Scared of attraction.
January 25, 2015 11:58 PM   Subscribe

29 year old heterosexual male. I believe that I have social anxiety when it comes to talking to women I am attracted to - perhaps more than normal. This has meant very little sex or relationships throughout my life. Practical ideas for dealing with this would be appreciated.

I am generally socially anxious. But I have good friends, male and female, and I get along ok. I sometimes worry that I come across as stupid, am hesitant to express an opinion. People see me as a bit withdrawn and reserved. I struggle at talking to strangers, especially small talk, and I find it hard work in a non-structured social setting like at a party. But I feel like I fight those things adequately, mostly. But I would particularly like to be better at talking to women to whom I'm attracted. This is a problem for me. I’ve been single most of my life and I would also have liked to have more sex and eventually another relationship.

When I talk to people to whom I’m attracted, my thoughts become dominated by the fact that they are an attractive person, and so, somehow there’s shame in talking to them because I feel like I am talking to them with an ulterior motive – because I want to have sex with them. At least that’s my train of thought at the time. I imagine myself chatting to them, nodding along insincerely while thinking about having sex with them and hate that image of myself. Or perhaps that’s just what I tell myself to avoid rejection at all costs. But in any case, I usually take the easy way out and avoid it. I think more socially advanced people somehow acknowledge and compartmentalize their attraction when they talk with people they are attracted to. Occasionally I manage to chat to people I am attracted to, but in a very non flirty way, like a village vicar acting in official capacity.

I have much less of a problem talking to women I am not attracted to, or people I know are not single.

Many people have been talking about Pick Up Artists recently. As I understand it, the problem with PUAs is not that they are horny, that they have a view of women that is incorrect and reductionist, and the techniques encourage people to behave dishonestly and manipulatively. They are also associated with harassing people and trying to bring sex into situations where women just want to get on with their lives. I am trying to explain that although I might be exactly in the PUA demographic and although I too want to have more sex, I am not tempted by their web pages. I understand that one has to judge context. In many, maybe most situations, one’s attraction to someone is not relevant and repressing it is the right thing to do. But not in all situations. In recent weeks I have been in two situations in bars and clubs with some women whom I thought attractive smiling at me from across the room and I wanted to go and talk to them, but I was pathetically frozen to the spot. I really know in my head that there would have been nothing wrong with talking to them in that context. I even recognized one of them from somewhere else so it need not have been too weird. I tried to think of something to say but I stayed where I was in terror. I imagined myself sauntering across the room saying something like –hi how is your evening going, then doing my village vicar non-flirting, but with sexual thoughts in my head-and hated the mental image of myself.

I would be a ‘forever alone’ person, but from OkCupid I had a brief relationship and then a fling a couple of years ago. I still find it hard to message people on OkCupid for the same reason mentioned above, but not as hard. There’s time to deliberate and it’s easier to push a button to send a message than make yourself actually speak to someone. But in my area OKC is not very popular and I haven’t managed any dates there for a long time. Also I would like to not have to rely on it.

In the brief relationship, I did very badly at the beginning. I was hopeless at what should have been flirting, and the other person had to ask me – what is going on, why are we hanging around together and talking so much etc. I was ashamed of not being able to take any initiative, but she forgave me and we went on to have a brief relationship. When we got to having sex I didn't feel anxiety about that. In the fling, we just got on well and I think I was a bit more bold after my first relationship, and there was a clear early mutual attraction.

I understand I might be conflating sex and relationships a bit in this post. But I think at the moment these things I am doing or thinking preclude both and I would like to find a way to change my behavior. I would be grateful for your ideas.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

I have good friends, male and female ...When we got to having sex I didn't feel anxiety about that. In the fling, we just got on well and I think I was a bit more bold after my first relationship, and there was a clear early mutual attraction.

You're doing well all in all, or at least better than a lot of folks on here who post dating axiety questions. FWIW, I am a hetero woman, I do not have social anxiety, and I get weird talking to guys I find attractive. I chalk this up to me being human.

Sounds too me like you really want to get laid, and so that's clouding your ability to talk to attractive people. Maybe I'm oversimplifying by why not just try to get laid? I see you've used OkCupid, which is great when you're looking for relationships. Why not switch to Tinder and seek out hook ups?

