Sense and Sensitivity

The ups and downs of daily life as a Highly Sensitive Person

The Familiarity Principle of Attraction

Why we’re attracted to the wrong people and how to attract the right people.

Highly sensitive people face unique challenges when it comes to finding and maintaining healthy relationships. We crave intimacy but often feel overwhelmed by others. We feel deep empathy for people, but don’t often get it in return. HSPs also tend to be vulnerable to negative types of people, like narcissists, who sense our empathy, compassion and our need for intimacy and use it to fuel their own desires. The difficulty is that, while none of us would choose to become involved with a narcissist, we often find ourselves in relationship with one after another without knowing why and then blame ourselves for being weak or not smart enough to have seen it coming. But there is a reason why we enter into relationships with the same kind of people over and over again, even when we know they’re bad for us and all we want is to be loved. It all comes down to something basic in human nature that HSPs and non-HSPs alike have in common – the familiarity principle.

Studies have shown that we are all attracted to what is familiar to us, and that repeated exposure to certain people will increase our attraction toward them. This is a subconsious process that we’re not even aware of or have any awareness of making such a choice. We are attracted to familiar people because we consider them to be safe and unlikely to cause harm. This doesn’t just apply to people we’ve actually seen before or to people who look familiar, but also to people who behave in ways that are familiar to us. For example, if you are a woman who grew up with an alcoholic father you will tend to be attracted to men who are alcoholics, not because you find them attractive but because you find their behaviour familiar. Even when someone’s behaviour or personality is hurtful, on a subconscious level, some part of us finds comfort in the familiarity of that behaviour. Good or bad, the environment in which we grew up is the only home we’ve ever known. This is why it’s so difficult for people to leave hurtful relationships. It’s easy to criticise someone for staying in an abusive relationship and to blame the person for staying, accusing them of being weak or wanting to be treated badly. But no one wants to be treated badly. It is hard to leave because, besides the issues of having no where else to go, we are tethered to bad relationships as much as we are tethered to the past by our subconscious minds.

By becoming aware of the patterns in your relationships, you will be able to see what exactly you are attracted to. Do not blame yourself for engaging in these relationships or allowing these patterns to continue. You cannot control what you’re not aware of. But you can develop awareness and create a new pattern. Look back at your relationships and you might discover, for example, that what all your boyfriends had in common was a controlling nature. They always wanted to tell you what to do, and when, where and how. And then think back to your parents. Chances are, someone you grew up with was controlling and exhibited those same kinds of behaviours as well. Simply making that connection creates an awareness that shifts your beliefs from your unconscious mind, where you have no control, to your conscious mind, where you can decide what to do.

Attraction to the familiar is a common and pervasive pattern in all of us. But just because you’re attracted to someone who is bad for you doesn’t mean that you made that choice willingly. It doesn’t mean that you want that person or that life or that you don’t deserve any better. Remember, do not blame yourself. Just learn about the patterns. And then you can choose the kind of person you really want in your life. When you decide that you don’t want abusive or negative or hurtful partners, but kind, compassionate and loving people instead, you will start to attract the people who fit your new criteria. It will feel strange at first, and you might feel afraid. They may seem foreign to you, simply because they are so unfamiliar. But let the strangeness settle with you and let the fear pass by. With repeated exposure to kindness, that too will become familiar and attractive to you and soon you won’t settle for anything less.

It takes time and practice and a conscious awareness of what you’re doing to change the kinds of people you attract into your life, but by doing so you can free yourself from the shackles of your past and live the life you want with the kinds of people you want and deserve.

Deborah Ward's new book, Overcoming Fear with Mindfulness, is available now.

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