Holding myself back because of body anxiety
January 8, 2010 10:47 PM   Subscribe

How do I ease my anxiety over meeting a dude I'm really into? Body image issues tagging along, too.

Long story short, I met a guy online and we're terribly interested in each other. He has decided to make a journey out my way- a considerable trip by plane. I am incredibly nervous about his impending arrival, though it's a month away.

This is nothing new. Even meeting men for dates in the past has caused very high anxiety, peaking just before scheduled date time, and I've cancelled many times out of sheer panic. This mostly boils down to my lack of self esteem. I am quite critical of my body and I am convinced that upon seeing me, he'll change his mind and become less interested- he'll have made a huge decision in coming to see me and I'll let him down with my appearance.

Anxiety is not a stranger in my world, as evidenced in my past AskMe posts, but this is relatively new: 1. How do I not be on edge, constantly nervous, for a month? Ever since he booked the tickets I have been anxious. 2. How do I convince myself he won't dislike my appearance the way that I do?

I like him a great deal. I do really want to meet him and see what happens. He does enjoy my photos quite a bit, and tells me so- I just can't convince myself that I can make it to his arrival date in a super-positive state of mind.
posted by rachaelfaith to Human Relations (26 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Have you considered therapy for your anxiety?
Also there are a variety of coping mechanisms you could try when the anxiety hits, such as breathing in slowly through your nose and out to a count of seven through your mouth.
It is good that you recognize you have an ungrounded fear.
posted by srbrunson at 3:21 AM on January 9, 2010

I'm not sure anyone here can fix your (in my opinion) irrational body image issues. I'm not trying to be mean or insulting, but I doubt someone is going to say something that will change your mind about your body; maybe therapy really is the way to go (as srbrunson suggested).

Perhaps that and/or some anti-anxiety meds would help?
posted by Menthol at 3:47 AM on January 9, 2010

Definitely wear the glasses! I wish I looked that cool in my glasses, but alas, I do not. As far as calming the anxiety in the intervening time, let's try some reading, writing, drawing, music, walks outside, shopping, playing with animals, etc, etc...do you get the drift here? Don't sit and think about it. And you don't need therapy, for God's sake. Just do things that are at least quasi-productive, and that get your mind off your concerns. It will also have the bonus factor of giving you things to talk about with this dude when he gets there. I wish you all the best, and I hope this guy is as cool as he's cracked up to be.
posted by lucky25 at 3:50 AM on January 9, 2010

While you are very beautiful, I suspect this is nothing to do with that. I think it's probably about the fact that you - like everyone else - are imperfect. We get sold perfection all the time and told that if we really strive hard enough, we can achieve it. Therefore, after all the dieting and exercise and clothes shopping and fake tan and facials and hair dye and jesus even botox, when we're still not perfect, we're both sub-par and failures.

But it's bullshit and you know it's bullshit. I think you should spend the month meditating on and really digging into and investigating the bullshit with a goal of accepting and then loving your body. I swear this really is possible.

You do not need to be perfect or even thin to be beautiful, nor do you need to be perfect or thin to be loved, and to deserve love. Read The Beauty Myth. Read and look at photos of and by Heather Corinna. Realise that you've probably seen very few women's bodies that are not airbrushed and that as fucked up as it is, most sexually active hetero men have seen a larger number and wider variety of real-life, in the flesh nude women's bodies than you have. Go find some. Read read read and look look look everywhere and everything you can about saying "fuck you" to the system that has taught you to feel like shit about yourself.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:20 AM on January 9, 2010 [15 favorites]

I looked at your picture, you don't need therapy, you just need to look in the mirror. Objectively, you're hot

It's exactly the disconnect between reality and self image that is making people recommend therapy.

Ultimately the goal is self acceptance and self esteem, regardless of looks (not 'attractive' and even ugly people can and do have great relationships and attractive people can and do have terrible ones, or none at all) and therapy can be a great way to work towards that.

In the time you have though, I think that working on seeing yourself through your own eyes, as opposed to constantly imagining how others are seeing you (whether positively or negatively) could be a good step. Then work on seeing what you find beautiful about your body.

Keep your eye out for unattractive people in good relationships.

Remember that this isn't really a big deal. Not even him buying a plane ticket makes it a big deal. There's no life or death here, just two people hoping they hit it off but mature enough to know that there are a thousand ways things might not work out, and that they will still feel good about trying.

