Jul 242011

I have a great deal of sympathy, most of the time, for the anxiety and fear that people often carry around in the same psychological pocket with their sexuality.

And yet.

There are occasions when I wonder if people aren’t simply LOOKING for something to be worried about. They’re globally worried and they need to put their worry somewhere, they’re searching for somewhere it will fit, and sexuality makes a nice, easy target because the culture facilitates questions about “Am I normal?” and “Am I healthy?” and “Am I enough?”

Nearly always, the answers to these questions is, “Yup.”

And almost never is that answer enough to put down a person’s anxiety. Which, because I’m a sex educator, I find frustrating. There’s only so many times I can say, “Nope, that’s normal. Yes you’re actually fine. I know you still feel worried, but there’s nothing to worry about, so you can put the worry down now anytime you choose,” before I roll my eyes and give up, trying not to give in to contempt for someone so determined not to be happy in their body.

I have tried the tactic of saying, “I’ve told that this thing you’re worried about isn’t actually anything to worry about, that you’re healthy and normal, and I can see that you’re still worried anyway. So what is there that I could say or do to help you not worry anymore?”

Answer: “I guess I just need to: stop comparing myself to others/accept the way I am/try what you’ve suggested and see if it works/talk to my partner about it.”

All of these things the person “just needs to do” are things they could easily have done before they came to me – apart from whatever I suggested of course, though that’s usually something along the lines of “have sex and don’t worry or judge or question, just enjoy,” which is something all of us can do without being told, if only we think to do it.

No, when the problem isn’t the sex but the worry, no amount of sexual health education will really get to the heart of the matters.

Which is how I, a sex educator, began working to find ways to teach people to understand and cope with their anxiety.

It’s inadequate because really CHANGING your relationship with worry and anxiety takes a great deal of practice and discipline. But I can at least send them in the right direction. Here is a brief overview, for those of you looking for the right direction.

When people worry, they often have all this noise in their head – usually verbal noise – all these thoughts and questions and ideas about what is going wrong or is about to go wrong or might go wrong or went wrong in the past. What I want you you to know is that all these thoughts, all that noise, it’s an illusion cooked up by your cortex to make meaning out of the stress, fear, and panic generated by your reptilian brain.

And because it’s just a story cooked up by your cortex, you don’t have to pay attention to it. It’s just noise. And your job is gently and lovingly to quieten the noise, hush it like a crying infant. Not squash or clamp down or otherwise FORCE it to be quiet, any more than you would FORCE an infant to stop crying. You soothe and hush and love and cuddle, understand and coo and adore, until eventually those noise is quiet?

Why does this work? Well that’s another post, but it has to do with attachment. Just trust me and try it.

The main thing is: the verbal, ideas-based worry, all the things you can SAY, are unimportant. What’s important is the speed and the panic and the embodied experience. And that can not be soothed with information or reason, it can only be soothed with love.

So if you want to stop worry about your sexuality… love yourself.

Clearly this is more easily said than done.

Emily Nagoski

  16 Responses to “something to worry about”

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  1. Hanging on to the worry can be a way not to do the work — of having what might be a difficult conversation with a partner, put themselves out there on the dating market, etc. Often it goes along with some resentment — well, my partner should change/read my mind/I should get to be shy and have people ask me for dates anyway, etc.

    File under: people’s lives are their own punishment. (Or reward.)

    • No, people hang on to worry because it’s there to protect them. Sometimes it becomes a part of relationship dysfunction, but in and of itself, it’s irrational fear, and all fear is there to help an organism survive.

  2. And also, maybe, this worry can be a strange form of entitlement? EG why do you think you get to have what you want without experiencing some discomfort?

  3. Perfect description.

    I do in fact “have all this noise in [my] head – usually verbal noise – all these thoughts and questions and ideas about what is going wrong or is about to go wrong or might go wrong or went wrong in the past.”

    I’ve been able to squelch this noise in all aspects of my life, thanks to therapy, except as it is intertwined with my sexuality. And this has been the hardest piece to untangle.

    • Don’t squelch! Embrace! Love! Accept! Coo! Relax into it! Allow it to move through you! Squelching is BRAKES. Brakes + sex = well, no sex.

      • Actually, squelch wasn’t the right word. I have a very good therapist, and we’ve been peeling away at the onion, but my onion has so many more layers than I ever expected. I actually work well with all the noise, it doesn’t bother me much, and I can steer it.

        But the anxiety related to sexuality is a couple layers deeper, and will take a good deal more work.

  4. People are depressed and they don’t know how to overcome it. As simple and sad as that.

  5. I have already written once an angry comment on a post similar to this, which got deleted rightfully (it was indeed too agressive). So I’ll try to be more civil now, and to not hurt anyone.