I suggest Tinder rather than say, using pick-up-artist stuff at bars (which you rightly recognize is creepy and manipulative - Again, good on you!), because people on there want to hook up. No manipulation necessary.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 12:42 AM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ty speed dating? Like Tinder, everyone there wants to hook up, but it will give you some in-person practice. Maybe even find one in a different city, if you're in a small place.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 1:05 AM on January 26, 2015

"Hi, I'm anonymous. I am generally socially anxious. But I have good friends, male and female, and I get along ok. What's your name?"
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:19 AM on January 26, 2015

In the brief relationship, I did very badly at the beginning. I was hopeless at what should have been flirting, and the other person had to ask me – what is going on, why are we hanging around together and talking so much etc. I was ashamed of not being able to take any initiative, but she forgave me and we went on to have a brief relationship.

Some women prefer to be the ones to take the initiative. You can tangle yourself up in what you "think you should be doing" or maybe you should be going along with your personality more and seeking out women who complement that - it might more less stressful and more fun in the long run.
posted by heyjude at 2:10 AM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Attraction is distracting and not always altogether comfortable... but maybe it's worth why thinking about why you seem to have so much guilt about it and trying to reframe the thoughts. Look up CBT and reframing thoughts.. it's good for stuff like that.
posted by tanktop at 3:28 AM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

You say both that the PUAs' problem is not that they're horny but that they're manipulative; and that you feel ashamed about talking to women if you're motivated by desire for them (i.e. you're horny). Why is desire as a motivation shameful for you and not for them?

FWIW, I don't think that motivation is shameful in itself. You've used very strong words (shame, hate) about your own legitimate desires in your OP. I think I'd work out what's going on there before looking at particular techniques.

Here's a thing about your terrible hidden motivation: at least some of the women can tell, so it's not so hidden after all (maybe that's more terrifying, I don't know). The flirting game is about deniability and avoiding the loss of face that might occur if things were more overt. Sometimes this does mean one party thinks something is going on and the other is oblivious, but sometimes you both know what's going on but are sort-of pretending you don't.
posted by pw201 at 3:31 AM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Consider that we are all, biologically, little monkeys who are instinctually programmed to want to hump each other 24 hours a day in order to propagate the species. There is absolutely nothing wrong and nothing to be ashamed of with wanting to have sex with people you're attracted to. It is literally what you were built for. You are a very normal and healthy little monkey and Charles Darwin would be so proud.

All being human does is put a societal filter over our little monkey brains. We want to form close bonds with other people to fulfill societal and emotional goals. We want to be intimate with some of those people to further strengthen those bonds. We don't let the monkey brain rule because we have more important goals as a species than to just hump each other all day long. Sounds like you're sorted pretty well on the human filter part, too!

I think a lot of where you're getting hung up here is over a concern that your monkey brain makes you wrong somehow. Just because the human filter is important doesn't mean the monkey brain isn't present and valid. Again, there is 0 shame in wanting to have sex with someone you're attracted to.
posted by phunniemee at 3:40 AM on January 26, 2015 [6 favorites]

Ask your doctor if prescription Wellbutrin is right for you.

Seriously - it's a med for social anxiety, and it's not an SSRI. Which means among other things, it won't kill your interest in sex. And - I speak from personal experience - it is not a drug where you are locked in and must take it forever.

The Usual Disclaimers, IANAD, IANAShill, etc. but I've been where you are. This stuff helped me get past it.
posted by doctor tough love at 5:27 AM on January 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

seconding doctor tough love.
posted by infinitewindow at 5:37 AM on January 26, 2015

People are sexually attracted to each other. In social situations we frequently assume that the people we speak to might develop into dates and then lovers. So you're actually worried about nothing.

So rather than approaching women as delicate, wilting flowers, you might try to get to know us. Do I mind if you occasionally think you might want to fuck me? Nope. And the thought may cross my mind as well. But I certainly would like to know you as a person before all of that goes down.

We're human, we're programmed to think about sex. Most folks won't hold that against you. So approach women, speak to them, get to know them, and it's perfectly okay to confess to an attraction. I've never been offended by someone telling me, "You're really pretty, I'd love to take you out." Or better yet, "you're hilarious, let's grab a burger." If I wasn't interested, I'd just say, "Oh, if only I was single!"

Consider that your fears may be around rejection, rather than women thinking you're only out for one thing.

If you're honestly interested in flirting and getting to know me better, I personally don't care what sexual fantasies you may have about me. In fact, it's not really my business.

Here's something that may shock you. Sometimes, I might be horny and just want to fuck you. You know, a one-night stand. When I was young and single, it was known to happen. But I'm pretty aggressive, so you wouldn't be left wondering about it long.

If you feel crippled by social anxiety, do look into meds. They can be tremendous help.

