How can CBT help with dating anxiety?

A blend of cognitive therapy (examining our thoughts) and behavioural therapy (examining our behaviours), Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT helps us to identify how our thoughts, feelings and behaviours affect each other, and gives us tools to challenge these patterns.

It’s estimated that we experience between 70,000 and 100,000 thoughts every day, giving us plenty of opportunity to interpret these thoughts negatively. Over time, extreme or negative thought patterns can take root and become our default setting, which also negatively impacts our feelings and behaviours. CBT reminds us that thoughts are not facts and that they can be changed, leading to more positive feelings and behaviours. One of the initial tasks of CBT is to notice when your thought patterns have become negative. There are several styles of Negative Automatic Thoughts (NATS), and nearly all of us do at least some of them, especially when it comes to dating.

Dating is one of the most exposing things we can do in our interactions with other humans. We want a relationship with a significant other, someone who knows us intimately, with whom we share our secrets and desires. But in order to connect on this deep level, we have to let people in. It’s incredibly vulnerable.


Swiping right or left has become shorthand for accept or reject. Seasoned daters describe it as a numbers game – you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince – but this doesn’t stop repeated rejections from feeling painful.

Rejection can tip us into a NAT called Critical Self: ‘I am so rubbish at dating’ or ‘it’s always my fault that dates go nowhere, there must be something wrong with me’. Putting yourself down and blaming yourself for events or situations that are unlikely to be entirely your responsibility are worth challenging before they become entrenched and become integrated into your sense of self.


Ghosting has become synonymous with dating in the 21st century, and involves the other person cutting all contact with no warning, the rug pulled firmly from under your feet. It can be a huge blow to your self-esteem and leave you questioning everything. Ghosting can cause us to Catastrophise, which is when we start to imagine all of the worst possible things that could happen and we believe that they will happen. We think that the person who ghosted us found us so repellent that they couldn’t bring themselves to speak to us again, even just to break up with us. Or we think something awful must have happened to them, depriving us of our ‘happy ever after’.

Catastrophising can also cause us to experience a situation as unbearable or impossible, when in reality it is just uncomfortable. Ghosting can cause a gut punch when you realise what’s happened, followed by sick anxiety that feels like it will never lift. Sitting with these feelings isn’t easy, but feelings do pass, even the really uncomfortable ones. Trying to avoid them doesn’t make them disappear, so let them move through you. It won’t always feel this way.


‘Grief is the price we pay for love’. Almost all of us will experience heartbreak, and the grief, loss, sadness and anger that come with it. It can trigger a whole range of NATs: thoughts like ‘I will never be happy again’, ‘I’ve lost everything’ and ‘I can never find someone like that again’ are examples of Black-and-White Thinking. We believe that things are good or bad, right or wrong, and nuance goes out of the window. The truth is that relationships between two people are co-created, and the responsibility is shared. It’s rare that one party is ‘good’ and the other ‘bad’. It’s usually more complicated, and more helpful to think in shades of grey.


When we’re dating, part of the thrill is discovering more about the other person, and discovering more about ourselves in relationship with them. Sometimes, labelling the other person as particularly talented or loveable or beautiful means we inadvertently set up a comparison in which we fall short – this is Compare and Despair. This is compounded when our brains are flooded with the feel-good chemicals associated with love, and the other person becomes even more superhuman in our mind. Similar to Black-and-White Thinking, Compare and Despair removes all the nuance which can lead to unrealistic expectations.


Many dating issues are really boundaries issues, and they can surface for a whole range of reasons. People-pleasers may abandon their own boundaries to make others happy, while those with avoidant attachment styles keep others at arm’s length. Whether too porous or too rigid, when we come up against tricky boundaries it can tip us into Mind Reading. Assuming you know what others are thinking doesn’t bode well for relationships, particularly when you assume the other person is thinking something bad about you or the relationship.

Good boundaries and good communication go hand-in-hand, but in order to communicate your thoughts and feelings well you need to be aware of them. This requires the kind of clarity and perspective that CBT practices can bring.

3 ways to challenge dating-related negative thoughts with CBT

  1. Socratic questioning

A core approach within CBT, the Socratic Method of questioning helps us become aware of and modify what we’re doing that maintains the status quo, offers a shift in perspective, and provides a useful method of re-evaluating our thoughts and information. Try asking yourself a few of the following questions and consider whether your initial response could be changed.

  • What facts do I have to prove this is true?
  • What facts do I have to prove it actually isn’t true?
  • What if the opposite were true?
  • What if the truth is somewhere in the middle?
  • Am I using a past experience to overgeneralise?
  • Is there any way I might view this in a positive way?
  • Will this matter one day from now? What about in one week, or month? How?
  • What are some ways I’ve dealt with this scenario before?
  • What am I ready to accept about this event or person?
  • Are my thoughts helping me deal with this scenario? Or are they aggravating the situation?
  • What advice would I give a friend in this scenario?

2. Positive replacement thoughts

As well as Negative Automatic Thoughts, we can cultivate Positive Automatic Thoughts. Try writing down the Negative Automatic Thoughts that come up for you around dating, and then counter each one with a positive spin. Try saying the following statements out loud or in your head. Notice how they feel, and consider how it might be if they became daily reminders to yourself. 

  • “I’m proud of myself.”
  • “I feel fine.”
  • “No matter what happens, I know I’ll be okay.”
  • “I am loveable.”
  • “I feel good.”  
  • “I’m warm and comfortable.”
  • “I feel confident I can find a good relationship.”
  • “I’m luckier than most people.”

3. Challenging negative assumptions

When we jump from an external trigger straight into giving ourselves a hard time, we are missing an opportunity for reframing. Try listing out some of your common dating triggers and the corresponding NAT that this trigger tends to surface for you. Then, try to come up with a more positive, constructive, self-compassionate, and helpful thought instead.

For example, the trigger may be a disappointing date that won’t go anywhere. Instead of automatically thinking that you are to blame or that you’ll never find a partner, try challenging this with what else might be true. Perhaps you could think about how interesting it can be to meet new people, regardless of whether you click. Or that you’re taking your time and value yourself enough to set your standards high, and not settle for second best.

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