You know that delicious feeling when you’re with someone who knows you, has seen all those ugly warts, and loves you, not in spite of but because of the real you? Like your Mom or your best bud or your Great Uncle Louie who swallows you in a giant bear hug and makes you feel special.
When you’re with them, the real you shines so brilliantly, it’s blinding. You’re insightful and charming and intuitive and unbelievably profound. Completely at ease. That’s how I want you to feel on a first date. Yeah, right. And I might as well ask you to memorize War and Peace so that you have something literary to talk about!
I know it sounds like a trip to fantasyland to imagine you could actually be so cool, calm, and collected that your date would see the real you from the first hello, but that’s exactly what I’m going to explain how to do. Relax, it’s simple — not easy, but simple. Realistically, it’s unlikely that anybody would ever feel that secure, but what to be sure not to do is to offer a brittle, unrealistic, misleading picture of who you are and that’s what panic is likely to do for you.
Understanding the Psychology of Stress
In previous chapters, I discuss the physiology of stress: how your body shifts into the fight-or-flight mode and pumps you up with adrenaline when you face a tense situation. Later in this chapter, I give you step-by-step instructions on how to calm those heart-racing, stomach-churning, mouth-drying, palm-sweating symptoms. Now, though, I want you to explore the other side — the psychology of stress.
Stress is your system’s response to being overtaxed by anxiety due to excess drink, sun, food, work, or even fun — too much of anything, even good stuff, stretches the boundaries. Stress is a spring that’s wound too tightly. It’s your body’s equivalent of a flashing yellow light, a Caution sign, or a Slippery when Wet warning.
When you’re just getting to know someone, your senses rally all their resources to help you evaluate whether this human being is a friend or foe. Intuition, past experiences, present observations, your ability to trust — they all come into play and keep cooking as new “cues” come your way. Until you’ve had enough positive cues to convince you that — whew! — this person is okay (he or she isn’t going to hurt me, humiliate me, or leave me holding the check), you’re
going to feel a tad stressed, and the yellow light continues to flash, meaning you’re not ready to let your guard down just yet.
You can reduce your anxiety by understanding that stress is a natural and useful response to an unknown and potentially scary situation. Instead of dismissing your stress, you can leave yourself on guard and then, as you feel
more confident, allow less and less of a barrier between the two of you, which is the whole point of dating. It’s okay to leave this wall of protection in place for a while, while you peek around to see what’s on the other side.
The stress wall
A stress wall is a barrier most people build to keep strangers from getting too close too soon. It keeps others at arm’s length. Like small talk, the walls we construct to protect ourselves have gotten a bum rap. When built properly (out of movable and removable building blocks rather than cement), emotional walls serve a very handy purpose. They keep dashing, yet deadly, Attila the Huns from jabbing a spear into the center of your heart, or nineheaded Hydras from swimming across your emotional moat and slithering into your life. The notion that instant vulnerability is a desirable trait is dangerous, indeed. After all, we’re not in Eden anymore.
What I’m trying to get at is the sense that some feelings of stress are a normal and essential part of being alive, and — dare I say it? — of staying alive. Dating, by its very nature, is one big, fat unknown. It’s okay to feel a bit of trepidation.
It’s good to drive cautiously with your eyes on the road and your hands at “ten and two” on the steering wheel. What’s not productive, however, is to work yourself into a tizzy because you’re suddenly convinced a serial killer must lurk in the soul of anyone who would date you or that a vengeful ex in an eighteen wheeler is about to cross the median and obliterate you.
If your family life was a roller coaster ride (see the sidebar “Stress history”), you’re probably feeling the same sort of thrill/terror right now as you get ready for your date to begin. You’re likely running a teeny bit late, you’re not totally sure what you’re going to wear, and you think you know where you’re going. What you’re doing, in essence, is re-creating the same chaos you experienced as a child because that’s familiar. In this time of stress, you’re regressing to the comfortable days when, even though your family life was nutty, you knew your way around.
I can hear you now: “Just a minute, Dr. Joy . . . I’m running late because my boss called me into her office just as I was leaving.” You haven’t settled on an outfit because you weren’t sure what the weather would be. For heaven’s sake, you’re a grown-up. You don’t need to pin the directions to your sleeve — you’re pretty sure you know where you’re going!
All fine and accurate, but irrelevant. They’re cool excuses, but excuses nonetheless.
You don’t have to do this anymore. You don’t have to replay your old family scenes in your current life. You can tell your boss you have an appointment, you can wear a jacket if the weather’s cold, you can drive with confidence because you know where you’re going. You can feel cool, calm, and collected before a date. It’s a choice you can make a little more upfront so that you can sweat a little less later. Your choice: cool short-term or cool long-term (Hint: always go for the long-term — it lasts longer). If you want to never let ’em see you sweat, sweat when they’re not around. Nothing comes easily to everyone. Trust me on this.
