Dear Rosie & Sherry,
I'm a 21-year-old woman and I suffer from dating anxiety. For as long as I can remember, I had strong interest in guys – even back in kindergarten I had a "boyfriend." But over the course of time, my easygoing attitude with boys has disappeared – slowly but surely.
I believe it was triggered by my being bullied by boys – starting from grade 5, all the way through high school. Although my interest in guys remained very strong, I couldn't feel comfortable enough to date them. Anxiety plagued me – I would get incredibly nervous before the handful of dates I had and things would progress no further.
And here I am now, 21, very much single, and stuck in place. If anything, over the past few years, I have become even more nervous at the prospect of dating, despite my strong desire to be with a man. I feel lonely, incomplete, almost tortured to be alone when everybody around me is moving on to happy relationships.
In my teens, I could excuse myself with showing "self control." I could pretend that I was at a decent place without love. But I can no longer hold myself back and be alone. I want to to meet a great man and not be scared of all that will bring.
I'm tired of this dating anxiety. I very much feel like I am wasting some of the best years of my life hiding from men, when I shouldn't.
What do you advise?
Rosie and Sherry's Answer:
We can see that it took a lot of self-searching and emotional effort to write this letter. We understand that as much as you long to be in a close, trusting relationship, you're terrified of what might happen. You've characterized what you are going through as "dating anxiety," but it seems to us that you're experiencing the after-effects of the trauma of repeated childhood bullying. A growing number of mental health professionals characterize these lingering effects of as a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and it's possible that you’ve developed this as a result of years of being bullied.
Indeed, what is called Complex PTSD can result from an accumulation of many small, individually non-life-threatening incidents that cause prolonged periods of negative stress. These aren't simply upsetting events, but stressful repeated violation of boundaries that cause feelings of helplessness, disempowerment, isolation and/or betrayal.
Society has only recently become sensitive to the phenomenon of bullying and the long-term affects on its victims. It isn't a normal rite of passage, and most of its victims carry the scars of repeated taunting, harassment and humiliation. Many adults who were bullied as children have been able to move past the experience and go on to lead full, productive, and happy lives. Yet most of them will not forget the pain of being bullied.
They guard against opening up to others so vulnerabilities won't be exploited.
Other former bullying victims aren't as fortunate. They can't get past their memories of pain and rejection. From time to time, they may experience depression, low self-esteem, anger at themselves for not fighting back, fear of trusting others, anxiety about interacting with others, and/or hyper-vigilance. Fear of finding themselves in a similar situation keeps them from actualizing their full potential in school, career and social life. They may become chronic underachievers and have difficulty developing friendships – guarding themselves against opening up to others so their vulnerabilities won't be exploited.
Can you see some of your own experiences in this description? Repeated bullying that occurs during childhood development can have devastating effects on one’s ongoing sense of self. You've described how the after-effects of bullying have kept you from even trying to have a relationship with a man. How many other areas of your life has it affected?
Parents and educators are learning that by preventing or stopping bullying at an early stage, they may save a child from developing the lasting injury of PTSD. This problem can be counteracted by building self-esteem and a sense of empowerment – by encouraging a sense of accomplishment or mastery through venues such as sports, martial arts, music, art, or using a creative outlet to express emotions. Children also need the emotional support of people who care about them and value them.
Address your mistrust of men by looking at trustworthy men in your life.
These strategies can also help adults who feel that childhood bullying has negatively affected how they view themselves or has kept them from actualizing their full potential. While many people can follow these suggestions on their own, others people find that they can best follow them with the help of a certified life coach or a therapist. Some of the most helpful strategies include:
- Find an emotionally supportive environment by developing or nurturing connections with others. Withdrawing from others only reinforces feelings of isolation and rejection. Do you have one or two trusted friends or relatives you can talk to and socialize with? Do you think you might benefit from joining a support group of adults who are also trying to overcome the same childhood injury as you are?
- Acquire competence in certain areas of life. You can raise your self-esteem by setting and accomplishing goals, even small ones. Completing a course, learning a craft or skill, earning a degree or certificate, getting a good review at work, or successfully completing a project – be it learning how to master a recipe, participating in a fundraiser, or heading a committee. By continuing to set and achieve different goals over time, and proving to be competent and capable in this one area, you can gradually have a positive effect on how you view yourself.
- Develop a sense of empowerment. A bullied child often feels helpless and betrayed. If you carry these feelings into adulthood, you may always feel and act like a victim. Think about the ways you may see yourself as a victim and how you can begin to change your mindset. Do something that requires you to stand up for yourself, or for someone else, to help effectuate a needed change. Join a neighborhood watch association, or work with a group that promotes awareness of a problem or injustice. Find practical ways you can have a positive effect on your life and the lives of others, and feel that you can make a difference.
- Build your trust of men. The experience of seeing friends, classmates, and even teachers and parents passively observe, ignore, or minimize bulling incidents can cause former bullying victims to feel they can’t trust others, or can’t know whom to trust. Or, like you, they are wary of anyone who reminds them of those who bullied them. Work on addressing your mistrust of men by looking at trustworthy men in your life, such as family members, friends, or members of your community. Think about the ways each can be trusted – for example, your doctor cares about your health, your brother honors your confidences, your grandfather believes in your abilities. Seek out examples of men whom your friends and neighbors trust – a father, a fiance or husband, a rabbi. This process can help you begin believing there are trustworthy men in the world, and that you may be able to find a dating partner you can slowly come to trust.
These suggestions, along with adopting a healthy daily routine of exercise, enough sleep, and balanced diet, can be very helpful to anyone who has been negatively affected by childhood bullying. You may also want to check some of the resources online at bullyonline.org.
As beneficial as these suggestions may be, it seems to us that your deep fear of relating to men, years of shying away from dating, and frustration with yourself won't be fully resolved with self-help. We believe that you will make more progress if you work with a psychotherapist who specializes in treating trauma, rather than if you try to follow these strategies on your own or with a coach. Cognitive behavioral therapy and EMDR are two of several forms of therapy that have been proven to be highly effective treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
You have shown great self-awareness to realize the connection between the traumatic bullying you experienced and your inability to be emotionally open to the relationship with a man that you so yearn for. We hope that our suggestions will help you break those crippling bonds.
Rosie & Sherry