Also, don't underestimate the power of distracting yourself. This is something (chemistry) you actually have very little control over. You might as well focus your energy on things where you know it makes a difference - friends, art, science, house cleaning, cooking, etc.

The whole reason people seek relationships is because they think their loves will be more fun and better with them than wihout them. You might as well start having fun now.
posted by Salamandrous at 5:23 AM on January 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

This meeting "is not a referendum on your desireability"

That's the other thing I forgot.

Neither is any other individual man's response to you. None of them personally represent "Men" or your chances of having a good relationship. Each is just one person with his own preferences, issues, and phermones.
posted by Salamandrous at 5:34 AM on January 9, 2010 [12 favorites]

I'm not sure an anonymous OMGHOTT party is going to help here. It's only temporary reassurance, and not from the relevant person, and one day in the future some other young woman is going to stumble across this post looking for help, and all she's going to find is someone else being tongue-bathed.

That said. Hi, rachaelfaith. I've dealt with the same kind of body image issues, especially in my single-and-looking phase, and I doubt photos of me would inspire the same kind of awe, but oh well that's low self-esteem for you.

Here is the most important thing to commit to memory, and it will apply to just about every situation ever, dating or otherwise: It's not because of your looks. You might as well pick up a copy of He's Just Not That Into You, white out every instance of the titular phrase, and scrawl that in instead. If a relationship doesn't get off the ground, if a guy's not gaga over you, that's sometimes just how things are and two people don't click in person and it's not because either of them are flawed. It's not that someone was into you and changed his mind when he saw you. I used to connect everything back to "it's because I'm fat," and it led to me getting depressed about being rejected by guys I didn't even like.

And, okay, the guy is traveling quite a distance to see you. Which means it feels like more's at stake here, but the case is probably more like he's already decided he's pretty into you and doesn't need to see what your feet look like.

Anecdotally, my weight went up and down over a nearly 100-pound range over the course of my twenties. (It is on the lower end of that spectrum now, through healthy means.) I have always been terribly self-conscious about my weight. However, the serious relationships all came along when I was at my heaviest - and not even looking.

MeMail me if you'd like. It's hard to train yourself out of anxiety about your appearance, but I think you'll be fine.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:54 AM on January 9, 2010 [4 favorites]

You know what works for me? Exercise. It helps relieve anxiety, and for me, it really, really calms down my body image issues. Not because the exercise changes my appearance. Instead, it reminds me that I really live in my body, that it is capable and strong, and that I in no way need to look "perfect" (a ridiculous construct, as DarlingBri eloquently described above) in order to feel great, and beautiful, and confident.
posted by amelioration at 5:58 AM on January 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Let other people decide that they don't like you. Don't do it for them.
posted by milarepa at 6:27 AM on January 9, 2010 [11 favorites]

I had a lot of similar "run away!" sorts of thoughts at the start of my relationship with my partner. Like you, I recognized that it was weird anxiety, not valid fear. I went to my doctor and started on anti-anxiety medication and all those extra thoughts dropped out of the picture, enabling me to focus on the new relationship and all the giddiness that entails. It didn't make me a zombie or anything like that, it just cleared those extra irritating urges out of the way so I could be myself. Feel free to send me MeFi mail if you have questions about that.

Also, there is normal nervousness here, mixed with the panic I'm talking about above. I guarantee you that he is feeling nervous and excited and "oh wow" but also "this is a big risk" and "what if she doesn't like me". Maybe it would help you out if you talked to him about it a bit and realised that he's feeling similar things?
posted by heatherann at 6:37 AM on January 9, 2010

It has helped me to remind myself that I'm on the right side of average, rather than the wrong side of perfect. (The question of what is 'normal' and 'perfect' aside, of course.)

I found watching (the English version of) 'How To Look Good Naked' really helpful - it made me realise that being attractive is so much more about how you feel than how you look. Also, think about what you find attractive in guys. Are you only interested in 6'4" buff lifeguards? Of course not.

Try not to tie the success of the meeting to your appearance. Meeting in person is different to on the Internet, and you two may well hit it off (or not) for any number of reasons which have nothing to do with your body, per se.

As for the freaking out about meeting him ... well, that's pretty normal I think. Try to keep busy and distract yourself, and if you can, make yourself re-interpret your nerves as excitement.