Easing Your Mind
Stress is overtaxing the system — in this case, a physical response to an emotional state. One way to minimize the physical symptoms (discomfort, sweaty palms, rapid heart beat, anxiety, queasy stomach) is to ease your mind, and
your body will follow suit. Dealing with your emotions, fears, and worries is probably your best defense against freaking — you know, that state in which even the smallest inconvenience or most insignificant problem can send you
over the edge.
Mind over what’s-the-matter
Stress can be a snowball. If you’re not careful, it’s easily an avalanche. If one thing goes wrong when you’ve let yourself become really tense, you’re suddenly tossing your hands up in the air and ready to forfeit the whole game. Don’t go there. Instead, it’s time for a reality check. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What do I really feel? Have I jammed a couple of unrelated memories and fears together to make a stress sandwich? Stop and ask yourself what’s the worst that could possibly happen? Believe it or not, allowing your fear to be specific rather than abstract, putting a face on your fear as it were, can really help because doing so defines, and then lessens, the fear. The bogeyman thrives in the dark.
- Are my nerves talking, or am I? How many times have you tripped over your tongue or your good manners and said to yourself, “I can’t believe I just said that!” If it should happen to you on your date (and it happens to everyone), ’fess up right away. Apologize. Tell your date you were momentarily possessed. Just don’t let one faux pas fester into an ugly, giant, oozing ball of stress.
- Am I trying to make sure my date doesn’t get too close? Intimacy is a scary thing. If you find yourself running for the dugout before the seventh inning stretch, get back in the game and see how it ends up.
- Is this just old family baggage I’m keeping alive? If you notice that you seem to be falling back on tired old patterns left over from childhood to make you feel comfortable, give yourself a good talking to. Take a deep breath and tell yourself you’re safe. It’s okay to feel a little afraid. Don’t worry — you’ll hold your hand every step of the way.
Looking at every dater’s fears
- Everyone who dates feels anxiety or stress sooner or later (usually sooner). After all, dating isn’t meant to be boring. In earlier sections, I explain the source of stress and give you techniques for coping with it. In this section, I identify the fears experienced by anyone who has dallied in the dating world so that you’ll know that you’re not the only one beset by insecurities and worries. Then I give some tips for dealing with these fears.
- I’ll say the wrong thing. If you worry that you’ll say, “I see,” to someone with really bad vision or, “I’m in a really foul mood,” to someone who looks like a duck, or make a Freudian slip or burp or blurt out the wrong name when addressing your date, join the club. It happens all the time. Just take a deep breath, apologize once, and explain that you’re nervous.
- I’ll do the wrong thing. You set your menu on fire by the votive candle or swallow down the wrong pipe and spend the next five minutes choking, gasping, and wiping your eyes; ask an usher for a program only to discover she’s really another audience member who, for some reason, thought wearing a black-collared red vest to a play would be a good idea; or mispronounce the name of something on the menu.
- Everybody periodically makes mistakes — and sometimes very silly ones. So why obsess about it? Relax. You’re human. If your date is cool about it, it can become part of your lore; if not, aren’t you glad you found out now?
- Broccoli will get stuck in my front teeth. You could avoid smiling all evening just in case, but what’s the fun in that? Run your tongue over your teeth occasionally, check the mirror in the restroom, or don’t order anything green. And relax. Better to take your chances with stuck broccoli rather than fidget all evening, unless you’re dating a broccoli bigot.
- I’ll get my period. Only if you wear white — just kidding. The point is, nerves rev the system. It’s natural and normal. Carry change or protection and don’t sweat it. If you’re worried, wear a panty liner just in case.
- I hate my date. You’re going out because you hope to have a nice time and good company. But what happens if your date turns out to be a huge boor, intolerably arrogant, or — eek! — the spawn of Satan. You remember that it’s only one night and see Chapter 16 to find out how to handle this situation.
- My date hates me. As charming and warm and funny and wonderful as you are, you’re occasionally going to stumble across a few people who just don’t like you. As hard as it may be to imagine, that’s life. If you want tips on extricating yourself from this situation with the minimum of pain.
- Regardless of what your fear is, try to put it in perspective and then put it behind you. Even the most embarrassing blunders are seldom fatal. Plus they make great stories later.
Relaxing body and soul
Just before your date begins, I want you to try the following relaxation technique to make sure your body and mind are in a relaxed state. Later, as a sort of “booster shot” during your date, I want you to periodically do a relaxation “spot check.” (It’s okay to go to the restroom to relax.) You may want to scribble a few of these steps on a piece of paper to tuck into your pocket or purse.