Don’t let first date nerves scupper your long term prospects

Going on a first date involves balancing two opposing psychological forces. On the one hand, you have to lower your defenses enough to ‘be yourself’ and allow your personality to come through. On the other hand, the possibility of rejection and getting your feelings hurt creates a need for emotional caution.

Finding the best middle ground between these two psychological imperatives is no easy task because both strategies involve risks. Lowering your defenses is great on the one hand but it also exposes your self-esteem to greater injury (i.e., the more you exhibit your ‘natural self’ the more personal and painful a subsequent rejection can feel). However, erring on the side of caution can make you come across as guarded and suspicious which can easily lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy (i.e., you expected the other person to reject you so you acted too defensively, which turned them off and caused them to reject you). Worrying about rejection can easily sabotage an otherwise perfect first date.

The ideal scenario would be one in which you lower your defenses sufficiently to allow your personality to come through while still maintaining a reasonable degree of emotional protection. If there was a way to temporarily immunize yourself from rejection, at least, somewhat, you would be less self-conscious, less guarded, and more likely to allow your authentic ‘self’ to emerge and shine.

Well, there is!

Studies have found that self-affirmation exercises provide an immediate boost to your self-esteem, make you more emotionally resilient, and less reactive to rejection (read how self-esteem functions as an emotional immune system here) as a result.

Self-affirmations are different than positive affirmations in that they involve focusing on qualities or abilities you actually possess that you know have value and worth in the real world (such as being a good listener, having a sense of humor, being supportive and compassionate, or being a good conversationalist). On the other hand, positive-affirmations refer to idealized versions of yourself and your life such as, “I am worthy of love!” or “I will find great success!” Whereas studies found that positive affirmations can make people with low self-esteem actually feel worse (read about the problem with many self-esteem programs here), self-affirmations were found to restore self-esteem and self-confidence after sustaining psychological wounds like rejection or failure.

Despite many studies demonstrating the advantages of self-affirmations in restoring self-esteem and increasing emotional resilience to rejection (as well as to stress and anxiety), one important aspect was only examined recently—how to time them. Scientists explored this question in a series of studies and found that completing self-affirmation exercises before the ‘threat’ was encountered was more effective than doing so afterwards (in the event things go badly).

In other words, the best time to complete self-affirmation exercises is right before you go on a first date. Self-affirmation exercises are especially important before a first date, or before ‘important’ dates (e.g., where you meet the other person’s friends or family for the first time), as those are usually the occasions in which our anxiety about things not going well, and consequently, our defensiveness, tends to be highest.

Here’s what to do:

1. Make a list of qualities or abilities you actually possess that you know have value to dating partners. Try to include as many items as possible. In addition to the examples above, feel free to include items like being emotionally available, kind, sincere, good hearted, intellectually curious, appreciative, or a good cook, gift giver, or travel companion.

2. Choose one of these qualities and write a brief essay (one to two paragraphs) about why the quality is important, how others have appreciated it in the past, and why a dating partner is likely to find it valuable in the future.

3. Go have a good time!

Reminding yourself of your value as a dating partner before you go on a first date will give your self-esteem a boost, and by doing so, make you less defensive, and less vulnerable to rejection, and more relaxed, present, and authentic. While doing such exercises cannot guarantee a successful date, they can increase the likelihood of one.

Copyright 2013 Guy Winch

Reference: Critcher, C. R., Dunning, D., & Armor, D.A., “When self-affirmations reduce defensiveness: Timing is key,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, (2010), 36(7): 947-959.

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Guy Winch, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist, keynote speaker, and author whose books have already been translated into thirteen languages. His most recent book is Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013). The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem (Walker & Company) was published in January 2011. Dr. Winch received his doctorate in clinical psychology from New York University in 1991 and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in family and couples therapy at NYU Medical Center. He has been working with individuals, couples and families in his private practice in Manhattan, since 1992. He is a member of the American Psychological Association. In addition to the Blog on this site, Dr. Winch also writes the popular Squeaky Wheel Blog on Psychology, and blogs for Huffington Post.