Highly sensitive people are very intuitive, which comes in handy when dating — be sure to listen to that inner voice.
If you’re anything like the highly sensitive person (HSP) I was in my 20s, you find dating — especially in this swipe culture that primes us to quickly judge and easily discard others — to be anxiety-provoking at worst, laborious and unpleasant at best. It has a way of digging up long-held insecurities about one’s self. It might have us continually asking the question: Do I keep up my defenses to be accepted under false pretenses? Or let my guard down and risk being rejected for revealing my messy, real self?
For HSPs, who exist in a world that doesn’t always understand our needs and neurodivergence, dating can be especially overwhelming. The uncertainty makes the process inherently risky, especially for people who experience feelings on a more intense level than most. Knowing yourself, and your defenses though, can help equip you to navigate it. Here are some things that have helped me with dating as an HSP.
7 Dating Tips for Highly Sensitive People
1. Choose a calm and safe environment that’s not too overstimulating.
HSPs are more sensitive to environmental stimuli than the average person, which can affect our experience on dates (for better or for worse). I can remember times that my discomfort (induced by the environment) impacted how present I was.
On a hike and dinner picnic date one time, for instance, I arrived to an extremely cold and foggy ambience. Conversation was stilted as we walked the miles-long stretch down to the beach. It felt like it took forever to get there. Every cell in my body communicated to my brain a desire to be elsewhere.
As an HSP who is attune to environmental factors, I could never predict what factors — such as lighting, noise levels, and smells in the air — would be like at the date location. To help with this, I’d try to get there a little early. That way, I could scope out the place and choose a seat where I’d be most comfortable. Dimmer lighting, relatively quiet, comfy furniture… every HSP is different, but some of these are known to be generally conducive to many of us.
Sticking to basic dates where I have an out — and don’t have to stray too far from my comfort zone — has also been helpful. I plan dates in environments I know I’ll feel safe in, as a new person likely won’t be understanding of my triggers so early on. Plus, I won’t even have to explain them if we’re in a place that doesn’t overstimulate me.
2. Listen to clues from your body, as well as your intuition.
Our bodies can often be wiser than our brains, even though we may try to convince ourselves otherwise and we’ll swat away the messages it attempts to deliver us. The night before I was supposed to meet a woman I was in an on again/off again relationship with, for instance, I had trouble sleeping. Depression crept in. Looking back, I think it was my body’s way of warning me this situation wasn’t right, after having already tried a few times before (but I’d disregarded it). Now it was upping the ante, insisting that I pay attention.
I think that as much as we don’t want to listen to it, that voice might be there to tell us that something’s amiss. And, as HSPs, our inner voice is quite loud via our intuition. It’s there to help us make better choices about our dating life. It wants to keep us from following cute-looking squirrels off rocky cliffs. It’ll present us with the more manageable pain of short-term disappointment over longer-lasting pain once we’re already too far in.
The voice isn’t always looking at these situations with fresh eyes, and sometimes that can deter us. But it can also really come to our rescue.
3. Be careful with alcohol.
As mentioned before, many environmental factors are overwhelming for HSPs, so we may drink excessively to calm the internal clamor. I did that for too many years, and it often backfired. Alcohol can have you drinking away bad feelings that, unpleasant as they may be, are also important. Over the years, booze numbed signals that someone was wrong for me, or not emotionally available. I drank to make red flags seem pink, because pink is negotiable. I could convince myself that pink wouldn’t hurt me if I just played my cards right. In some sense, I think I drank to not have to face the full brunt of reality.
Maybe you’re thinking, “I like who I am, but most people need time to warm up to it, and alcohol helps me to be more engaging.” To that, I say, If you need alcohol to convince someone that you’re a certain way, then you’ll basically need alcohol every time you’re with them. In order to find yourself open to the eventual match who appreciates you exactly as you are, awkward silences and all, you’ll need to embrace the discomfort of the date. You want the person who will see you acting that way and it won’t shake their interest in you, because they’ll see the bigger picture of who you are.