Good luck! I hope it goes really well.
posted by Emilyisnow at 6:38 AM on January 9, 2010

[few comments removed - I know you mean well but "you're pretty" doesn't really help solve this problem. sorry.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:21 AM on January 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Ok, Everyone here is dealing with your anxieties. I'll deal with the practicalities. I met my ex husband online and spoke to him quite a bit before we met up in person. He was nothing at all like his pic represented him. Not that he misrepresented himself on purpose, it's just that photos are two dimensional. He wasn't nearly as physically attractive as I had built him up to be in my mind, but the bottom line is, by that time, his looks didn't matter to me at all. If you two have an emotional connection, it's likely that he is going to find you attractive if you are anything close to resembling your picture.

I am currently dating again, and meeting men online. There is one consistent factor. No one looks like their photo. People of course will choose to present the photos that are most flattering to themselves. Our brains will then interpret the photo from there, filling in the gaps of information however we want them to be filled in, not neccessarily accurately.
The good news is that this guy has several photos of you, which gives him more information, and a much better idea of what you truly look like.

What I have found do be a huge help in determining what a person truly looks like, and to a degree, if there is chemistry, is webcamming or video chatting.
It's a little nerve wracking the first time you do with with a person, but certainly not as much as meeting someone at an airport for the first time.

When interpreting the written word, you are putting a lot of yourself into what you are reading, and assuming a certain inflection or meaning. With a webcam, it is very similar to sitting across the table from them.

I have had a few moments of truth this way, when the person on the screen was not at all who I thought they were going to be. It's amazing how much gestures and mannerisms matter.
If you start videochatting before you meet, both of you can adjust the impressions that you have undoubtedly created about the other person in your brain to be more reflective of reality.

So I suggest this as an in between step. So that there are no huge surprises for either of you, and to assuage some of your anxiety, get on the webcam. It's a perfect halfway step. You will have much more confidence meeting this person in real life after you've had a few successful interactions with them on videochat, and you will both feel like you know the other person better.

I have found that Gchat, gmails video chat service is particularly good for my very tempermental computer, but skype or any of the others work just as well.
posted by newpotato at 7:26 AM on January 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would like to also recommend exercise. I like what amelioration said, and working out has helped me with my body-image. There seems to be a huge bias toward anti-anxiety drugs and therapy around here (BIAS), and a bias against exercise (or so it seems). To provide an alternate perspective:

Getting your heart-rate up, sweating, and ending tired and sore does great things for your body, and most importantly for your mind. I have found that with sufficiently difficult exercise, (what works for me is either hot yoga or burpees, you should find your own favorite routine) your mind calms down a lot, and after you get a "runner's high." When you start getting too stressed, start working out to calm your mind.

Doing something about your body will improve your body image even if the actual effects to your body are negligent. The results aren't as important as how you feel when a)your brain is full of tasty chemicals that result from physical exertion and b)you learn that your body is yours and does what you want it to do.

Working out won't change the way you look in a month, but it might change the way you think.
posted by fuq at 8:15 AM on January 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've had (okay, still have) similar anxieties about meeting people sight unseen on set-ups (and don't my friends just LOVE to arrange set-ups.) I've come to realize that by giving in to the anxiety, I'm ceding all the power to the person I'm meeting, as if he were the only one who got to decide whether whether we should see more of each other. He's not. The anxiety in the lead-up to a date can make it seem as if the whole thing is just about me trying to impress him and make him like me, and him scrutinizing and judging me. Well, that's bullshit.

Now when I have a date on the horizon, I focus on thoughts of ME and MY response to him. I focus on how fun and exciting it is for ME to be meeting someone new; how nice it is that *I* will have the opportunity to get to know him and decide whether *I* would be interested in taking things further.

The best part is that once I do that, I find I start being more generous and realistic in my expectations of how he will view me - because I am holding him to my own standard. I know that *I* will certainly not be honing in on his every flaw or silently criticizing how he holds his fork. Once I remind myself that *I* naturally will be approaching our meeting from a place of friendly receptivity and generosity, it's easier to remember that he is most likely coming from the same place (and that he might even have some of the same anxieties.) And if it seems that he is not coming from a similar place - well, then he really doesn't meet my standards for personhood, let alone my standards for dateability.

