I urgently need help in abandoning my doubt before it destroys a once-in-a-lifetime chance.
March 29, 2010 9:15 AM   Subscribe

I know my anxiety to be a liar. I don't know how to shut it up. Please help me get a handle on it before it derails something amazing.

Hi Askme. I should preface this question by acknowledging that, yes, therapy will be a component of the solution and clarifying that, yes, I am currently engaged in treatment. But things are happening quickly at present and, furthermore, I've a very short window to clear some of these old stumbling blocks out of the way and grasp the opportunity before me now.

Here's the situation. I am a 30yo man who has long suffered crushing social anxiety, especially when it comes to women. A confluence of body issues, confidence issues, awkwardness and inexperience basically brought me into adulthood unable to perceive myself as a viable mate. Now, I recognize that this is an absurd way for a man to see himself and have long been at war with these negative impulses of mine - laboring to get in shape, to push my comfort zone and get some of the experience I've been lacking, to learn how to conduct myself comfortably and confidently in social settings, all of that stuff. And I can feel it working, gradually. This anxiety is an Iago: a deceitful, destructive saboteur and I am resolved to burn it out. I know it's not worth listening to.

Knowing and believing, however, can be two different things. And while I'm on the road to recovery, recent events demand that I accelerate this process considerably.

You see, after one year and two months with absolutely zero intimacy in my life, my luck is finally starting to change. I have met an absolutely amazing woman and, better still, I know for certain that my attraction to her is reciprocated. I know it, for she has explicitly spoken of it, but my Iago is giving me a hell of a time believing it. And we've only got two months to spend together before school and career plans we put in motion long before we came together put us on opposite ends of the country. At the rate I've been recovering, I haven't time to put my fears to rest before we pass out of each other's lives. My fears must die faster - I must be as good as I can possibly be for her in the little bit of time we've got left.

Anxiety has interfered with our relationship in a few ways at this point, and I was hoping the hive mind had some ideas on how to clear these fears out of the channel between this woman and I. Even though she has stated her attraction to and enjoyment of me unambiguously several times, when plans fall through or too much time passes between our interactions or time spent together, Iago tries to tell me her affections are false or dying. I know it's a lie and yet I can never quite silence it. And we're both extremely busy and more than a little flaky, so the occasional plan will continue to fall through. Even though the private time we do get is marked with much cuddling, leg-tangling, hand-holding, squeezing and nuzzling, I still catch myself feeling timid about touching her and kissing her. A few nights ago, she was draped across my lap and clutching my belt and still Iago tried to convince me that her mind could change at any instant and that my pushing too far or pushing at all will surely repulse and disgust her. The vast majority of our physical contact has been on her initiative and yet I struggle to believe she wants me to touch her.

Worst of all, a couple nights ago, when we tried to sleep together for the first time, I was so nervous and so worried about pleasing her and measuring up to her expectations that I suffered a rather embarrassing, uhm, equipment failure. She could sense my tension and I knew, damn it all, I knew that there was no need for it and yet I could not will myself free of it. And when we're apart, I've no problem at all maintaining an erection while fantasizing about her - I've never been more attracted to a woman, I've never hungered for someone as I do for her - but when our moment came, I failed her. She was so very kind about it and didn't pressure or shame me at all - she wants to try again, as often as we need to get it right. She has said these words and yet Iago tells me that my failure was the end of it, that it has set her seeking a man without my shortcomings. And I know the last thing I want to do is shame myself and descend even deeper into this spiral of fear, but today I'm feeling that old gravity and am more than a little frightened I won't be able to resist it.

I don't mean to be grandiose or melodramatic, but I truly have waited all my life to meet and become intimate with a woman like her. Never before have I been so well-matched with somebody. We share interests, senses of humor, values, hobbies, all of it, plus it's like she was built in some sorta lab to be precisely my type in terms of appearance. She's as close to perfect as I've ever known or even dared to hope for and we've only two months to get it right.

