|By Dr Nadine Muller
I’ve been trying to make this thought sound less dramatic, but somehow “Get Comfortable with Discomfort” didn’t quite sound right, and also
vaguely reminded me of adverts for constipation remedies. The reason I was looking for a better phrase is that this note isn’t really about what I’d call “fears”. It’s about the things that make you uncomfortable, to a greater or lesser degree, on a daily basis.
I’ve had to face a lot of those things over the past year or so, especially when my ten-year relationship ended. All the issues with which I have always struggled all in a sudden became exacerbated (how I value myself, what makes me anxious, etc.). I also had to face the fact that – while I’m very comfortable in my own company – I did actually feel a bit lonely, something which, naively, I hadn’t anticipated, because I live in my head a lot and have never struggled with a lack of company.
Dating has always been a nightmare for me. I don’t like uncertainty. I don’t like having to figure people out. I wear my heart on my sleeve, and have been in plenty of situations where other people don’t. Often my struggling to read them has led to much disappointment and, always, a feeling of having made a fool of myself, of being the idiot in the equation. I am also one of those people who approaches meeting potential partners with the expectation that there will inevitably, at some point, come a time when they realise that they should have run a mile on day one.
You can probably imagine by now that just the prospect of online dating played havoc with my anxieties. On the other hand, though, it seemed like a much better option than awkwardly meeting new people through work, or on nights out (ha … as if I go on nights out … I haven’t made it further than across the road more than handful of times in years!), or at dog-related events. Because there you have to figure out if someone is actually single, or interested, and so on. And that state of uncertainty is a killer for me.
So I did it. I signed up. I went on dates. One nice enough. One so atrocious that I walked through London crying afterwards, thinking I had made an utter fool of myself, and how did I not see it coming that I would screw this up. But I surprised myself. Not long ago, I would have been in a state for days, if not weeks, after a night like that. Blaming myself, berating myself for how stupid I was to think that this person could perhaps have liked me.
Instead, in the morning, I realised that actually it wasn’t me who had been an idiot. The guy I had met was rude, obnoxious, and clearly covering up some sort of chip on his shoulder by making me feel even more uncomfortable than he knew I already was. Who tells people on a first date that the question they just asked was boring, and not worth answering? Who tells people on a first date that it appears one of your main traits is defensiveness and then tries their hand at a bit of cheap psychoanalysis? And all that when you’ve already admitted you’re very nervous. “I could tell it was torture for you”, he later writes. No shit, Sherlock! Slow clap. Really, really slow clap.
So the morning after I realised pretty quickly that it didn’t matter what that person thought of me. That seems like the kind of thing most people would’ve realised during or straight after the date. But for me, it was huge when I woke up feeling fine (and a bit angry, but not with myself, for once).
So why is today’s thought “face your fears”? I’ve realised that I’m becoming so much better – professionally and personally – at brushing things off, at dealing with them rationally and moving on, something with which I’ve struggled all my life. I hadn’t realised that somehow I have moved on as a person. That things have changed. And that I made that happen (with the help of friends, of course).
Don’t get me wrong. This whole dating thing is still a little more stressful for me than I suspect it is for most people. I still struggle when people suggest that it’s supposed to be “fun”. That’s not to say it’s not fun, but it also comes with a bigger than normal dose of worrying for me, still. But that’s ok. Because I’ve faced this fear – because I’ve gone out there and faced the unknown – I feel like I’ve managed to push and recalibrate what levels of discomfort I can tolerate.
I’ve discovered that I’ve made a lot of progress when it comes to how I think of myself, and when it comes to my ability to process unpleasant situations and events. When I started this whole dating thing again, I was so worried that it was going to be a horrible mistake and a traumatic return to my teenage years (not in the good, exciting kind of way; more in the “I never want to go through that again” kind of way). It may not be a surprise to you that I’ve grown as a person since my late teens (most people do, I suppose), but it was a huge surprise to me, and one that I wouldn’t have experienced if I hadn’t pushed myself a little.
Dating again was a big thing for me, not least because of my previous issues with anxiety. But today’s positive thought also applies on much smaller levels. Do things that make you a little uncomfortable. It might be having a light conversation with a stranger on the train, if that’s something with which you struggle. It might be something that doesn’t involve other people at all. If there’s a slight chance it might make you feel good, then it just might. If it doesn’t, then you tried, and simply having tried should make you feel proud, and ready to perhaps try something else that scares you the next day.
It’s not about doing dramatic things – there’s no need to create your own little “I’m a Celebrity” jungle scenario. The small things matter, and they can show you incredible things about yourself, and make you feel anything from a little happy to absolutely amazing. Don’t expect miracles. Be ready for a little disappointment, and to process it for what it is. There’s few skills more valuable than being able to put things into perspective, and facing your fears – big or small – certainly helps you with that. Ask yourself what’s the worst that can happen if you try, but also wonder what’s the best that can happen.
This post was originally published on Dr Nadine Muller’s blog on January 13, 2016. It has been re-published with permission.
Nadine is Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University and has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Hull. Her research covers Victorian and neo-Victorian literature and culture, contemporary women’s fiction, and cultural histories of women, gender, and feminism from the nineteenth century through to the present day. She is currently completing a monograph on the literary and cultural history of the widow in Britain (Liverpool University Press, 2017). You can follow her on Twitter: @Nadine_muller
[Feature Photo by Korney Violin]