The Princess Bride nearly destroyed my ability to find love.
I hold The Princess Bride culpable because it is funny, charming, intelligent and moving in its modern reconstruction of fairy-tale narrative, and because, when viewed from a particular perspective, it is utterly and irredeemably backwards about human courtship.
Our leading lady is Buttercup, supposed prettiest girl of all time, but certainly really attractive in a modest, willowy way as portrayed by a young Robin WrightPenn. Our hero is Westley, humble farmboy, portrayed by Cary Elwes, who is himself a decent-looking gentleman. Terrified of the possibility of rejection by his harsh mistress, Westley prepares a passive-aggressive campaign of ultimate unconditional devotion. He works incredibly hard as her servant, caters to her every whim, without ever once actually declaring his intentions. His mantra is “as you wish,” which is apparently farmboy code for “I am so totally into you.”
When I was a teenager, struggling with undiagnosed OCD and social anxiety, the Farmboy Westley No-Risk Seduction Method sounded like a great idea. Because of my anxiety, the possibility of being rejected by a girl I liked felt cataclysmic. So fantasy stories like The Princess Bride taught me how to persevere, quietly and nobly, in pursuit of young ladies who were probably quite unaware of my existence. Stories like these convinced me that staring and quickly turning my head, that volunteering for meaningless favors with creepy persistence, that sighing frequently and audibly were all viable methods for attracting a mate. These tactics were appealing because they required no sacrifice and minimal risk - they did not necessitate that the wooer subject himself to the hypothetical devastating “no.” Through such strenuous non-effort, I expected to find love.
Sadly, none of this works. Love is not something you can fall into, like a tumbler clicking into place. Love takes effort, it requires sacrifice, it demands you take risks. No one will take your hand if you do not offer it.
At the McLean Hospital OCD Institute, I underwent a form of treatment called Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). ERP works based on habituation, the psychological phenomenon that allows us to ignore repeated sensory input: habituation is why you don’t hear the air conditioner, or feel your socks against your feet. It does this by gradually increasing the patient’s exposure to feared stimuli at intervals (sort of like building up an immunity to iocane powder inAustralia).
The trick to habituation is to seek out small challenges that raise anxiety without triggering full-scale panic - and the best way to fight social avoidance is to look for quiet, low-risk opportunities to engage others in conversation. Talk to elderly people on the bus, make small talk with shy strangers at parties, call old friends out of the blue. Whenever anxiety rears its head, find small ways to push back against it.
From there, the next step is to speak with people you’d potentially be interested in dating – your openers don’t have to be brilliant, you can get away with asking opinions on local news or the weather. Sometimes you’ll be pleasantly surprised and have a nice talk with a stranger; sometimes you’ll look like a creep. But the point is to acclimate yourself to both outcomes, until the possibility of rejection no longer scares you. You need to learn on an intuitive level that being turned down isn’t the worst thing in the world – and the only way to do that is to get turned down a couple of times.
You can’t improve your life, after all, if you aren’t willing to take risks and try new problem-solving strategies. And while it may not seem as romantic as catering to the every whim of your intended beloved, exposing yourself to increasingly more challenging (but still manageable) social situations is a much healthier way of building the confidence you need to find a date.
If I could somehow give my high school self romantic advice, that’s what I’d tell him: Talking to girls, as it were, is about a lot more than just talking to girls.
Copyright, Fletcher Wortmann, 2013.
Author of Triggered: A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (St. Martin’s Press), named one of Booklist’s “Top 10 Science & Health Books of 2012”.
Visit my website: http://www.fletcherwortmann.com/
Read my Psychology Today blog: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/triggered