A Psychologist Gives 8 Tips To Anyone Suffering From Dating Anxiety

Research unveils three fears that lie at the core of dating anxiety. Here's how you can overcome them.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | August 20, 2023

A study published in The Family Journal highlights a fear at the core of dating anxiety that hardly ever comes up when addressing the issue: the fear of rejecting others. While the fear of being evaluated negatively (or being rejected) is often cited as the driving force behind dating anxiety, the study talks about three distinct fear-based motivations behind one's reluctance to put themselves out there.

"Dating anxiety becomes an actual cause for concern when the degree of anxiety experienced causes significant distress that makes dating difficult to enjoy or tolerate, and when dating-related activities are altogether avoided because of anxiety," explains psychologist Myles Rizvi of Pacific University, Hillsboro in Oregon. "When anxiety prevents people from exploring and forming relationships with others, and meeting their needs regarding physical, emotional, and intellectual intimacy, I would consider that to be clinically significant dating anxiety."

The study cites three root fears that could be fueling one's dating anxiety:

  1. Dating-Specific Fear of Negative Evaluation is a subset of the larger Fear of Negative Evaluation which involves a preoccupation with others' evaluation of oneself, feeling distressed over it, and constantly worry that one will be evaluated negatively by others. Dating-Specific Fear of Negative Evaluation, as the name suggests, is limited to the context of dating."People generally want to make a good impression with a potential partner to form connection and belonging and have our needs met, and negative evaluation by potential romantic partners is feared due to the belief it will lead to rejection, abandonment, and preclusion of needs being met," explains Rizvi.
  2. Fear of Positive Evaluation. A fear of being evaluated positively may seem counterintuitive but, according to Rizvi, the empirically-supported idea instills a fear of the resultant progressive expectations a favorable evaluation may place on the person who is being viewed positively. We are able to see this tendency play out most clearly in self-proclaimed "commitment-phobes" who fear not being able to live up to the increasing emotional and sexual expectations that come with dating and being in a relationship.
  3. Fear of Rejecting Others. This is the idea Rizvi's study attempted to test as a contributing factor to dating anxiety. This construct involves feelings of resistance towards dating due to the prospect of having to reject potential partners whether by declining their romantic advances or breaking up with them. According to the researchers, the fear might be fueled by fears of reprisal, guilt for hurting the pursuers' feelings, as well as the fear of being seen as cruel or unkind.

The degrees to which the study's 122 college participants experienced these fears were recorded with the help of three distinct scales designed specifically to measure each of them.

"Our most critical finding was that the fear of rejecting others was significantly and positively correlated with dating-specific fear of negative evaluation, supporting our hypothesis that people who fear being negatively evaluated and rejected by potential romantic partners are also afraid of being the ones to reject them," highlights Rizvi.

Rizvi's study successfully highlights the importance of the fear of rejecting others as a clinically important cognitive feature of dating anxiety.

"Cognitive (e.g., cognitive restructuring and reframing) and behavioral (e.g., exposure therapy) interventions would require tailoring to address fears of rejecting others," explains Rizvi. "Rejecting others requires a recognition that one's feelings and desires matter just as much as others, and the salience of Fear of Rejecting Others strongly indicates the incorporation of assertiveness training when treating dating anxiety."

For anyone who faces intense anxiety when trying to date someone new, Rizvi has seven additional pieces of advice:

  1. It's okay not to be okay. Rizvi reminds those with dating anxiety, first and foremost, that dating anxiety is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, he speaks to the universality of the phenomenon, emphasizing that the person or persons you might be interested in are possibly just as anxious as you, if not more so.
  2. Excitement over anxiety. Dating anxiety hardly ever gives people a chance to get excited about the prospect of dating. Rizvi recommends reflecting on what you hope to accomplish on the date and the experiences you intend to have when you're out with someone instead of harping on all the things that could go wrong.
  3. Give yourself permission to set boundaries. Setting boundaries can help you get more clarity about what you want and do not want from the dating experience. Anxiety can sometimes make you hesitant when it comes to setting boundaries due to the fear of being evaluated negatively. This can include actions like communicating how much time you would like to take to get to know them before taking the relationship to the "next level" emotionally and physically.
  4. Embrace the uncertainty. People with anxiety might assume that in order to be involved with someone romantically, they must be 100% certain about their choice. However, Rizvi reminds people that the point of dating is to explore and experiment which entails being open to new experiences and personalities.
  5. Step-by-step exposure. Borrowing a page from exposure therapy, Rizvi encourages people with anxiety to expose themselves to the dating process in a step-by-step fashion. For instance, if the thought of going on a date overwhelms you, you can start by creating an online dating profile and simply looking through profiles. The next step would be to start a text conversation, moving on to setting up a date, and so on.
  6. Rejection is survivable. If you are on the receiving end of rejection, allow yourself to go through the disappointment but also give yourself credit for having taken the risk. Independent of the rejection, you are now a step closer to getting what you want from the dating process and your most compatible match. If you had to do the rejecting, remind yourself that respecting your choices and preferences is a good thing and that, at the end of the day, you are saving yourself and the other person precious time and energy.
  7. Ask for help. Consulting a therapist who specializes in treating anxiety can be an empowering reminder that you do not have to overcome this problem alone. A qualified professional can help you build the skills, strategies and confidence you need to manage your dating anxiety.

"Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) are evidence-based treatments for anxiety-related concerns can be particularly effective in treating dating anxiety," adds Rizvi. "Exposure therapy is one of the most powerful clinical interventions for anxiety-related concerns, including dating anxiety, and I emphatically recommend incorporating exposure therapy into any intervention addressing dating anxiety."

A full interview with psychologist Myles Rizvi discussing his research can be found here: Research discovers a lesser known fear people with dating anxiety have to suffer through