    But what I want to tell here, is that despite the disclaimers, what you tell, and especially what the commenters tell, boils down that depression and anxiety is just in our silly heads, and people with them should just try harder, and the comments continue with the idea that we are full of ourselves/entitled, lazy and generally just deserving whatever happens to us (“people’s lives are their own punishment”), as if, for example, childhood abuse never happened, or were deserved (I still wonder what could all those kids and babies possibly commit to deserve it?)

    You must know that these invisible illnesses (ok, invisible until someone actually kills herself) are still existing and obiectively hard to get out of, and asking for professional help is legitimate, and we shouldn’t beat up ourselves for not being able for resolving alone and without help something that we didn’t aquire alone in the first place? Because what you write doesn’t seem to imply this. And people with depression usually have already more than enough self-hate, so please don’t contribute to it.

    you still can write your tips if you want to, and I’m convinced they are useful too for certain people, just please don’t imply that hey can cure anyone, if only people tried it hard enough.

    • No that is absolutely, 100% not what I’m saying and…. *sigh*

      I get frustrated when people don’t read what I wrote; they read through their own personal filter and decide that I’m saying what they were predisposed to think I wrote. And the thing is: I wrote what you wish I wrote. I wrote a thing that says that anxiety is real and challenging and it’s also treatable. The anxiety is not the person, the anxiety isn’t even the person’s sexuality, it’s just their anxiety. How is that NOT GOOD? How is that not respectful and hopeful? I’m saying it’s real and its treatment is love. How is that anything less than beautiful?

      Re-read what I wrote assuming that I agree with you, instead of assuming that I’m, whatever, just like all the other people you projected your biases onto. Read more than the first few paragraphs where I talk about my frustration, down the part where I talk about the solution.

      And ignore the comments. Most people have no idea what the hell they’re talking about, especially around mood and anxiety disorders, and the stigma is too profound for a couple blog posts to make a dent in their ignorance – sorry “lack of knowledge.” People hate the word ignorant.

    • No, one doesn’t overcome depression and anxiety by trying harder, and Emily was not saying that. Trying harder makes it worse. You can’t just say, I won’t be depressed, I won’t be anxious, and it stops.

      You need to try different things. Talking. Thinking about thing from different viewpoints not affected by your own inner dialog. And it is necessary in many cases to seek professional help, because from inside your head and your inner dialog, you can’t see these other approaches.

  6. ok, I’m sorry. actually what made me loose the tracks was this paragraph: “All of these things the person “just needs to do” are things they could <<>> they came to me – apart from whatever I suggested of course, though that’s usually something along the lines of “have sex and don’t worry or judge or question, just enjoy,” which is <<<>>>.” which I understood as telling” it is easy! for everyone!”, but in context it doesn’t mean what I believed it meant.

    love is beautiful as a cure, but since I seem to be quite unable/not lucky enough to find it by myself, and since it by definition can’t be bought, I prefer to seek help at less beautiful, but ethically buyable and more reliable sources. [ok, there is self-love too, but it can be extremely hard to imagine if all previous experience seems to point in the other direction].

    ps: I remember the moment in high school when I realized that the worry I have used to get anxious about topic x is the very same thing I have used later for topic y when x got resolved, so I know you are very right about this part. It’s like squishing one of those extremely soft and slightly disgusting plastic balls that seem to be wet even trough they aren’t in your hand: you tuck it back between your fingers at one end and it bulges out in the other.

  7. Hi Emily
    Nice blog. I work as a Psychosexual Bodyworker in London, UK. I have developed a powerful combination of talk therapy and bodywork to support women in resolving their psychosexual issues. I’ve read a few of your posts and find that they mirror a lot of the model that I use. I’d love to speak more with you about this.
    You can read more about my work on http://www.heartdaka.com, which is my psychosexual-spiritual healing website (check out my blog on there) but I’m also developing a more mainstream website which will omit all references to tantra, goddess, etc. I’m also a good friend of Pam Madsen who I saw from Facebook you know.

  8. @ghkk
    Indeed, self love is difficult – especially if you’ve got a certain history, but I think it’s really the best solution.
    The problem with “external” love is that you can only be happy if it’s, well, there. But it’s nothing you can work on (or at least not as well) as you can work on loving yourself and doing nice things, only for you.
    And yes, I am also in the learning phase, not the “I can love myself the whole time”-phase. It’s just … more sustainable (?) once you’ve started to learn how to do it.

  9. People have been taught to problematize everything. And we’re in an incredibly neurotic time, in which imagined slights to one’s own precious identity are treated as if one were actually being “kicked in the stomach.” Not good for individual or society!

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