How to Handle Negative Self-Talk on a Date

When you have no idea what the other person is really thinking, it's easy to assume the worst. Here's how to keep your brain from sabotaging your dating life.

Stephen Snyder, MD
6-minute read
Episode #9

Here's the problem with dating: You don't usually know the other person so well. So you have no idea what they’re really thinking.  If you’re at all self-conscious, it’s easy to assume the worst.

Today I’m going to show you some really useful techniques for keeping your cool on a date. But first, let me tell you a story. It's one I got from Dr. Aaron Beck, an elder statesman in the mental health field, and the father of what’s now called cognitive therapy. 

A Classic Example of Negative Self-Talk

This story involves a young woman Dr. Beck treated when he was just starting in practice sixty years ago, way back in the 1950’s.

She happened to be quite sexually adventurous and slept with a lot of men. Given that this was the 1950’s, that raised a lot more eyebrows than it would today. She’d often fill the sessions with vivid descriptions of her most recent sexual encounters.

At the end of one such session, Beck thought to ask her how she was feeling. She said she was feeling very anxious. Beck suggested that maybe she felt anxious about telling him all this intimate stuff.

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“Actually,” she said, “I was afraid I was boring you.”

It turned out the main reason she’d been filling the hour with all these sexy stories was because otherwise she was pretty sure he’d think she was very boring. It didn’t matter whether she was on a date, or in therapy, or anywhere else. The thought, “I’m a boring person” was never far from her mind.

Now negative self-talk really works

We humans seem to have a natural tendency to assume the worst about ourselves. Negative self-talk just seems to be in our DNA.

Once Dr Beck recognized this, he went on to found a whole school of therapy—cognitive therapy. It's centered around something called Automatic Negative Thoughts and how to change them so they don’t cause so much trouble.

Automatic Negative Thoughts makes a great  acronym—ANTs. ANTs can ruin a good date just like real ants can spoil a picnic.

Negative self-talk just seems to be in our DNA.

ANTs don’t come with labels attached that say, “This is an ANT.”  Instead, they usually come with labels that say, “This is REALITY.”  That can be pretty scary.

The first thing is to remember what Dorothy’s dog Toto did in The Wizard of Oz. He pulled back the curtain revealing that The Great and Powerful Oz was not in fact a wizard at all, but just a little guy pulling levers and speaking into a microphone.

In other words, not reality, but just an ANT playing at being reality.

Recognizing negative self-talk on a first date

Let me show you how a knowledge of ANTs can be useful in the dating world.

Let’s say Michelle is on a first date with John. As they’re talking together, Michelle becomes aware of a very distressing thought that says “I’m boring him.”

Naturally, this thought comes with a mental label attached—“This is an important piece of reality. You’d better pay attention to it, or really bad things might happen.”

In other words, “The Great and Powerful Oz has spoken!”

Now, if Michelle decides to obey The Great and Powerful Oz by ending the date as quickly as she can before John realizes she’s boring, that's just going to make The Great and Powerful Oz even more powerful. Unfortunately, the more you obey Automatic Negative Thoughts, the stronger they tend to become.

How to cope with negative self-talk on a first date

But let’s say that instead of cowering in the presence of The Great and Powerful Oz, Michelle decides “Maybe this isn’t reality at all. Maybe this is just an ANT.”

Hey, that’s a good first step. The next step is to look for evidenceone way or the other. 

Let’s see. Does John look bored?

No, actually he seems quite interested.

Hmm, this may well be an ANT.

The more you obey Automatic Negative Thoughts, the stronger they tend to become.

Michelle might also consider the fact that she always thinks people are bored by her. How realistic can that be, if it seems to apply to everyone? Hmm, definitely ANT material.

Finally, Michelle might ask herself how many fascinating people she actually knows. Not many.

So how fascinating does she really have to be in order for this man to appreciate her? Probably not as fascinating as she thinks.

The mindful solution to negative self-talk

You don't need a therapist to practice the cognitive therapy techniques Dr, Beck popularized in the 1960’s. All you need is to stop obeying your Automatic Thoughts and start questioning them.

But as you can see, it involves doing a whole logical analysis. That can feel kind of clunky when you’re just trying to enjoy yourself on a date. Isn’t there anything easier?  

Actually, there is. It’s called mindfulness. With mindfulness, you’re not trying to change your Automatic Negative Thoughts. You just do your best not to get too emotional about them.  

With mindfulness, you’re not trying to change your Automatic Negative Thoughts. You just do your best not to get too emotional about them.

What do negative self-talk and the kardashians have in common?

Emotions are how your mind tags what’s important. If you respond to your Automatic Negative Thoughts—your ANTs—with lots of emotion, your mind is going to assume they're important, and give them lots of attention. 

They’ll be like Kim Kardashian—always showing up on page one, because, well, she’s Kim Kardashian.

Instead, what you want is for your Automatic Negative Thoughts to be like celebrities nobody cares about anymore.

There’s a Buddhist saying that goes “Let your thoughts come into your home. Just don’t serve them tea.”

If you’re Michelle, you might tell yourself “Oh yeah, that’s a thing my mind does—always telling me I’m boring. Let’s make sure I don’t serve it any tea.” 

You with me so far? Good.

There’s a Buddhist saying that goes, Let your thoughts come into your home. Just don’t serve them tea.

When Automatic Negative Thoughts are unconscious

Now, sometimes Automatic Negative Thoughts are completely unconscious. The only way you know they’re there is that you find yourself feeling bad for no reason at all.

Let’s say you’re Michelle again. You’re out on another date with John and things seem to be going well. It’s your third date together, which, if you live in Manhattan like me, is a big deal. Because on a third date, things tend to get physical. 

You’ve finished dinner, and you’re about to order dessert. All of a sudden, you feel really sad.

That’s weird. Everything was going so well. There’s nothing going on right now that would account for your feeling sad.

Hmm . . . must be one of those Automatic Negative Thoughts. But which one? No idea.

How to cope with Automatic Negative Thoughts on a third date

Well, you could practice mindfulness—just notice the bad feeling and make sure not to serve it any tea. But it sure would be nice to get more information about what’s going on.

Now might be an excellent time to excuse yourself to go to the restroom so you can follow the feeling and see where it leads.

Let’s say you’re standing at the sink looking at your reflection. You become aware of the following thought:

“He and I are probably going to get physical tonight. And he won’t like it. Or I won’t like it. Either way, it’s not going to work. And I’m going to be back at square one—going on endless first dates and knowing everyone I meet is going to think I’m boring.”

Ahhh, you think. Sneaky little ANT! There you are!  

You take a deep breath, you tuck in your shirt, you apply some lipstick, and you head back out to the restaurant, smiling secretively to yourself. You've got this.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Stephen Snyder, MD

Dr. Stephen Snyder is a sex and relationship therapist in New York City and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine. He's also the author of Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship. In 2019, he was the host of the first season of the Relationship Doctor podcast.