What Are You Afraid To Feel?
I have a question for you and I want you to take a moment to sit with it before you answer. Are you ready?
What are you afraid to feel?
I’m not asking you what physical sensations you dislike. I’m asking you which of your emotions you avoid noticing. What feelings do you find uncomfortable, or scary, or unpleasant? And when they arise, what happens? Do you try to distract yourself? Do you try to turn them off? Do you want to make them go away?
This is important because, as Brene Brown says, you can’t turn off just one of your emotions. When you try to, you inevitably affect your other feelings. If you attempt to shut down shame or anger or grief or sadness or fear, you reduce how much you can feel joy, gratitude, love, and happiness. All of our feelings are intertwined and when you tune out of one of them, the others are going to be affected.
I see this a lot in my coaching clients. Sometimes, the emotion they want to distance themselves from is anger. Other times, it’s shame or sadness. But in almost every situation, it gets in the way of their sex lives. They come to me because they aren’t having sex or because the sex they’re having isn’t working for them, and it turns out that the root cause is their difficulty in feeling their emotions or how they express them.
There are lots of different ways that plays out, but there are two common patterns that often arise. The first happens when you try to not pay attention to your emotions. When you do that, a part of yourself is on guard, like a watchdog who’s always alert for anything that might open up the feelings that you’re trying to contain. And that makes it difficult or impossible to relax into the pleasures of sex.
That doesn’t mean that sex can’t happen. But rather than dropping into the experience and enjoying the moment, you’re busy thinking about what’s happening or wondering if your partner can tell that something is going on or worrying about what your partner thinks about you. You lose spontaneity because you’re busy trying to keep the difficult feelings locked away. It might also lead to not having sex or picking a fight so that you can justify avoiding it. You might not even realize that you’re doing this, especially when you’re so worked up about it that you can’t see the pattern. And it’s difficult for partners to point it out without triggering more defensiveness.
Another way this plays out in people’s sex lives is when they use alcohol or drugs to turn off the difficult feelings. It’s not that there’s necessarily a problem with a drink or two. But when you can’t have sex when you’re sober because of what you might feel, that’s the time to look at your situation and consider whether a different solution might serve you better.
The other way that I often see this play out is when someone is trying to keep from telling their partner what’s going on for them. You could be well aware that you’re feeling anger because of something that happened earlier that day, but if you don’t feel like you can share that or if past experience tells you that that conversation won’t go well, you might simply bottle it up. And since sex and intimacy are ways in which we become closer to our partners, you end up having to avoid sex in order to keep how you really feel hidden.
In his book Passionate Marriage, David Schnarch points out that this is one of the ways that co-dependency and enmeshment play out. If I feel smothered by you, why in the world would I want to do something that brings us closer together? If I feel trapped in our relationship, how could I possibly want to deepen our intimacy?
While Schnarch’s book focuses on helping people move out of co-dependency, I see similar situations elsewhere. If you can’t allow yourself to feel your sadness, you might avoid intimacy in order to avoid tuning into the feeling. If you don’t think your partner can handle your anger, you’ll try to hold it back during sex, which means that you can’t be fully present. That’s especially true when the relationship is part of the source of the anger. If you’re feeling anger towards your partner and you won’t let yourself recognize it or you think you can’t express it, you’ll start building up resentment. And nothing kills a relationship faster than resentment.
That’s not to say that there aren’t also medical reasons why people have sexual problems. But in our rush to seek easy answers like viagra, we forget that for a lot of people, libido challenges or erection difficulties or other sexual problems are really caused by emotional hurdles which are coming out through sex. A sexual manifestation of an emotional difficulty isn’t actually a sexual problem. And a quick fix like viagra or a new sexual technique isn’t going to change anything. In fact, the difficulty will simply show up somewhere else.
There are lots of ways you can start to chip away at the barriers you’ve put up around your feelings. I’m a big fan of embodiment practices, meditation, and yoga as tools to help you tune into your body and your emotions. I’ve also seen and experienced how valuable a good therapist can be. Writing a journal, talking with a friend, and finding a support group (whether in person or online) can all be really great. The trick is to use these opportunities to feel what you feel, rather than getting so wrapped up in thinking about it or complaining about your situation.
This is also something that I work with in my coaching practice, especially my somatic sex education work. Sexological bodywork gives you an opportunity to allow the feelings to emerge in a different container than you build with a partner. It’s not reasonable to expect a partner to be able to always be able to set aside their own feelings because they’re too close to the situation. But when a client comes to see me, any emotion or thought that arises can have its space. We can create room to explore it, feel into it, and give it a voice. For some people, that’s all it needs. And for others, it’s a way to get valuable information that can be further unpacked with a partner or with a therapist.
None of this really addresses the ways in which the world we live in leaves us bruised or in pain. There are socio-cultural forces that wound us, especially those of us who are on the receiving side of microagressions and oppressions like sexism, homophobia, racism, and transphobia. When the world is constantly jabbing you, it’s naive to think that you can easily set all of that down and allow yourself to feel. I don’t have any easy answers for that, except to say that it’s important to carve out a safe(r) space where you can let your guard down, even for a short time.
Whatever path works best for you, it’s worth coming back to the question I started with. What are you afraid to feel? What emotions are you avoiding noticing? What are you withholding from your partner? And what are you going to do about it?