One of the group activities at the McLean Hospital OCD Institute was writing romantic personal ads for ourselves, and then sharing them with others. The idea was that, after spending months in the OCD program, listing our best qualities would help us to rebuild a positive self-image, and sharing with our fellow patients could reinforce that. Unfortunately, they didn’t count on one of their patients being a chronic and likely-incurable wise guy.
So here is a reasonable approximation of my personal ad:
“SWMP (single white mental patient) seeks… something? Enjoys exposure-response prevention therapy, SSRIs, long walks on the beach. I’m living in the uncertainty; won’t you join me?”
Six years after my stay at the OCDI, I realize I owe an apology to my treatment providers and to my fellow patients. I’m sorry - I may not have taken that one entirely seriously.
But even if I treated the whole thing as a big farce, the activity still taught me one of the countless critical life lessons I learned at the OCDI (although this may not have been exactly the invaluable lesson my therapists intended):
Never write a personal ad, Fletcher. There’s no way that’ll end well.
… If only I’d listened.
I know my writing can sometimes apply very specifically to OCD, but for the public good I’m going to attempt to make this essay as universal as possible. This isn’t just for folks with OCD, but for anyone who has even mild anxiety issues, or struggles with self-criticism, or chronic anxiety, or obsessive worry - I strongly advise you NOT to use a website called OK Cupid or any variation thereof.
I stumbled into the world of online dating the way most do - you don’t subject yourself to the scrutiny of virtual strangers unless any and all other options for human contact have been exhausted. At the time, I was living alone in a studio apartment in the suburbs, and I was writing a book, and my closest friends were only accessible via Philadelphia’s extremely shaky public transit system.
With nowhere else to turn, I held my nose, lay down my dignity and my personally-identifiable information at the door, and stepped into the preferred digital meat market of underemployed millennials - OK Cupid.
One would assume that, for someone with anxiety problems, online dating would be a godsend. You don’t have to waste your time approaching people who may turn out to be totally incompatible, and you can spend as long as you need crafting your responses, without fear of panicking and blurting out something awkward. (Not that this has ever happened to me.) (It happens all the time … always.)
But all of that stuff that seemed wonderful in theory turned out to be disastrous in practice. The problem is that, whether you want to blame the anxiety disorder or the depressive tendencies or any of the other undiagnosed psychological peculiarities permeating my grey matter, I have a bad habit of overthinking things. And if you’re anything like me, if you have any tendency to worry or fret or brood, I’d advise extreme caution with online dating. Because here’s how I predict it will go down:
You’ll log in for the first time. You’ll browse some, tweak your profile a bit, learn the ropes. And holy smokes - you’ll find someone who’s perfect! Totally your type, loves your favorite bands and TV shows, 99% personality match. “This is it,” you’ll tell yourself, “This is the one, by every metric this ridiculous website measures, this person and I are one soul split asunder by the gods like in the Symposium. It is scientifically conclusive! There are numbers! This match is quantifiable!”
Obviously you don’t want to mess this one up. And, because of your aforementioned inclination to overthink things, you’ll likely spend a very, very long time trying to formulate the perfect ice-breaker. Brainstorming, outlining, composing, editing, proofreading – agonizing over word choice, sentence structure, how little adjustments change the tone of the piece. But by the end of it, you’ll have a piece of writing as subtle and succinct as a Shakespearean sonnet.
So let me be the one to break it to you: you probably won’t hear anything back.
See, online dating requires a shotgun approach - lots of tries and lots of failures, which will maybe pay off if you finally get lucky. And like the legend of the phoenix, it ends with beginnings – the moment you hit “send” on one painstakingly composed message, another once-in-a-lifetime perfect match will miraculously appear.
That’s the real reason online dating is a bad idea for anyone with anxiety issues: if you’re so inclined, it will give you a near-endless outlet for brooding and worrying and obsessing. There’s always another tweak to be made to your profile; there’s always the temptation to spend a few minutes waiting by your phone, middle-school style, for an answer from a crush. If you aren’t careful you’ll be up all night until the sun, interrupting your sleep cycle and terrifying your roommates, to say nothing of whatever poor soul you messaged at 4:25 in the morning.
Now it isn’t all bad. I have friends who’ve had a lot of success with dating websites, and I’ve gotten a few dates myself. I’ve even seen a few people more than once. But if your temperament is anything like mine, I suspect you’ll endure a lot of worry for very little payoff. Looking back, I don’t think any of those encounters were worth the hours of frantic revision and the countless near misses that preceded them.
Ironically, I’ve had a lot more luck meeting people in the kind of IRL social situations I’d hoped online dating would help me avoid. True, meeting people face-to-face doesn’t give you advance access to those precise and comprehensive statistics about how much they enjoy Game of Thrones. But the real world does give you the opportunity to hang out with mutual friends, or explore new interests, or meet people who (even if they prove unsuitable for a relationship) could enrich your life in other ways.
Basically, if you struggle with obsession or anxiety, I’d advise careful consideration before you jump into online dating. If you still decide to give it a shot (ignoring my warnings, like Odysseus in his hubris, tying himself to the mast of his ship to hear the fatal song of the sirens), I wish you only the best. But trust me: decide in advance how much time and energy to invest, and maintain realistic expectations about what you’re likely to get out of the experience.
If, despite this warning, you choose to participate in online dating, you may also be interested in my column: Dating with Anxiety
Copyright, Fletcher Wortmann, 2014.
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: www.fletcherwortmann.com
Read my Psychology Today blog: www.psychologytoday.com/blog/triggered
Image: Attributed to Brett Jordan, unchanged from original, Creative Commons License