I will tell you that most people don't think about you as complexly and as often as you assume we might. Mostly we think you're that cute, shy guy in the corner, and isn't is a shame that he's not coming over. Oh well, there are other cute guys here.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:45 AM on January 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

Having a period of hookups/casual sex can be invaluable when you're awkward. It demystifies things and lessens some of the hormonal load that can make a smart person stupid.

Also, try to get out of the habit of consciously looking for True Love, Amazing Sex and the Entire Package because that will make you crazy. It's easier and more useful to think in terms of just seeing where things will go with people you find interesting. This also makes it easier to cultivate friends.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:02 AM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Pretty much everyone feels some anxiety sending that message or walking across that room. Having a discomfort does not mean your only possible choice in life is to become a PUA and/or MRA.

You will not die of discomfort. You will not die of being told no (or being told yes, for that matter).

In fact, if you go ahead and feel the discomfort once, the next time won't be so bad, and then the next time will be even less bad, and on and on. Maybe you never reach zero, but you will continue to approach a point very close to zero. This is called "experience" and it's why we require it in surgeons and professional football players. The only way to get experience is know, do it.

Luckily, in human relations if not football you can get where you're going with kindness and straightforward honesty, so make those your navigational tools. If you can do those things and approach people with the intention of making a connection (rather than a panicked laser focus on whether they're going to touch your penis, because people hate being used and it is obvious when someone approaches with a goal in mind), you will find a way to the things you want, including having your stuff touched.

It seems likely that you've survived at least some amount of school and you've probably been employed, so you've done other scary things. Meeting and getting to know people is very nearly zero-stakes as long as you follow basic safety rules, and the more of them you meet and get to know the more avenues open up in your life.

Maybe start with The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, just to learn the basic tools that humans use to manage anxiety. As part of that process you can determine whether you need professional assistance developing the coping skills you need or if you just need to push yourself a little harder to be brave.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:42 AM on January 26, 2015

Hi anon, take this anecdotal advice for whatever it's worth. I'm an early 30s woman, a late bloomer, who struggles with the high anxiety of talking to a man I genuinely find attractive. I don't have kids, which I think has a bearing on my current experience of sexuality without sex or relationships (I choose to be single and not sleep around, for the time being -- unless I do meet someone who meets my criteria for worthy of intimacy, but that happens maybe once or twice a year tops, so it's slow-going). I found the last few years to be much like what teenage boys must experience -- even though I'm not having a whole bunch of sex you would think would be precipitating the increased level of awareness.

Basically, when I'm talking to a guy I find physically attractive, I have learned to recognize the feelings associated to popping what I affectionately refer to as a "lady-boner". I've also come to think of it as the biochemical veil of attraction... I think being around a person you find attractive literally causes your thoughts to be dominated by sexy times with them because your body is reacting hormonally to their sight and smell. That's a good because it means the "chemistry" is there, and your brain is working properly by signalling it.

In became really clear to me when I attended a boxing club a couple years ago. There was a young guy (~10 years younger) and I don't know how else to describe it except that I could tell from his body that he found me attractive, and then I could tell from my own body that it was a physically mutual chemistry. One day we were standing in line and I couldn't believe how powerfully my head clouded up just from standing near him, even though I *knew* I didn't want someone so much younger than me. I was able to have compassion about it, too, in the sense that I know I am a late bloomer, I did not get much practice or experience learning to master these feelings earlier in life, and so I'm not going to beat myself up when it feels like it's happening for someone unsuitable. Some women like the cougar-dynamic, but for me that age difference feels icky. It took a while but finally, after seeing him around town a few times, I was able to see through my own 'veil' to his still-maturing personality (and understand without a doubt that I did not want to pursue him).

My advice: Practice talking to women you find attractive, let yourself feel your feelings, and then see if you can see past the veil of your own physiological reaction to the them to their actual personality... If you feel guilty about the sexytimes thoughts/feelings associated with this, credit those towards a general idea of what the ultimately attractive and complementary partner *for you* will look/be like (when you've done all your learning about this process and you finally meet her). Because bear in mind, not everyone you experience attraction for will be someone you can pursue a viable relationship with... but eventually, if you learn to keep your head up and look, it will line up. I think if you can master that approach, it will greatly increase your confidence in being able to approach people you find attractive for the purposes of dating. Good luck!
posted by human ecologist at 9:35 AM on January 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

You sound a lot like me from about a decade ago: withdrawn, anxious around strangers, very anxious around women I was attracted to. I did a few things that, taken together, mostly fixed the problem. Now I'm happily married, partly as a result of learning to work through and overcome my anxiety. It took a few years but I started getting dates, getting into relationships, etc. Try some of these on for size.