4syouw1sh@gmail.com was the throwaway e-mail I used when I asked you all for help at the start of this affair. The advice I received in that prior question kept me from committing some real blunders and helped a great deal in our getting as far as we have at this point. I come to you once more at this crucial juncture because she deserves the best of me and anxiety has nothing to do with that.

Please, help me to believe in her and not the traitor in my head.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I was so nervous and so worried about pleasing her and measuring up to her expectations that I suffered a rather embarrassing, uhm, equipment failure

I do not know if this will be helpful to you, but I suspect a lot of people are going to chime in and say that this is normal. Really, it happens to the anxious and non-anxious and the experienced and the noobs. It happens so much that a lot of people don't even remark on it so much because people are used to it. I'm trying to track down the thread in which dozens of MeFites chimed in and said "oh that? that happens all the time" but it's buried in other sex advice threads. So I know you feel anxious and I know you'd like to sort things out and I think you can, but the fact that this happens means you are normal more than it means you are weird. Seriously.

So a few specifics

- there is more to sex than penetrative intercourse so while I'm sure it would be nice to be able to do the old in-and-out when you'd like to, the "I've failed her" approach is not only not useful it's probably not even correct. Read up on other ways to please your lady, there are many. Encourage her to do the same for you [or tell her other things you like, etc]
- things that help anxiety related performance in the short term are [depending on your preferences and abilities] a drink or two [not seven], smoking a joint, some Viagra [I do not suggest it as a first pass option but it's there if you need it], a bath or a massage, morning sex [before your anxious brain wakes up], a "we can not have sex, only backrubs" backrub fest
- sex is best defined by the people who are having it. You may decide that you want to touch yourself when she is nearby, or she may want to do the same thing, or that you want to just snuggle together or whathave you.
- in line with the above, if you're happy together and pleasing each other and feel well-matched and comfortable together, the sex is something you can gently [and hopefully enjoyably] work on, it's rarely an early relationship dealbreaker. You seem considerate and concerned and excited and nervous, but new relationship nerves are normal in small amounts
- low level anxiety is best managed [to me] not by rationally convincing yourself that you're wrong or crazy or telling yourself a million blabla stories about how the world works, but by actively engaging in your life, eating better, getting exercise, getting human companionship time, seeking therapy if that's your thing, and learning to experience the world first hand, not through the broken processor of your own brain. Obviosly if your anxiety is really wrecking your life, there are more advanced options, but you may want to try the tune-up approach before you go in for an overhaul.

If you don't want to be grandiose or melodramatic, leave the Iago stuff behind and the "OMG TWO MONTHS" You do the best you can, she'll do the best she can. She sounds like she likes you. You like her. You enjoy each other's company. That's a lot right there. Good luck.
posted by jessamyn at 9:28 AM on March 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

Just to address one small aspect of your question:

I was so nervous and so worried about pleasing her and measuring up to her expectations that I suffered a rather embarrassing, uhm, equipment failure.

As a woman who's had her fair share of male lovers, let me reassure you that this is really common, even amongst men who've never had a moment's serious anxiety in their lives. The cruel thing is that the more you worry about it, the worse it will get, but I'm sure that there are plenty of online resources to help you to deal with that part of things. It really is that common.
posted by different at 9:29 AM on March 29, 2010

First of all, congratulations on landing an awesome girl! I can tell she thinks you're pretty awesome too. I'm sorry for your anxiety, but I feel confident that with only a little time you'll be able to turn it around.

It's hard to know what will change this for you, but speaking for myself as someone whose head is often racing a circuit of anxiety, indecision, and overthinking, the one thing I can unambiguously recommend is exercise. There's nothing like physically pushing yourself as a way of shutting up all those inner critics. Walk, hike, run, bike, or swim, and do it until this Iago of yours is lying prostrate on the floor, bleeding out his ears. Being outside, breathing fresh air, and feeling your heart pound is a strike in favor of physical reality, and against the un-life of anxiety and self-doubt.