Just keep reminding yourself that you hold the power in this scenario, too. You get to meet someone who you're interested in. You get to decide whether the spark that you both felt could turn into something more. And yeah, he gets to decide, too. You get to decide together. It's not all up to him.
posted by messica at 8:23 AM on January 9, 2010 [19 favorites]

He likes your pictures. Do you believe the pictures you've sent him are not representative of your actual looks? In fact it's conventional wisdom that "the camera adds ten pounds" -- so you'll probably look even better in person, and he already likes how yu look in the pictures.

Let him know you're nervous, let him help you deal with it. But again, he already likes your looks, as they appear in your pictures. (And honestly, you look cute enough in your profile pic that I had to wonder if it was taken from stock photo site.)
posted by orthogonality at 9:32 AM on January 9, 2010

Now when I have a date on the horizon, I focus on thoughts of ME and MY response to him. I focus on how fun and exciting it is for ME to be meeting someone new; how nice it is that *I* will have the opportunity to get to know him and decide whether *I* would be interested in taking things further.

This is a really amazing answer. I think it's so key to the meeting of strangers and near-strangers alike. YOUR job in meeting this person is to decide if YOU think he's sexy, or funny, or interesting, or scary, or awful, or nuts. When meeting new people, we need to turn on all our listening parts. I have ended up dating people for too long or too hard (heh, mm hmm) because I was so anxious about myself that I couldn't even hear the warning signs I was getting from my gut. I also probably didn't notice a few awesome guys because I was worrying about myself and how ugly I thought I was!

You've already made up your mind that this guy is awesome. But you don't know! So you need to be PRESENT to do the due diligence on him in person. So if you can find ways to engage in that task, and shut off your thoughts about what he thinks of YOU, you'll be well-rewarded.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 10:03 AM on January 9, 2010 [4 favorites]

One thing to keep in mind is that women tend to be much more critical of their bodies than men are. We really aren't as concerned with women having a perfect body as women's magazines and other media would have you believe. What matters more is confidence. If a woman thinks her body is hot it actually makes it hot. I know this doesn't actually help your problem right now, but maybe it can help point you in the right direction.

Also, speaking as a man, had I been in touch with someone online for a while and bought a plane ticket to meet her I would be pretty sure about my attraction to her already. We don't go that out of our way for something we're not that sure about. If he's seen pictures of you (full body, not just headshots) and has committed to spending that much money to meet you you shouldn't be worrying at all.
posted by fso at 11:10 AM on January 9, 2010

You could use the general method from the David Burns book Feeling Good which is very popular around here:

1) Identify the event you are afraid of e.g. getting rejected.

2) Characterize how this event makes you feel, attaching a number to each distinct emotion e.g. anxious 80%, ashamed 50% etc. You need to write these down.

3) List the upsetting thoughts that accompany each emotion, along with numbers that reflect how strongly you believe them e.g. "If this man rejects me that means nobody will find me attractive - 50%".

4) Identify cognitive distortions in your thoughts - are you overgeneralizing, filtering out positive things, imagining you can predict the future, using emotional reasoning "I feel this so it must be true", etc.

5) Write down new thoughts that are designed to challenge the distortions in your previous thoughts e.g. "People have all kinds of different tastes - one persons opinion of my looks couldn't possibly determine what every other man would think". Again, write numbers for how strongly you believe these new thoughts

6) Now go back and write new numbers for your old thoughts if you find that you now believe in them less as will usually be the case

7) Go back and look at your negative feelings again. You will hopefully feel that they have now been lessened, and you can again write new numbers.

This is a tedious method, but it's a nicely structured and reasonably thorough way of working through a troubling feeling. It's much better than trying to do everything in your head. If you're serious about doing this it would obviously be a good idea to read the book.

(The answer below is adapted from one I gave a couple of years ago for a very different situation - it's a very general method).
posted by tomcooke at 11:36 AM on January 9, 2010 [5 favorites]

One thing about that plane ticket: make sure to try not to feel any responsibility for this. It's not your decision to travel, nor your fault it he would have traveled in vain.

As a point of comparison, as a performing musician I clearly remember the time shortly after my studies when I felt guilty waiting in the green room and seeing the audience assemble: god, all these people are wasting their whole evening and whatnot bucks just because of me. Of course they aren't.

