lesson learned the hard way to help us be a better friend or partner in the future. Having a relationship end does not mean the world ends too. You're living proof of that, because you've continued after having a relationship come to a close (although it sounds like it didn't end due to you messing up).

Let's take a look at your relationship with the dude friend you mention. It sounds like he was either super clueless to your signals, or he wasn't actually interested in having any type of relationship with you but was stringing you along for whatever reason. It can suck to be a person invested in a relationship while the other person does not reciprocate at all. You've done what you needed to mourn this relationship, and you can continue to do so, but now may also be a good time to focus on what you can do to move forward.

One thing is to try and reclaim some of the spaces you've surrendered, especially if they are places that you enjoy going. If you feel like going there will trigger a major panic attack, talk to a mental health provider ahead of time to figure out a strategy for how to deal with that (and if the fear is so bad that you start to have a panic attack at the mere thought of going back, then you're not quite ready to go back to that specific spot yet, and that's okay). Too, try not going back by yourself. Enlist a friend or family member who you trust to come with you to hang out. If you think you might panic or freeze up, give them a little bit of a heads up and tell them what you would find it helpful for them to do in the event that that happens.

Let's talk not about friendships in general. If you're dealing with a brain that loves to jump to the worst-case scenario, how do you find ways to express your need for closeness with your friends without giving into the anxious urge for constant reassurance. After all, it's not ridiculous or irrational to want at least some evidence that people you like (and who say they like you) really do like you. But if the need to be reminded of that tips beyond a certain point and you're constantly seeking it, you risk your friends becoming exhausted and dialing back contact (it doesn't sound like that's happening to you right now, but it is a dynamic that crops up).

There are a few things you can do to make it so that you're feeling connected to your friends without sacrificing the whole relationship upon the altar of the clingyness demon. One is to try and switch gears in terms of when and how you text or reach out to your friends. Focus on things that make you connect to them on equal footing, like shared interests. Do you follow the same podcasts or TV shows? Ask them about the latest episode. Reading a book you think they'd like? Tell them. Funny story, weird anecdote, or cool piece of news you think they'd appreciate? Share it with them. Odds are, if you do this, they'll do it back to some degree (if they're not already). This kind of communication is part of maintaining the relationship and reaffirming your connection to one another. But it feeds that connection in a way that's about two friends on equal footing talking with each other who have a running dialog going , rather than creating a dynamic in which you feel like you're always the one in need.

Another thing you can do is to, when you start to worry about why they haven't responded to you, remind yourself of all the times that you were delayed in responding to a text, email, or call. What were you doing when that happened? Odds are the answer is something like, "eating dinner," or, "driving", or " being really engrossed in this book/movie/twitter feed" and not "desperately avoiding the person who has contacted me and whom I secretly loathe." This can be hard to do, especially if your anxiety brain is strong, but keep at it. You're building a habit of reminding yourself of the most likely reality rather than the worst case scenario.

Lastly, if you have friends who are nearby, try setting up some type of regular friend dates. That could be anything from a weekly "let's get coffee at the place we both like on this day" to going for a hike together once a month. Something that helps you set aside time to hang out together (with the caveat that sometimes stuff happens, and anyone, including you, can cancel the plan if need be). That way, you're getting regular reminders that the people you like like you (and you get a regular chance to see your friend, which is awesome).

Finally, there will come a point at which you will have to take it on faith that if they act like they like you, then they like you. This can be really difficult, especially if your anxiety brain is the type to make you seek out the subtext in every interaction in order to insure that you not making everyone secretly hate you (and your dude friend did not help this by essentially giving you some mixed signals). Start training yourself to take your friends at their word. Your anxiety brain will fight you on this, but when it does, flip the script on it. Ask what evidence you have that your friends mean anything other than what they say. Odds are you'll feel that voice stammer. When it does, tell it to shut up (this is usually only a temporary fix, but temporary fix is better than nothing in that moment).

In the end, I can't make this anxiety and fear disappear for you. Even you, with every ounce of badassness you can muster, may not be able to rid yourself of it entirely. But what I can say is that, over time and with some tools to help you, this will get easier. You will move forward in life and relationships and find that, even though you stumble, or mess up, or feel fear creep up on you every now and then, that all those feelings are survivable. And that there is ultimately more to enjoy in this world than there is to be afraid of.

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