Doctor NerdLove looks back at his worst years—plagued with anxiety and loneliness—and shares the tools that helped him succeed in dating.
Getting better at dating is hard enough.
It gets even harder when it feels like your own mind is fighting back against your attempts to improve yourself.
When I was younger, I used to be a chronic insomniac. I’d be physically tired, but I could never actually get to sleep; my body would be exhausted but I could never get my brain to quiet down long enough for me to relax and pass out. Every night became an exercise in what I called “riding the maelstrom”1—a mental whirlpool of worst-case scenarios, self-recrimination, anxieties and doubts. I would start to drift off to sleep when suddenly I would remember something stupid I’d done that day—“Why did I say that to Emily, oh Christ I’m such a fucking idiot, no wonder I can’t get a girlfriend see this is why you’re a loser. I really like Amy but she probably has a boyfriend and if I go make a move I’m just going to get shot down and then everybody’s going to know that I tried to hook up with her and I’m never going to hear the end of it and…”
Being awake wasn’t much better, to be honest. At least half of my internal monologue involved dwelling on all of my counter-productive anxieties and self-limiting beliefs, a seemingly never ending stream of voices reminding me why I sucked and how nothing would ever work out for me. Trying to force myself past all of that was exhausting.
Going by my inbox, I can tell that many of you have the same issue. At least half of the emails I get come from people who want to improve but just can’t get past all of those nagging voices of failure and self sabotage.
So it’s time to start looking into some mind control and learning how to shut out all of those nagging thoughts and voices.
The Body Rules The Mind
A fun thing about our brains: as much as it controls the body, it is also controlled by it. The brain (and by extension, our mind) responds to external stimuli and decides which sort of reaction is appropriate. Of course, one set of physical stimuli can have many different causes; the autonomic responses for sexual arousal—shortness of breath, heart palpitations, sweaty palms, tightness in the stomach—are very similar to those caused by fear. The brain feels these symptoms and checks: are you afraid for your life? Is there a lion in the brush? No, but there’s a pretty woman in talking to you – ergo, you’re not afraid, you must be interested in her. In fact, fear can actually lead to increased attraction; this is known as misattribution of arousal—when the brain conflates the physical symptoms of the fear response with sexual attraction to a person. At the same time, certain states of emotional distress have physical effects on the body: anxiety causes increased heart rate and the production of cortisol in the blood, for example. If you can control the physical reactions, you can control your emotional state. This is why people who suffer from panic attacks are encouraged to learn breath control—when you breathe slowly and deliberately, you slow your heart rate, which in tun calms you down.
So part of mind control means learning to control your body… and one of the best ways to do that is to practice yoga.
Hatha yoga—-the most common form of yoga practiced in the United States—emphasizes stretches and low-impact physical exercise via structured poses (known as asanas) in combination with controlled breathing. In addition to improving balance, strength and flexibility, studies have shown that hatha yoga helps to reduce the physical effects of anxiety by reducing the body’s stress responses: lowering the heart rate and blood pressure while slowing one’s rate of respiration. By causing the body to relax, yoga exercises help you feel calmer and less anxious; the brain notes the state of the body and assumes that all is well.
In addition, yoga has been shown to help ease depression and improve mood and increase an overall sense of well-being—all of which goes to help you feel more confident and secure.
The great thing about yoga is that it’s low-impact, easy to learn and simple to practice. All you need is a little free space on the floor and some free time. There are yoga studios all over and many gyms have branched out into offering classes as well; there are also many instructional videos for sale.
Learn To Empty Your Mind
One reason why it’s so hard to shut off those self-limiting beliefs and nagging voices that love to tell you how hard you’re about to fail is because we have very little practice in controlling our minds at all. Anyone who’s ever tried to not think of something—an elephant on a pogo-stick for example, or a song that’s embedded itself in your brain—can tell you just how impossible it is to shut it out.
Except it’s not impossible; we’re just not used to it. More often than not, we’ve never made a conscious, continual effort to learn how to control our minds. We’re so used to the 24/7 stream of nonsense, doggerel and negative thoughts that our brains spew forth that we hardly pay attention to it, much less do anything about it. As a result, we’re the mental equivalents of the 90 pound weakling trying to bench press a 300 lb barbell. Small wonder why we can’t close out that annoying voice of self-doubt that keeps telling us we’re going to fail and we’re worthless and awkward. So how do we learn to control our own minds and mute all that constant noise?
Meditation. The simple art of learning how to reign in your brain, rather than letting it bounce all around like a meth-addicted squirrel. This isn’t about achieving some altered state of consciousness or attuning into another plane of being… it’s about peace, relaxation and focus. Psychologists and neurologists have been studying the effects of meditation on the brain for a while now, and it’s had surprising benefits. People who meditate regularly tend to be calmer and feel more in control—so much so that many psychologists have prescribed meditation for people who suffer anxiety attacks. It helps you be more aware of your emotions and desires, which then makes it much easier to control them and reign them in. It helps you to be present and in the now, rather than what-if’ing yourself into paralysis.