Best of luck, and enjoy this!
posted by cirripede at 9:30 AM on March 29, 2010

As you already stated, therapy will be the most efficient and healthy way to deal with anxiety like this. However, for my own (much less intrusive) anxiety, I have found that mindfulness is an excellent way of dealing with it. Here's what you do:

Concentrate on your immediate experience. Think about only the present moment, what you're doing exactly now.

It's like low-power meditation. When I am taking the bus to work, I watch the people, I feel my body pressed against the seat, I listen to the sounds. I do not think about the deadlines I have upcoming; I do not think about that time when I accidentally misaddressed a letter; I do not worry what lovely ladies my partner might be falling in love with all over the place. I can worry about those things later, when I choose to. While I am being mindful, I say, "That is a thought, but I don't need to think about it right now. I can't re-address the envelope. Instead, I will continue to be mindful and prevent this bus ride from becoming any more stressful.

This works, and it works quickly, because once you start willfully, purposefully putting those things out of your mind, you can no longer be negatively affected by them, because they effectively do not exist. This may work on a small scale for you, since I don't know your situation or the extent of the intrusive thoughts, but if you can work on controlling your impulses to think negatively, this will be a bright technique in your life.

People have a tendency to be masochistic. We don't replay the good moments in our heads, only the bad moments. It's much less stressful to choose, during our ruminations on stressful deadlines or embarrassing faux pas, to think about the present instead.

A thing I'll note about mindfulness: I get asked all the time, "But when am I supposed to think, if I'm always concentrating on the present?" Firstly, no one is ever going to be mindful 100% of the time; there will be many moments when you will slip and start thinking about the past or the future. Secondly, just decide to think about X situation, instead of just going along for the ride when your mind decides, "Gee, I would really like to make you wallow in your misery about that time when you accidentally said 'tit' instead of 'sit'," or whatever.

Best of luck to you and your lady; I'm glad she can see past your temporary blocks. I hope this helps you. I hope therapy gives you what you want. & I hope she continues to drape herself across your lap!
posted by opossumnus at 9:43 AM on March 29, 2010 [7 favorites]

I agree with opossumnus that mindfulness is the way out of this cycle.

Anxiety is an awful paradox. To escape, you must not fight it. It is not some evil separate part of you; this conceptualization of it being something whispering in your ear is not helping you. You think you can silence it once and for all, but that's a fallacy. The more you fight, the more it wins. You must give in completely.

You know that there are times that you are NOT anxious and afraid, right? When you are taking a shower, eating breakfast, reading a book, whatever. By its very nature, the anxiety and fear will subside. Everything rises and passes away, everything is born and dies. This includes your thoughts and feelings. At some point you thought "what shall I wear today," and now you're not thinking that because you've already decided. At some point you thought "she doesn't love me" and then you thought about something else, like that the dog needs to go out or that the mail has probably arrived. Your breath rises and falls, comes in and out, on its own, but if you hold it, you will die.

I'm sorry if this sounds dismissive; I know firsthand what incredible anxiety feels like, to the point of not being able to leave my house. I know that mindfulness helps, and it can be directly applied at any time. First you acknowledge that yes, you are having an anxious thought. You accept, yes, this thought is anxious. You feel the anxiety, the tightness in your stomach, the sweat on your palms. Really feel it in its entirety, in its specificity. Concentrate on the FEELING. Accept it completely, knowing that it will pass, it is in its very nature to pass. And it will pass, like a wave. And then you go on again, knowing from that experience that the next wave will pass too. You breathe. Each time you stray, you come back to your breathing. In and out, rising and falling.

This is practice, and you will get better at it, like with anything else you've ever practiced. Every day, every hour, every minute is just breathing, just feeling, just accepting, just watching your thoughts arise and subside, because that's what they do. Stop fighting your invisible enemy. Let him wander freely and he will leave of his own accord.
posted by desjardins at 10:13 AM on March 29, 2010 [8 favorites]

I think a lot of us who struggle with anxiety are perfectionists. A mantra I like to repeat to myself is, "The perfect is the enemy of the good."

