You Need Help: How Can I Date When I’m So Scared To?

Q:

Hi, so I’m a 24 yr old white/cis lesbian who got out of my parents fundamentalist cult when I was 18. I’ve spent a lot of time working on myself to feel comfortable being around people, and I’m probably the happiest I’ve ever been. Most people would describe me as sweet, cheerful, and very sincere. However, there’s this desperate loneliness in that I don’t know how to really date?

When I’m attracted to someone irl, I can think they’re cute and funny, but if I get a chance to know them better and have the possibility of being friends, all attraction shuts down like I’m putting up a defensive wall. On dating apps, I’ve had a few dates and one ‘talking’ phase with someone for three months (I thought she was going to kiss me, and then she told me she thought we were better as friends).

Honestly, at this point it’s like I love the idea of romance, but being unwanted makes me flinch. I’m not particularly the prettiest or skinniest girl either, and I try to be confident instead of worrying over my flaws, but I genuinely feel like there’s a gap between me and other gay girls I don’t know how to bridge. I feel like I’m running out of time somehow.

A:

First of all, I want to commend you on the work you’re already doing on yourself to feel comfortable around others. It’s huge that you say you’re the happiest you’ve ever been. You’re clearly working toward growth, healing, and self-acceptance in a really meaningful way.

That said, the thing about doing work on ourselves is that there’s pretty much always more work to be done. This is especially true when growing up in traumatic religious environments like the one you’ve described. You’re unlearning so much, and it doesn’t happen overnight. I know you know that, but I think it’s worth saying, because I think sometimes when we make a lot of progress in our self work then it can be really easy to be extra hard on ourselves. It’s easy to think: I’m good now, so my anxiety about dating shouldn’t be so big. But just because we’ve made progress in some ways doesn’t mean everything is suddenly easy. Dating requires so much vulnerability, and a fear of rejection can be such a roadblock. So, what can we do to confront that roadblock?

It does sound like you might be struggling with some internalized fatphobia and negative self-talk, especially at the end of your letter. You are not flawed. Assume everyone thinks you’re hot (that piece has so much great, actionable advice for working on self-esteem and self-image). Working through these negative perceptions of yourself and deeply internalized ideas of beauty standards isn’t just a matter of trying to be confident. It requires a lot of introspection and active work. Therapy can definitely help here. But also just trying to identify the root causes for why you feel some of these things, which you can do by journaling. There are indeed a lot of outside, systemic forces that can make us feel like we aren’t pretty enough to be loved, and as individuals we don’t have the power to destroy those systems entirely. But we can shift the ways we look at ourselves and refuse these negative narratives. We can tell ourselves we deserve love, because we do. And anyone who would reject us for how we look isn’t someone who deserves our time, energy, or love. Yes, our society puts thinness on a pedestal, but being skinny is not requited to be loved.

I’m also curious if journaling about your fears and that defensive wall you feel yourself putting up could also lead to some revelations about how your time in the cult shapes some of these views. Were there specific beliefs imposed on you that are manifesting now in your fears about dating and getting closer with people? How do you feel about intimacy in general and what things do you still have to unlearn and investigate that could be rooted in your past?

Dating apps can be a really brutal space when it comes to insecurities and internalized beauty standards, because so many of them really do hinge initially on looks and superficial details. Rejection sometimes feels even worse on these apps because it can feel constant. I would actually maybe recommend stepping away from apps for now while you do some work on yourself so you can get to a place where it’s easier to sit with those rejections. I know you’re worried about running out of time or being behind fellow gay girls, but I assure you there isn’t a simple timeline when it comes to these things. In fact, it is better to slow down than to rush.

I don’t think you need to get to a place where you’re totally okay with the idea of rejection — tbh, a lot of folks never get to that place! rejection sucks for everyone! — before you jump back into dating apps, but I do think from the sounds of your letter that it might do you good to pause, to connect more with yourself, and to figure out what it is you want. Again, journaling can be so helpful here. What is it about the idea of romance that appeals to you specifically? What kind of relationship are you looking for? What do you hope to get out of dating? Finally, what are your specific fears around dating? And what are the true roots of those fears? Instead of holding what you call flaws against yourself, identify where the sentiment that these are flaws in the first place comes from.