All of this can be a great help when you’re trying to get past your self-limiting beliefs and approach anxiety, as well as make you a calmer, happier individual in general.
There are many different styles of meditation, and even apps for your smartphone that provide guided meditation exercises. The simplest, however, put the emphasis on focusing your attention to a single point – whether it’s chanting a mantra or visualizing a candle flame2 and emptying your mind to concentrate only on your focus object and your breathing.
It can be difficult to learn at first – as I said, most of us have next to no experience in trying to leash our brains, and when you get started, you’ll find that you will get distracted over and over again. This is perfectly natural – just allow the distractions to wash over you, then start over again. With time and practice, you’ll find that clearing your mind and narrowing your focus will come much more easily to you.
Embrace Your Flaws
While you work on the physical and mental aspects of mind control, you should also pay attention to the emotional aspects. Much of our self-recrimination and negative attitudes comes from our frustration with the fact that we’re not perfect, that we all fall short of where we wish we were.
And yet, all that beating yourself up over these imperfections does absolutely nothing for us except to make us even more self-conscious of them. Getting upset about the fact that you’re uneasy and a little awkward in large groups does nothing other than keep these problems in the forefront of your mind. Now it becomes more than just you’re a little introverted, it’s that you’re hyperaware of being introverted. It’s the emotional equivalent of asking a golfer whether he inhales on the backswing or the drive—you’re distracted by your flaws to the point that it is all you can think of, and this only serves to make them even worse because of the anticipation
This is why you want to embrace these flaws—accept that you have them and forgive yourself for not being the perfect super-being you feel like you should be. Coming to terms with the fact that you’re not exactly who you want to be or that you need work takes so much of the tension and anxiety out that you’ll be amazed that you were able to even move before.
Now, this is not to say that you should give up on trying to improve yourself—that’s a different issue altogether. What you want to do is accept that you have your problems and that’s ok… and that you’re striving to become the person that you want to be.
It’s hard to accept that perfection is a continually moving target, not a fixed destination; no matter how good you are at something or how much you’ve learned, there’s always more to know. You will never achieve perfection, but the glory is in understanding that and working for it anyway.
This, incidentally, is one of the hardest issues I’ve had to accept. Once I began to understand, I had the 63rd hexagram of the I Ching—“after completion” tattooed on my forearm as a reminder to celebrate each triumph… but understand there’s always more to go.
Pain is Unavoidable, Suffering is Optional
One thing that people tend to forget, especially when in the throes of reminding themselves of all of their fuck-ups and failures, is that ultimately, they get to decide how to view a situation.
There was a point early on when I was working towards getting better with women when it seemed like everything I did went catastrophically wrong. I’d go downtown with the intention of just meeting as many women as possible and freeze up as soon as I walked through the door to the bar. My attempts at starting conversations were laughable at best—made all the more so by trying to use material that I didn’t understand or was completely incongruous for who I was—and the less said about my attempts to turn a phone number into a date, the better. It was a stunning indictment of my supposed progress from loser to ladies man and would send me scurrying home with my metaphorical tail tucked between my legs and masturbating out of anger because it seemed like the thing to do at the time.
What made the mental switch for me was the realization that I had a choice in how I interpreted what was happening. I could—and had been, up to that point—see it as proof that I was a loser who was foolish for thinking he could change… or I could see it as progress. Yes, I got approach anxiety from a fucking bar—not a woman but trying to enter a bar—but that was even more than I would have done a month previous, never mind a year or even two years. I was getting shot down when I asked girls out… but at least I was asking them out.
The more I came to understand that yes, my failures stung but that didn’t mean that I had to see them as proof that I was a failure, the easier it became. I could recognize that I wasn’t failing, I was learning. It was, admittedly, a very painful trial-and-error process but I chose to view my situation as taking one step closer to getting where I wanted to be rather than dwelling on how hard it was and the unfairness of it all. It would hurt at the time, but I didn’t have to suffer over it.
Which is not to say that suddenly everything fell into place and I never had a bad day since; being able to reframe a situation to be positive or progress can be difficult and takes time to become a habit. But once it did, those nagging self-doubts and insecurities started to lose their hold over my psyche. Yeah, I may have acted like an idiot trying to get that one girl to go out with me… but it taught me a lot about what I was doing wrong. I may have embarrassed the shit out of myself at that bar that one time but that would eventually become a story I’d love to tell because pain + time = comedy gold.
Much of our anxiety and misery and self-doubt gains it’s power from the fact that we allow it to happen.
It doesn’t have to.
You can master it.
You can take control.
Originally appeared at Paging Doctor NerdLove
Photo courtesy of Flickr/MCAD Library