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Navigating Social Anxiety, Depression and Fears of Romantic Relationships

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Your social anxiety presses you to be alone, and your depression agrees. Like many things, our personal “negative cheering section” or “peanut gallery,” as I call my negative subconscious thoughts, is wholly untrue. Despite what my illnesses tell me, as a budding anthropologist, I know we are social creatures, with complexities unheard of in other parts of the animal kingdom, and a reason why we are so drawn to having long-term relationships.

My experience with relationships have been shaky at best. I’ve never been in a long-term relationship. I’ve had sexual partners, consensual and healthy for all, but always, the want, almost need, for a long-term emotional relationship remained.

I’ve asked myself often, “Why am I so fearful of entering a relationship?” I have an analytical mind, so I try to figure this out without letting negative feelings influence my self-assessment. First and foremost, I’m an honest sort of person and feel like I can’t get close to someone without being up front about my illnesses. I feel like it’s better to communicate this clearly to avoid misunderstandings that might result from my irrational fears, social anxiety, depression or my need to recharge my “introvert batteries.” This goes against a lot of advice you may find in the realm of “dating help” or “relationship advice.” It’s sometimes common to believe you should remain mysterious in some manner to keep the relationship “fresh.” It makes sense, and can work for others, but it doesn’t for me.

On top of these complexities, there is a strong stigma around discussing mental illnesses in a public setting, or even in something as intimate as romantic relationships. It can be off-putting to many, and I’ve lost out many times because of my illnesses. People are either scared away through a sort of ignorance, or they understand, but they don’t feel ready to “take on the challenge.” It is certainly a challenge, I understand: it’s not some mundane daily task to be in a relationship with someone who has a mental illness. It can be difficult. But there are people out there willing to accept the challenge, and that makes them even more special to someone like me.

Here are common fears and barriers to having successful long-term relationship that I want others to understand:

1. My depression tells me I have no worthy qualities: I must be physically unattractive, an awkward conversationalist and no wants to deal with someone with my illnesses.

2. Interactions are always awkward for me, even with my family and friends. When it comes to dating and relationships, my depression pushes me to see only the negative outcomes.

3. At times, my anxiety presses me to just avoid people all together. In my anxious frame of mind, it makes approaching others difficult, especially when attempting things like dating or relationships. I’m the type of person who is so wound up that an accidental bump or physical contact can send me into the sky, if not a panic attack. I even find it difficult to simply hug family and friends. I still do, but it always leaves me with an odd feeling.

4. Rejection scares me. No one enjoys it, even someone without mental illnesses can still suffer when rejected. Social anxiety makes me, and many people with my condition, fear rejection. And not just the rejection itself, but the reasons behind the rejection: from the far-fetched reasons I listed above, to the realistic notion of incompatibility.

So what can I do to navigate those fears?

Primarily, accept rejection. It is difficult and is definitely an area I need to work on. As many close friends have advised me: Just ask. I’ve torn myself to pieces over the possibilities and the “what if’s.” It takes vulnerability to ask, and the answer may be “no” or “maybe,” but that is OK. Despite what the “peanut gallery” says, it is perfectly OK to make mistakes.

Also, have patience. In my experience, this can be even more difficult than rejection at times. The illnesses may say otherwise, but I yearn for a good, healthy, understanding relationship. I’ve let it vex me at times, but it is just another hurdle that everyone must face at one point or another. I remind myself that it is no more unusual for me than anyone else. Not everyone is willing to be vulnerable. That’s OK though, their own health matters too.

Finally, I believe a key part of any relationship is allowing myself to experience emotional intimacy. For me, intimacy is how close you allow others to your “true self.” And a measure of self-acceptance is needed regarding your “true self.” Maybe not to the extreme measure of, “You can’t love another until you love yourself,” but just a little measure of where you are in that process of acceptance; understanding your diseases may be a part of you, but at the same time is not wholly you. There is strength and power in the humanness of your story and struggle, and that alone should be appealing to a romantic partner.

I believe we can be honest about our illnesses, and even though it will push some people away, I think it will raise awareness among people. The right people who really do understand, or want to understand, will still be there. They will take your hand, heart and mind — and face the shared challenges and adventures of life with you despite your mental illnesses.

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Thinkstock photo via KristinaJovanovic

Originally published: July 1, 2017
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