We were watching The Lego Movie. I remember it clearly, because it felt odd to be stressing out while listening to the movie’s upbeat theme song: Everything is awesome; everything is cool when you’re part of a team. But nothing was awesome, and I was anything but cool.

I was about to have sex with someone new, without being my usual three vodka sodas (at least) deep. While little Legos danced across the TV, I tried to ignore the panic starting to creep in.

The guy I was dating didn’t drink. Up to this point, it had been a welcome break from the usual bar scene. But in those minutes before my clothes were about to come off, I actually thought about sneaking out of his bedroom and grabbing something from his roommate’s liquor cabinet to calm my nerves.

I missed having alcohol as a security blanket during encounters like this—how a few drinks could dull my insecurities and make me feel like a catch. Now, sober during the act, I focused on positioning my body to look its most flattering, avoiding eye contact with my partner, and honestly, waiting for it to be over.

Why didn’t I feel hot enough to sleep with someone new unless I was hammered?

Later that night I took a hard look at how I’d ended up there. Why didn’t I feel hot enough to sleep with someone new unless I was hammered? How have I managed to be sloshed every time I’ve had sex with a new guy, without ever having to go out of my way (or raid someone’s liquor cabinet) to do so?

The answer: I was locked into a pattern—one that will probably sound familiar to any 20-something dating in a big city. The beginning of any new relationship went something like this:

For the first date, we meet at a low-lit bar. I order a drink that I chug way too fast because I feel uncomfortable. Over drink No. 2, I continue to drown out how awkward I feel by asking the standard questions: “What do you do?” “Where are you from?” “Do you know my friend so-and-so? She went to the same college as you.” Drink No. 3 makes me feel even more confident and bold, and my date and I get closer to each other. Make out over drink No. 4.

Dates three through five repeat this format again and again, subbing in questions that are less surface level and make it seem like we’re actually getting to know one another. Eventually we have sloppy, drunk, first-time sex. But it’s OK that it’s sloppy. Because we’re both drunk and can use booze as a scapegoat.

This is not the case when you’re getting it on stone-cold sober in the middle of the afternoon to the rhythm of “Everything Is Awesome.”

Alcohol makes a lot of things easier—conversations with strangers who you’d potentially like to make out with being one of them. It also helps drown out the things you’re feeling insecure about. Booze makes awkward moments feel bearable. It makes you feel loose, relaxed, and at ease.

But it also clouds your judgment and distorts your perception. Alcohol put a rose-colored (beer-goggled?) filter over whomever I was dating, obscuring the obvious flaws. After three months of dating someone, I’d suddenly become aware of something I hadn’t noticed while we were sloshed, like his short temper or jealous streak. I’d stick around for longer than I should’ve, remembering the good times that I only thought were good because I was wasted for most of them.

Alcohol put a rose-colored filter over whomever I was dating, obscuring the obvious flaws.

Granted, getting out of the bar and away from the drunk-interview style of dating wasn’t easy. There were times I missed having that vodka soda in my hand so much that I’d stand as if I were still holding it, like a phantom limb. But for the most part, I haven’t found myself on many dates where we’re both just standing around, because dating sober requires you to get creative. And let me tell you, even the process of making plans that don’t involve picking a bar that’s convenient for both of you can tell you a lot about the person you’re dating.

Spending a day firing an AR-15 at a gun range? Trying to sneak into Brooklyn’s fanciest rooftop pools on a Sunday afternoon? Not for everyone. But there’s a bond that gets created when you’re trying something out of the ordinary and outside your comfort zone.

Without alcohol as a crutch for conversation, I’ve had to learn how to be comfortable with awkward silences. Or take the time to fill them with something thoughtful instead of stream of consciousness babbling. I’ve had to own whatever stupid thing I’ve said that didn’t come out right. I had always considered myself a good listener; I’d just blame my zoning out on the blasting background music at whatever bar I was at. But dating sober has made me better at having a conversation and actually paying attention to what’s being said.

I’m not saying everyone should quit the sauce and plan an adrenaline-spiking first date. But I do think anyone who’s out there trying to meet someone could benefit from a few dates that get you both off the bar stool. It’s a way better gauge of compatibility than seeing who can shoot the most whiskey.

As for sex without the vodka? I’m still learning how to get out of my head and be present in what’s happening, without critiquing myself the entire time. But that’s easier to do when you’re actually feeling everything that’s happening to you. There are no dulled sensations. Nothing feels watered down. Everything is awesome.