There will always be many imperfect moments in a relationship, and it sounds like these moments have an inflated importance to you. I have the same problem. But if you and this woman have such a positive and fulfilling connection, then those imperfect moments are really drops in the bucket.

I'm currently in the best relationship of my life where my boyfriend shows me every day how much he loves me, and yet sometimes I still feel like he couldn't possibly love me with all my "shortcomings". When you feel this type of insecurity, try looking at it from a different perspective. Does your amazing lady have shortcomings? Of course. Do they change how you feel about her? Probably not, and if anything, the flaws of our loved ones can deepen our feelings. Nobody wants an intimate relationship with a flawless human being, no matter how nice that may seem in the abstract.

You may feel it's too early in the relationship for this, but if you don't, you could always try talking to her about your anxieties. And this is just a wild guess, but it sounds like you guys might not have discussed what you're going to do about the relationship in two months. That could be exacerbating your anxiety too (worrying that you're not on the same page, etc.).

Finally, I couldn't agree more with cirripede's advice to exercise. Yoga might be especially beneficial to you. The concentration required to do yoga really helps to develop the mindfulness mentioned above.
posted by spinto at 10:19 AM on March 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

Since you're using the Iago metaphor, why not actually have a conversation with him? (Does this sound like I'm telling you to go off the deep end? I hope not! Hear me out...) Have this conversation with him, alone, in a comfortable place, where no one will disturb you. You can talk out loud, talk in your head and stare at the wall, write it out. Doesn't matter. What does Iago look like, sound like, how does he dress? What does he want from you? What does he need you to do? What does he say to you? Talk back at him!

For example, when you're by yourself, talk to Iago about this: "Iago tried to convince me that her mind could change at any instant and that my pushing too far or pushing at all will surely repulse and disgust her." I would ask him, why did you do that? Her mind didn't change. And actually, you're not just insulting ME, you're insulting HER, that she'd be so inconsiderate to do these things and just change at any instant. And, I'm allowed to push. And actually, it's not pushing. It's showing intent, reciprocating, expressing myself. If she gets uncomfortable, she's allowed to say so, and I'll stop. What is your problem, Iago? Why do you want to keep saying that I'm not allowed to have this?

And then, have a conversation with yourself. Something like, "Self, it's ok that I don't have a ton of experience. I'm learning. I'm learning with this amazing woman. I'm not going to know everything. I'm going to screw up. But so what. Just as long as I stay honest and be myself, she'll like me for who I am."

Agreed with Jessamyn: there are LOTS of ways to engage in sexual activity without intercourse.
posted by foxjacket at 10:23 AM on March 29, 2010


Just chiming in to agree with jessamyn and different about the "equipment failure". I, too, am a woman who's had a fair share of male lovers, and it's really quite common in the beginning of a relationship. Or later, when the male partner is under serious stress.

And, if your new friend is, say, over 25 and reasonably experienced, she knows this too. She responded kindly and well, and it sounds like she is totally up for the kind of slow-sneak-up-to-the-ol'-in-and-out that will work well for you.

Good luck! I have a good feeling about this.
posted by kestrel251 at 10:52 AM on March 29, 2010

Specific to the equipment problem interfering, tell her you're nervous. Then ask her what she likes, and spend some time doing things that require your more cooperative equipment, like hands, mouth, etc. Anxiety tends to reduce with familiarity. Just remember to say sweet things to her; you may not be the only anxious person.

You describe a life in which anxiety is a constant problem. Medication, meditation, and therapy are all good. I recommend 2 books, both helped me and a friend: Playing Ball on Running Water, and Authentic Happiness. Anxiety can be a terrible affliction; you deserve to have a life free from crippling anxiety. Good luck.
posted by theora55 at 10:54 AM on March 29, 2010

I literally had to get up and get a drink of water, because your writing triggered my own anxiety response. I say that because I've been there, am there and if there's any goldarned justice in this world, I will be there again. Each time it's difficult, and yet it's easier too because I've met my own inner-strength, built up resources and learned new toolkits.