1) I got better at speaking to strangers by reading How to Win Friends and Influence People and practicing what I read. I know it gets recommended all over the place for every social situation, but that's because it really is good. The book's name sounds a little inflammatory, but in reality it's a book about how to genuinely connect with people. Once you feel more comfortable with speaking to people in general, you will find that these attractive women that make you so nervous are just people like anyone else, and connecting with them is substantially similar to connecting with anyone. So I'd read that book and start learning to connect with people in general, it'll make connecting with women you're attracted to much easier. It won’t necessarily help with flirting, but that’s a very small portion of connecting with a romantic partner. Learn to approach them as people first. (That’s what will distinguish you from an PUA)

2) I read Intimate Connections. That book is great for anxious people like you and me. It discusses how to connect with romantic partners, but more importantly it spends lots of time discussing how to become comfortable with yourself, which will lead to less anxiety and more confidence.

3) I went to therapy for my anxiety. It was affecting many areas of my life, so it may have been more general anxiety than you are experiencing - or it may be similar to what you're experiencing. Books are good, but having someone to discuss your issues with and who can guide you and give you feedback that is specific to your situation is very valuable. My therapist didn’t teach me how to flirt, but he helped me process my anxious emotions so I could talk to people normally and learn the rest myself.

4) I started asking women out on actual dates instead of trying to meet them in bars, at parties, through friends, etc. I don't mean random women, but if I knew a woman well enough to know that she's single I would go ahead and ask her out. I’m just no good in large groups or loud places, but one-on-one I can connect with dates much better. The point here is twofold: First, going on an actual date removes the weird ambiguity. You’re allowed to be attracted to someone on a date, that’s the point of a date! Similarly, if she agreed to go on a date with you, then you know she’s at least somewhat interested. That’s two major hurdles overcome. Second, a date is a chance to get together in a situation where you and your date are comfortable and can get to know each other. Maybe you are bad in loud bars but great talking over dinner. Or maybe you are more comfortable when you take your date to a fun activity like a wine tasting. The point is to figure out your strengths and weaknesses and play to your strengths (while also making your date comfortable). For me, I don’t like loud bars/clubs, so meeting women who like to hang out in those places meant I was meeting women whose idea of fun was not necessarily my idea of fun. Instead I spent more time with women who, like me, would prefer dinner 1-on-1. Not only did it put me in a situation where I was comfortable, it meant I was more likely to connect with her. As a bonus, directly asking someone out on a 1-on-1 date has fallen out of style in some circles because everyone expects to meet someone randomly through friends or other venues, so you'll actually impress some people by asking them on an old-fashion, go-out-to-dinner-and-talk date.

Finally, anxiety tends to be reduced by repeated exposure. As you start to interact with people you don’t know more often and try out some of the new things you’ve learned, it’s likely that the anxiety will slowly get better. Maybe not 100% better, but bit by bit - and every little bit helps.
posted by Tehhund at 10:28 AM on January 26, 2015 [6 favorites]

One thing that was a game changer for me was a friend who boiled down the situation to this:
"You're not afraid that she'll say 'no', you're afraid that she'll say 'yes'."

Accepting that made it a lot easier to approach and feel comfortable talking to women I thought I wanted to date.
posted by plinth at 4:47 PM on January 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

Your guilt over this is puzzling - you might try journaling to see if you can sort out where it's coming from and if it really is guilt or perhaps fear of rejection.

As for the vicar thing - you know, not every guy is a smooth-talking cloud of testosterone. And that's ok. I have run across guys who wanted and needed the woman to make the first move. And I have dated men whose dating conversation was very prosaic - less "you look nice tonight" and more "how was your day" - and I liked that. It's low pressure and it means I can relax and actually get to know them.

Make a point of frequently chatting to people you find attractive - accept that it will be uncomfortable at first, accept that you are thinking about sex. That is not weird or abnormal. For all you know they may be thinking of sex too. It's okay. A little meditation might help you observe your thoughts and detach just a bit. Hopefully if you try this steadily for a while and push yourself through it you'll stop freaking out about and fighting the sex thoughts and start accepting them.

If you are still struggling with this after trying a few of the suggestions here, and if further exploration suggests that your guilt around sexual thoughts is a significant issue, you might want to consider therapy.

Good luck.
posted by bunderful at 8:36 PM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

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