Your question: Can I have a partner if I have social anxiety?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy.

Anxiety is a universal experience. To a greater or lesser extent, we all feel anxiety at various times in our lives. Anxiety is necessary because it triggers an alert in our body, indicating that we must take action to avoid a potential threat. However, when anxiety becomes very intense and recurrent, it causes problems.

There are several types of anxiety, one of the most common is social anxiety, also known as social phobia. This problem is characterized by a persistent avoidance of social situations. People with social anxiety feel excessive embarrassment, fear and worry when they are in social situations, almost always because they are afraid of the judgment or assessment that others make of them (1).

It should not be confused with common shyness. Shyness is a personality trait, characteristic of introverted and quiet people. However, shyness does not pose a problem for everyday life. People with social anxiety struggle with adapting to social settings. For many of them, a presentation at school or a meeting at work can be a panic attack with overwhelming physical symptoms.

If you are someone who is dealing with social anxiety, although you may feel alone and misunderstood, social anxiety is a fairly common problem. Approximately 12% of adults experience social anxiety (2), and although it is most common in young people between the ages of 18 and 29, it occurs indiscriminately regardless of age, gender or any other variable.

Socializing is part of life, and getting a partner and maintaining a relationship can be problems for people with social anxiety. The process of starting a romance naturally involves social bonding, whether it’s through dating apps or meeting people on a day-to-day basis, it’s necessary to engage in conversations.

If you’re reading this you’re probably worried that you won’t be able to get a partner because of your social anxiety. The reality is that social anxiety is not a life impediment, but an obstacle that you must learn to overcome so that it does not harm your goals and aspirations.

You can certainly have a relationship with social anxiety. You need to learn to control your social anxiety symptoms and develop socialization strategies to cope with the process of dating and becoming romantically attached.

What does it feel like to have social anxiety?

Social anxiety occurs exclusively in social contexts, such as being in a crowd, on public transportation, when giving a presentation in class or at work, trying to socialize to make new friends, at a job interview, even simple everyday activities such as talking to a cashier at the grocery store.

The symptoms of social anxiety are both physical and emotional, and are generally characterized by the fear of being judged or criticized negatively by others. Other common symptoms are:

  • Muscle tension.
  • Tachycardia and shortness of breath.
  • Anticipation of social activities well in advance, e.g., fear of a college presentation weeks before it occurs.
  • Feeling of extreme embarrassment in social settings.
  • Avoidance of social activities for fear of feeling anxious.
  • Feeling of dizziness.
  • Avoidance of eye contact.
  • Feeling panic when a stranger asks you a question on the street.
  • Difficulty making friends and dating.

Why does having a partner give you social anxiety?

Social anxiety appears when you are exposed to social situations. It is common to feel observed and criticized by others, making it difficult or impossible to feel comfortable in a social space.

Being in a relationship involves a socialization process. You may feel anxious during the process of dating and engaging in conversations with the person you like. Thoughts such as “he/she probably doesn’t like me” or “he/she must think I’m ugly” run through your mind.

If you are already in a relationship, your social anxiety can create insecurities and make it difficult to communicate with your partner. Social anxiety causes people to doubt their own abilities. They are overly self-critical and feel that others are self-critical of them.

Being in a relationship with social anxiety usually involves feeling fear or worry that your partner is going to end the relationship at any moment, as well as problems communicating and telling him or her how you feel.

These are completely common problems in social anxiety that can be exhausting and affect you emotionally. However, they don’t have to define your romantic life. Having social anxiety does not make you immune to love, as there are things you can do to feel better about yourself and subsequently create healthy romantic bonds.

How can you work with social anxiety?

Although research has suggested that people with social anxiety may experience difficulties in having romantic relationships (3) there is nothing written that says it is impossible. Social anxiety does not determine your life and does not mean the end of your romantic possibilities (3).

You can date and have a relationship even if you have anxiety by learning techniques that allow you to regulate your anxious symptoms and develop social skills that allow you to communicate better.

Social anxiety has been shown to be treatable with cognitive behavioral therapy. People learn strategies that improve their quality of life, and manage to cope with overwhelming social situations through questioning their irrational thoughts and socialization and communication techniques.

Breathing and relaxation

When anxiety symptoms occur, relaxation exercises are quite helpful. Close your eyes, inhale slowly for 3 seconds and exhale for another 3 seconds. Rest your hands on your abdomen and feel how the tension in your body progressively decreases. While you do this, repeat in your mind affirmation phrases, such as: “you can handle this situation, you have the strength to do it”. You can apply this exercise for 10 to 20 minutes a day.

Write down what you feel before you say it

People with social anxiety often find it difficult to verbally express their emotions, which can be a problem when it comes to dating or starting a relationship. One help is to write down in a journal what you are feeling, from the feelings of attraction you experience for the person to the fears and concerns associated with your social anxiety. If you have been dating the person for some time and have built the necessary trust, you can talk about your social anxiety. 

Planning and honesty

One thing that can help you reduce your anxiety is to make a discussion about the dates or activities you will do with the person you like. A private, intimate space will help you feel less anxious about social interactions. Honesty will also help you connect with the other person. If at any point during the date you feel anxious, worried that the other person will notice, you can say something like “I’m sorry if I seem distracted, it’s just that dating and meeting people makes me a little anxious.”

Develop your social skills

Something like initiating a conversation with a stranger can be a nightmare for many people with social anxiety. However, these are small steps you can take to cope with the symptoms of social anxiety and learn to control them. In a notebook you can write down a simulated conversation with a stranger or an acquaintance. It will help to look in the mirror and practice. Preferably, you can make the conversation about a topic of your interest, for example, a movie you recently saw or a nice restaurant you went to.

When you find yourself in a social setting, approach a person to start the conversation. If the person doesn’t know you, introduce yourself. Start talking about the topic you had in mind and practiced earlier. At the moment you may feel tense and overwhelmed, but by the end, regardless of how long the conversation lasts, you will feel that you have taken an important step in developing your social skills.

In my experience…

Going on a date with that special someone is stressful for everyone, but if you have social anxiety, even more so. It’s natural for your thoughts to torture and overwhelm you, telling you phrases like “the other person doesn’t like you.” But to cope with anxiety, of any kind, you must learn that your thoughts are not facts.

Feeling and thinking a certain way does not necessarily align with objective reality. Therefore, dealing with social anxiety is a rigorous, learn-and-error process. The important thing is to feel like you are taking small steps toward becoming the best version of yourself. There are romantic possibilities for you, because having social anxiety doesn’t mean you have to be isolated and lonely. Gradually, and with sincerity, you will bond with the right people. It all starts with you, and by reminding yourself of your own virtues, reaffirming yourself as someone imperfect, but capable of getting what you want.

I believe you have the ability to improve and heal these feelings of discomfort you are experiencing now. The fact that you are seeking professional help through this message proves it to me, and I applaud you for making that decision and being on track to improve your mental health and overall, your physical health

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