"I must be as good as I can possibly be for her in the little bit of time we've got left." -- Your question itself has been authored by your saboteur. We've traced the call. IT'S COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE!

Silly, right? Your situation is totally absurd. This is good. It's exactly what you need, but it's going to take a lot of mindfulness to stay on track and learn what you need to learn from this time in your life. We're talking about some hardcore Buddist drop all expectations; desire is suffering shenanigans here. Expectations are the enemy. Burn them to the ground. Don't expect to see her again. Don't expect that you'll have a future together. Don't expect that you WON'T have a future together. Hell, forget your expectation that you'll even return to school. Nobody knows the future! This is a good thing.

Let's start with the easiest problem on the table: The mechanical one. Don't expect that you'll have penis-in-vagina sex with her right off the bat. For crying out loud, though, touch her. Give her a shoulder massage. Kiss her back. Kiss her front. Experiment with softness and firmness in these touches to see what she likes. Ask her what she likes. Lower the stakes and isolate the senses. Blindfolds are good. Mutual masturbation is good.

She was so very kind about it and didn't pressure or shame me at all - she wants to try again, as often as we need to get it right. -- You lucky son of a gun! I've said it before: Best trial-and-error experiment ever. The theme to overcoming anxiety is to create mastery experiences and build self-efficacy. Do the things that come easily and work your way slowly and without judgement up to the things that are marginally more difficult.

The best tool that I have for you to shut up the sabotuer is meditation. "How to Meditate" by Kathleen McDonald was good, although I plateaued when I stopped making it a daily practice. MP3s here if you can't find the book.

I have another tangentally related Ask Me rant here. It's awesome that you've realized that your anxiety is working against you. The cool thing about this time in your life is that right now you have physical, touchable, kissable proof that anxiety's whispers are straight-up LIES. Literally think: "STFU Anxiety, you're wrong. And even if you were right, I'm happier without you." The value of an emotion is not in its truthfulness, but in its usefulness. Where there is uncertainty, assume the best, because assuming the best usually opens more doors than the alternative (that doesn't preclude preparing for the bad stuff when that opens doors.) Don't be the person who's moping around in July because Summer is half over. What a way to waste half the Summer. That doesn't mean you don't still go out and prepare by buying school supplies, because that can be fun, too.

The truth is that you're bound for a crash. Every relationship ends. Are the lucky ones the ones that end in death or the ones that end before that? You're going to hit the crash no matter what, and no hedging of your bets right now will make it easier when it happens. The anxiety voice is trying to make you hedge your bets. Tell that spoil sport to suck an egg. You can still prepare for the crash by nuturing your other friendships and hobbies during this time, which will make you a more viable and interesting partner anyway and you'll need those connections and that continuity when the crash comes.

Lastly, HOLY SHIT SON. Smile. What an amazing time to be you!
posted by Skwirl at 10:56 AM on March 29, 2010 [8 favorites]

Nthing mindfulness training. I've found the books by Zen teacher Cheri Huber very helpful; two that might be most immediately relevant to you are (Regardless of What You Were Taught to Believe) There Is Nothing Wrong With You: Going Beyond Self-Hate and The Fear Book: Facing Fear Once and For All.

when we tried to sleep together for the first time, I was so nervous and so worried about pleasing her and measuring up to her expectations that I suffered a rather embarrassing, uhm, equipment failure.

To add to the reassurances of the above commenters, this is perfectly normal and not something to worry about. The first time my now-husband and I slept together, he had the same problem. An intelligent woman (and from what you've written, your sweetie sounds like one) will understand that willingness and desire don't always equal physical capability.