It’s also possible you need to do some work toward figuring out how you feel about attraction in general. What is it that shifts once you start getting to know someone better? Even if you don’t identify on the aro/ace spectrum, I think there are a lot of great ace writers who are doing work that complicates things like attraction, like this recent piece by Ela Przybylo.

Dating is hard, and dating is scary. Six years on the other side of a fundamentalist cult you were raised in isn’t a tremendously long amount of time. It sounds like you’ve made a lot of great progress, but there’s still room for introspection and growth as you unlearn being hard on and critical of yourself. Refuse to accept the narratives that have been impressed upon you and work toward a sense of self that is constructed by you, not by others. Also, remember that dating does not have to lead to a relationship to still have positive meaning in your life. You can learn so much from dating others — about yourself and about what you want — even if the conclusion is just friendship or going your separate ways. If your fear of being unwanted is making it difficult to connect with people, investigate that fear. You might not be able to banish it entirely, but you can come up with ways to battle it, especially if you start giving yourself a little more compassion and grace.


You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 837 articles for us.

5 Comments

  1. LW, If you are able to do so, I highly recommend therapy. I know it can be quite inaccessible financially, but if you are in a position to see a therapist, I think it would be beneficial. I am a studying to be a therapist, so I am biased, but I dealt with this same thing, and therapy was very very helpful. Kayla mentioned getting to the root a few times, which I agree would be super beneficial. If you are up for therapy, look into psychoanalytic or psychodynamic therapy, which is all about finding the roots! Depending on where you live, there may be institutes or other sliding scale therapy locations. Best of luck!

  2. Dating is difficult, even for those without traumatic childhoods. Coming from a fundamentalist cult only adds a second level of awful to navigate. When people have hurt us, particularly those who were only supposed to help us, it can be extra difficult to open up to new people because we expect that they’ll let us down too. One thing to keep in mind, though, in terms of dating is that many people mistakenly think that the goal of dating is to have relations or find a partner. Those may be outcomes, but the goal of dating is to figure out what you want, what they want, whether those are even compatible, and hopefully have fun in the process. It’s an information-gathering process, a growth journey, not a speed-run. So, instead of worrying about the outcome, enjoy having fun. Focus on getting to know other people and just as importantly (if not more so) focus on getting to know yourself. How have they experienced life? What are their goals, interests, hobbies? What can or do you want to take away from that? What do you want? Eventually, you’ll come to realize that even the most healthy of people is imperfect, and over time, hopefully, you’ll come to give yourself the time, space, and understanding you deserve through the perspective you’ve gained, because I guarantee that in your own way, you are beautiful.

    • I’d also add, the letter writer is very young, relatively speaking. I’ve heard of stories of people finding fulfilling romantic love in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. Sure you may not want to be single in the time between your 20s and 40s but I promise you, there are lots of ways to find fulfillment outside of romantic relationships. Measuring your value or worthiness based on how many people find you attractive and/or want to date you will almost always be an unfulfilling exercise.

      A sense of detachment when it comes to dating along with a lot of what was expressed in the above comment has served me well.

  3. Coming here from being rejected by someone I was very excited about having something more with. It definitely hurt to hear that they felt more of an interest in friendship and it still hurts hours later, but this article and the comments section have helped me try to hold more compassion for myself and not feel so much pressure about finding someone to fit into my life. Thanks y’all <3

  4. I really relate to this, and have definitely had the exact same patterns around attraction. I very much second checking out aro/ace content. I ended up deciding (for now) that it’s not useful for me to identify in those ways, but I was able to start dating at 28 after several years of not attempting to date and then a year or two of aro/ace exploration. It really helped me get past some of the layers of shame I was experiencing, which had been multiplying with age. I really think much of the thought generated by these communities would be so useful to the world at large, and it helped me think about myself in a more helpful way than anything else I tried. At 30 I still haven’t really figured out how to date women without shutting down attraction as a defensive mechanism, but I’ve been able to date men pretty much “normally” which is a huge deal for me. Fwiw I have not found therapy or thinking about dating directly to be useful as I spent almost all of my teens and twenties in that struggle, but ymmv. And I know past me would be so devastated to know it took me so long, but I did lots of other cool stuff in all those years and it will be okay, however long it takes you to figure things out.

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!