Updated: Jan 10, 2020
My last relationship was two years ago which ended by being suddenly dumped and then finding out he'd been cheating on me for a month or two prior. I gave myself time to heal from the experience and have tried a bit of online dating in the past year. Although nothing substantial has resulted, I've noticed I'm a lot less confident with men now. I feel very much like I'm in a game where I'm competing against other women, worried I'll never be enough and being very skeptical of compliments or attention from men, feeling like it isn't me they like.. It could be any female with the right parts put in front of them at the right time. In regards to sex, I feel closed off and very hesitant about being sexually vulnerable lest I end up feeling foolish for having trusted that man with my body. While I haven't met anyone I'd want a serious relationship with again yet, I worry that when I do I will be seeking proof and reassurance which isn't fair to an honest person and a fresh relationship.
It's vital for you to recognize that you are recovering not just from a break-up, but from trauma. To some, your scenario might not qualify as traumatic, but trauma is subjective. If it causes you emotional strain, alters your belief system and impairs your ability to function in any context, it qualifies as trauma.
Trauma is not something from which you just "get over." It doesn't work like that. Like grief, recovering from trauma is a process. There is no appropriate time frame to work through the upset you've experienced.
While it's great that you've decided to get back out there, understand that the tumult you're experiencing when you log on to these dating apps and dating sites is a result of being triggered. Any time you encounter behavior that resembles that of your cheater boyfriend, your brain reacts and your body follows. It's very likely PTSD (though a therapist would help you clarify that.)
You have something very important going for you: you're self-aware. You know that you might unfairly hold other men accountable for the indiscretions of your ex. That ability to be objective is going to make your journey to recovery much easier.
It's very difficult to trust after betrayal. You not only question other people's motives, but you question your judgement. You must remind yourself that you - even if there were all kinds of dating red flags - you are not in any way to blame for someone taking advantage of you. In most cases, we don't catch on because the person deceiving us made a concerted effort to convince us otherwise. You're dealing with a myriad of emotions right now - shame, guilt, fear, grief. That's a potent cocktail that would knock anyone off their feet.
The first thing I would suggest is to manage your exposure to your possible triggers. That means logging on to dating apps when you're in a good head space and avoiding them when you're feeling extra sensitive. If you're tired or stressed, you're going to be more susceptible to triggers.
While you're swiping left or right, pay attention to how you react and what you're feeling when you match or don't match. If it starts to get overwhelming for you, take a break. Pushing through the pain, so to speak, sounds like the rah-rah go girl attitude to have - and if you have the fortitude to do it, you should - but you don't want to re-traumatize yourself. Again, people might roll their eyes and mutter, "Really?" Yes, really. Emotional trauma is no different than physical trauma in that if you push too hard, you might irreparably injure yourself. It's not at all uncommon to physically react in the form of a hot flash, stomach clench or even panic.
Now, in those moments when you're feeling that rush of dread or fear, acknowledge it. What about this person or their dating profile/bio or their message is setting off alarm bells? Walk yourself through this and really hone in on the source of what's got you scared/confused/irritated. I'm a HUGE fan of journaling in these moments. It allows me to dump out all my thoughts and "see" things more clearly. Journaling allows me to free up space in my mental hard drive. Get it all out. It doesn't matter how incoherent it is, just get it all out.
Now read it. Confronting what you're experiencing is one way to try and make sense of and understand it. It also helps temper anxiety or nerves.
Once you feel more grounded, you can hopefully look at your match or an email exchange with more clarity. You'll be better able to discern if you're projecting or if your match was genuinely inappropriate or showed signs of being insincere.
It's understandable that you are having a hard time taking someone at face value or feeling like you don't measure up. Please know that's the trauma talking. With time and distance, you'll be able to see that you did nothing wrong. What your ex did was unforgivable and inexcusable and had nothing to do with your worth. In a nutshell, they suck and you don't. It's when you finally start believing that you'll be able to re-enter the dating world with more confidence.