4. Try to stay away from labeling, and instead pay attention (early on) to how the other person’s actions make you feel.
How many of you HSPs have been told that your feelings are too heavy? That they’re “too much”? That you’re “too emotional”? Patriarchy tells this lie that anything more than fully contained and polished feelings are “baggage” — rather than responses somewhere within the range of normal human reactions to a given situation. It feels pretty awful. In the past when I was treated this way, I would diagnose (in my head) the women I was with as people-pleasers, narcissists, or avoidants.
One day I realized that what really mattered was my experience of the relationship. What mattered was my feelings in response to their behaviors (and to leave the diagnosing to the psychologists). As tempting as it was at times to engage in it, diagnosing doesn’t bring much relief. It’s just a distraction from your own healing you need to do.
Remind yourself that to have needs and hold standards for another person is a valid component of healthy relationships. If a person continues to dismiss your feelings or gaslight you, then they are not a healthy person to have in your life. Regardless of their psychiatric diagnosis, they are hurting you and unwilling to own their part. And we all deserve more than that from the person we are dating.
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5. Keep note of healthy pacing.
What tends to happen in many relationships is we’ll start off with a fairly high amount of vulnerability and self-disclosure (that’s often what hooks us as HSPs; we’re suckers for the deep stuff). We’ll then sink down to a plateau of distance. The next time we hang out, back up onto the summit we’ll go.
When I start noticing these extreme dips and ascensions, that’s when I know I’m in unhealthy territory (usually with a commitment-avoidant person). Whereas in a healthy relationship, we start in a lower place, with less self-disclosure, but still enough to keep the interaction from feeling surface-level. Maybe we’ll talk about current passions and minor struggles as opposed to the impact our parent’s divorce had on us or the eating disorder we had when we were a teenager.
From there, we’ll gradually ascend to a place of closer, deeper bonding. It’s not a linear climb; maybe they (or I) need to take a moment of space along the way. But the ever-so-slight temporary dips don’t feel as intense, extreme, or jarring. Once we’ve reached the top, the person doesn’t pull away or knock it down. We stay there together and continue to build.
Personally, I’m less familiar with how these latter relationships feel. I’m more accustomed to the former, but I hope for that to change the more I continue to heal and grow as a person. As an HSP dating, it can be helpful to keep this template in mind as a barometer.
6. Take breaks if (and when) you need to. They’re healthy!
It’s important to recover from your last dating situation before embarking on a new one. Make sure you’ve discussed it with a therapist or support group so that you’re not compulsively repeating a pattern. If you’re always heartbroken and perpetually trying to get over someone, then you’re much less likely to be making mindful decisions. The cycle of choosing unsuitable partners (or whatever the case may be) then continues. I did this for years without realizing it. The compulsive repetition of similar decisions perpetuated a cycle of negative outcomes.
I used to always want things to work out with whomever I was dating. I now see that it had less to do with liking the person than it did with feeling that I felt I needed the relationship to work out, to overwrite the message I’d internalized from the last “failed” relationship (“You are not lovable”). I needed to stop listening to this harsh inner critic and be more self-compassionate. The way I saw it, I wasn’t getting any younger, and my time to “prove” my lovability, so to speak, was running out by the day. That’s how my thinking was when I was caught up in that painful cycle. Sometimes pulling yourself out of it completely — at least for a period of time — is the only way to reset and begin dating again for the right reasons.
7. Have a discerning lens.
By being discerning, it can spare you from idealizing a person and then becoming overly attached to them, abandoning your own sense of self in favor of their approval. It requires detachment so that you can observe your feelings and thought processes from a more removed perspective.
I’m not saying to be rigid, but to have some level of self-knowledge to establish deal-breakers beforehand. For example, years ago, I didn’t ask questions to screen potential dating “candidates” — and I kept getting hurt. I was the metaphorical dog chasing its tail in circles and dizzying itself in the process. Before going on dates now, I find out if she’s serious about dating women. I get a feel for what she’s looking for. When it becomes clear that what we’re looking for does not align, I move on.
This saves from hurt later on. It halts cars that are likely to crash — or simply have no fuel to begin with — in their tracks. HSPs are more vulnerable than the general population to intense sweeps of emotion, so we can protect ourselves by being more cautious and discerning.
My fellow HSPs, what would you add to the list? I’d love to hear in the comments below!
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