“I love this bit when you’ve just met someone,” a newly and blissfully coupled-up friend told me over brunch “it’s so exciting”.
As she fired off another message to her Bumble conquest I marvelled at her breezy demeanour. Whilst she revelled in the giddy highs of a new relationship, my own dating life seemed a veritable circus of horrors.
“How’s that guy you’re seeing?” she asked, and a familiar terror reared at the thought of my own faltering fling.
The tell-tale signs of my mental health struggles were always there: the endless desire for perfection, my compulsive analysis of social situations, my self-flagellating response to every minor misstep. After graduating from university the fear of failing to achieve excellence gnawed at me. At first it was quiet, a murmur in the back of my mind, but it quickly rose to the crescendo of an impossible to ignore symphony.
As my anxiety escalated from nauseating to completely paralysing a small part of me encouraged it. I was convinced that this constant loop of self-critical thought paid off—without my preoccupation with achieving the best grades I wouldn’t have won a spot at a top university. The crippling dread of an unremarkable job drove me to secure my dream career. Anxiety was both my worst enemy and my greatest cheerleader, my oldest and most toxic friend.
Perhaps predictably my relationships bore the brunt of this ostensible frenemy. Opening yourself up to someone can be frightening for the most secure of people. To me it’s inviting a stranger to confirm my worst fears about myself.
“It’s not you, it’s him,” my friends would tell me over a glass of Pinot and Bridget Jones.
“It’s you,” my anxiety said, just a little bit louder.
Dating in the Tinder-age is particularly triggering for anyone struggling with their mental health. When the next better thing is a mere right swipe away rejection is expected, to be blocked out by seeking more matches, more dates, more distractions from the niggling sense of being not quite good enough.
Speaking to my dating-app-active friends confirms that this issue isn’t just for the perpetually anxious.
“I don’t get excited anymore,” one told me, “you just expect to get ghosted”.
The ever-overhanging possibility of failing to illicit so much as a response from someone you’ve shared your bed, your innermost thoughts, and a few too many glasses of cheap red wine with makes easy to get caught up in a cycle of over-analysing.
Each telling blue WhatsApp tick divulging that your message has gone read but unanswered could spell the end. You re-read conversations and scour through your last meeting for any subtext that your love interest could be planning a spectral escape. A response brings relief, but it’s temporary. One carefully worded comeback later and you’re checking your read receipts for the next sign that it’s over.
Unsurprisingly my anxiety made me difficult to date. I was sure that each unsuccessful relationship was a reflection on me, and that if only I could somehow do better I would be rewarded.
I became fixated on becoming the cool girl who I was convinced that everyone wanted to be with. I careered wildly from being aloof and guarded to desperately vulnerable as I tried to mimic versions of myself I thought others would want me to be. I looked up partners’ exes on Facebook, just so that I could tell myself over and over again that they were better than me.
I needed constant reassurance, which drove me towards frighteningly possessive people. In one particularly low moment I sobbed through a police statement after an ex stalked and harassed me, threatening self-harm if I rejected him before pouring sexually violent expletives down the phone.
“You must have done something to end up here,” my anxiety told me, “you deserve this.”
Throughout this, the old Hollywood trope of highly-strung women who let loose when they find “The One” sat heavy: Sandra Bullock in The Proposal or Cameron Diaz in The Holiday. A cultural narrative proclaims that when somebody makes us feel good enough our issues will melt away. Anxieties and insecurities become a plot device wedged in to convince us that love is the antidote to our supposed flaws.
It won’t come as a spoiler that this is not how my story ends. I’ve dated people who couldn’t have done more to make me feel amazing. Did it alleviate my conviction that I wasn’t good enough and they were about to leg it out the door any second? You can bet your right-swiping thumb it didn’t.
Instead, shortly after the end of a relationship that felt like being forever on the edge of some terrible and inexplicable disaster, I finally began to seek help for my mental health.
Learning to manage the negative chatter I constantly contend with has changed the way I date. Relationships have become, for the first time, enjoyable, and not just another way of measuring myself up against an impossibly high standard, feeding my hungry and gleeful anxiety each time I fall short. When I meet people it’s finally becoming about me and them. My perception of myself takes a quieter back seat.
Although I’m yet to fall head over heels, my struggle with anxiety has been a love story of another kind. It’s been learning to love myself, to appreciate my successes, and be less tough on my failures. It’s been knowing my own value, rather than relying on the affirmation of others, or on totting up my sexual worth like it’s a points system based on how many second dates I score.
In spite of what the game-like nature of online dating might suggest, relationships are not a thing that you can win or lose at. A new match notification or getting asked out by that hot-but-definitely-a-fuckboy guy you’ve exchanged a stream of witty messages with is not a reward. Equally, getting ghosted by someone who isn’t mature enough to have an honest conversation is not a punishment.
Being kind to yourself is not just a lesson for the endlessly anxious—it’s a lesson to all of us still riding the dating rollercoaster. Have fun, stay safe, and show a little love for yourself. Maybe eventually you will share that love with someone else too.