I suppose it helps to break down one's anxiety into such silly little morsels and try to crack them one by one.
posted by Namlit at 12:09 PM on January 9, 2010

As a guy who has had his own past issues with self-esteem and body-image, I feel for you. Two things seemed to help me out. First, exercise. In just a couple weeks, I felt better, which made me a bit more confident. Which, in turn, probably made me more attractive to others. Second, I made an effort to focus on how the other person was feeling rather than being so inward directed. He is nervous too. He's wondering whether you'll like the way he looks. Personally, when I spent my time thinking about how I would put my date at ease, my own sense of insecurity was reduced. Good luck. And FWIW, count me in the "you look great" camp.
posted by centerweight at 1:21 PM on January 9, 2010

Thanks for all of the fantastic answers. To clear some things up: I have been in and out of therapy for years, but never really focused on body image issues- moreso just panic attacks and anxiety. I am not interested in medication. I recognize it is a valid solution for many people, but not for me.

Yes, as many of you commented, it is not about my actual looks [but thank you for the kind words]. Much thanks for the suggestions of changing my perspective [Yay, I have an opportunity to meet someone, rather than 'he has the opportunity to judge me'], exercise, and reading recommendations. Via similar AskMes, I hear that Shapely Prose has some good stuff as well.
posted by rachaelfaith at 1:27 PM on January 9, 2010

this may or may not be helpful to you, but I have a lot of fun with clothing, and will feel a lot more happy and confident if I have a really great outfit on. If that works for you too, take your mind off of worrying by planning out a few really sharp ensembles for your first few days together.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 4:43 PM on January 9, 2010

It is really scary to meet someone you like, and face the possibility you might not live up to someone else's expectations, but as long as you have been honest, then that is on him, not you. Still, not very helpful, right?

Beyond the whole therapy and treat your anxiety suggestions, I would do the following:

1. Do you have a few outfits you love? They don't need to be fancy, but if you feel good in them and enjoy wearing them, make sure you have them clean and ready to wear for when he visits. Most people have a couple of these. If that's hard to settle on, go with colors that you like & look good with your coloring, fabrics that you enjoy, and clothes that fit. If you need alterations, get them done. It's worth the money, regardless of how the visit goes. If a shopping trip is in your budget and necessary, go for it.

2. Between now and then, really take care of yourself. I don't mean nutrition and exercise, though those are good too, but get plenty of sleep, drink lots of water, use a moisturizer that makes your skin feel good, if there is a fragrance you like, then wear it, take relaxing baths, get a massage, if something stresses you out too much and is optional, don't do it.

3. Music. Lots of energy boosting, make you feel like you can take over the world music during waking hours. Relaxing, restorative, but also makes you smile and feel good about yourself and the world during resting and before bed hours.

4. Between now and then, make sure you have everything on hand you feel you need to be "you." This can be beauty products, health and wellness items, comfort items like a particularly soft blanket or candles that smell like home to you. We all have those things that make us feel like us and/or the world is something we like. Surround yourself with and enjoy those things. Distract and fortify yourself with comfort and joy.

If you've noticed, most of my suggestions are about enjoying and treating yourself. Taking care of you, as trite as it may sound, is the best thing you can do to reduce your stress, anxiety, and help you be the happiest & best you that you can be. Anyone can tell you how awesome and fabulous you are, but those words often sound hollow and don't do much because intellect and emotion are two very different things. You need to find healthy ways to allow yourself enjoy who you are, and that gift you give yourself will not only let this fellow see how truly awesome you are, but will make you feel good about things, even if it doesn't go exactly the way you hope. Best of luck & have fun!
posted by katemcd at 6:59 PM on January 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think it's also worth reminding yourself that the perfection you are being sold doesn't actually exist. Cindy Crawford has stretch marks because she's a human. Faith Hill has bags under her eyes because she's human. Andy Roddick isn't buff enough. It's actually very common for someone who is "pretty enough to be on the cover of a magazine!" to in fact not be pretty enough at all. And yet you are still being sold - literally, sold on magazine stands - the lie that this is the standard you must achieve. How is that possible when even the people modelling it don't reach it?
posted by DarlingBri at 10:41 PM on January 10, 2010

If anyone happens to come across this question at some point, I would like to add a note about how it went. I worked on body positivity from the day I asked this question until he came, and then when I actually got to hang out with him, a lot of my anxiety melted away. He helped me feel really confident about my body, and we are now enthusiastically in a relationship.

Thanks, everyone.
posted by rachaelfaith at 11:53 PM on February 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

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