Also, penis-in-vagina sex is not the be-all, end-all of sexual intimacy. Consider exploring what fun you can have together without penetration — that might ease up the anxiety enough to let you relax and enjoy the experience more. (Part of why I figured my now-husband was worth giving more chances in bed was because he didn't say "I can't get it up, therefore we're not having sex now"; instead we spent time doing other things that were *ahem* highly enjoyable as well.)
posted by Lexica at 12:06 PM on March 29, 2010

The book Feeling Good teaches you specifically how to take on irrational thoughts that make you anxious (or depressed) and argue with them rationally until you literally don't believe them any more.

On a lighter note, this is the plot of the movie She's Out Of My League, in theaters now, right down to the... equipment failure. Not a fantastic movie, but you might enjoy it. :-)
posted by callmejay at 12:07 PM on March 29, 2010

Another way to approach this is to make a vow to yourself and to healthy relationships to respect this woman by believing what she tells you. Presumably she know her own mind. If she says she wants to be there and this relationship is making her happy, who the fuck is Iago to say that isn't so?

As to the sex thing, I don't know what to tell you. It happens; it's normal. But just so you know, you're putting a huge amount of pressure on yourself with this "only two months, only two moths" repetition. You're not going to die in eight weeks. You don't have eight weeks to reach perfection; you have eight weeks to keep this something you both want to pursue.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:40 PM on March 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

MeFi, you let me down when you eat my posts...

>>I know my anxiety to be a liar. I don't know how to shut it up.

Anxiety sufferer here: When all the facts and tools aren't helping, it's time to look into meds. There are medicines out there that in the right dose, for the right person, won't change who you are or how you relate to the world...except that when Iago shows up you can tell him to kiss off.

That's not exactly a stop-gap measure to keep you from sabotaging this relationship, but I wanted to put it out there. If your anxiety is like mine, there's a chemical in your head that isn't always right. When it's off, all the knowledge and positive thinking in the world can't make Iago shut up. Even when you KNOW everything is OK in a purely rational way.

You said you were in therarpy. What I'm hearing is, it's helped you recognize Iago and keep him out of the driver's seat, but it hasn't helped you push him out the door. It's time for new tools.

>>Please help me get a handle on it before it derails something amazing.

For stopgap: ASK. I call it the "Reality Check." I guess some people would call it communication, but for me it's more like a mental re-boot. I go to the person the anxiety is centering on and find a way to ask them if my perception of the situation is correct. Hitting back at the center of the spiral is more productive for me than riding the edge of an expanding perimeter of paranoia, and answering the question 'how much credibility does this person have' is somewhat easier for me to deal with than 'am I right or am I wrong in this situation.'

Avoid incendiary situations when Iago is in the house. If your rational brain is telling you, "we can't handle a meet-up right now," believe it. Most things can be re-scheduled, no matter how much the anxious part of you hates that idea.

Try to remember that this state of mind is probably temporary. Mind, that's a study of 1 talking...my anxiety is cyclic. Of course, a month or two can be bloody hard to wait out. But the good news is, Iago is not YOU. Sooner or later he will leave the house.

If you haven't already, talk to her about what's going on. Yes, she could run screaming from the house. But then, according to Iago, that's already in the cards, right? More likely (if you really have picked a good match), it will be a starting point for a more effective strategy in dealing with Iago's interference in your relationship.
posted by Ys at 5:27 PM on March 29, 2010

You could try drinking lightly, it can cause the same problem, but most men can still get it up after a few beers, and it might make you feel less anxious. You could also ask her to sleep over, then there is no hurry and you could just lie next to her and see what comes up during the next or in the morning. Also - don't take any aspirin or blood thinning drugs!
posted by meepmeow at 6:07 PM on March 29, 2010

Another book suggestion: I found Russ Harris's The Happiness Trap really useful for learning mindfulness and taking a step back from the anxiety and the heavy duty thinking that goes with it.
posted by prettypretty at 8:47 PM on March 30, 2010

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