Sex is supposed to feel good. Unfortunately, sometimes the internal voices we all have in our heads can get in the way. Even with a loved and loving partner, we can be running an internal soundtrack that keeps us from enjoying the experience.
When it comes to sex, there are two main kinds of unhelpful self-talk: shame/guilt and what’s called “spectatoring.”
Guilt and shame. Sometimes the inner voice is full of words like “shouldn’t,” “sin,” “dirty,” and “slut.” For many people, nothing kills the mood faster than feeling there’s something horrible about what you’re doing—or worse, that there’s something wrong with you for doing it. (The first is guilt; the second is shame.)
What helps: Figure out the source of that shaming voice. Is it a parent or grandparent who was negative about sexuality? It is that scary nun from middle school? Is it some early boyfriend or girlfriend who said awful things about you that you haven’t quite been able to shake? If you take time to explore this, you may find that you can hear exactly where those guilt-inducing words come from. Notice that they are someone else’s voice, not your own. Then you can examine whether those words are actually what you believe. If not, pass ‘em back, metaphorically. You might even say it out loud (privately). “Grandma, I know you think women who like sex are sluts. But I don’t believe that. I think good, moral women can enjoy sex.” Or, “Sister Roberta, you tried to scare us by saying we’d burn in Hell if we had sex outside of marriage. But I think sex is a gift from God, and it’s not a sin to enjoy it responsibly.” The idea here is to get those unhelpful words out of your head into the light of day where you can see whether and how they are true for you.
What if, upon reflection, the voice that says you’re guilty is your own voice? What if you objectively think you’re doing something wrong? Maybe you’re cheating on your spouse, or taking advantage of someone. Then, the solution is to change your behavior so it better aligns with your personal values.
“Spectatoring” is a term coined by Masters and Johnson to describe being in one’s head rather than in one’s body during sex—as if you’re watching what’s happening rather than experiencing it. This includes worrying about your body or your “performance” (horrible word). You may be anxious about how you look to your partner, the fact that you don’t look or act like a porn star, that you don’t know the latest tricks, anything. All that worrying is one of the least sexy things on the planet. It may interfere with your physical abilities during sex, and it definitely reduces the fun.
What helps: Outside the bedroom, practice replacing your negative self-talk (“I’m fat,” say, or “I don’t last long enough”) with positives (“I’m healthy/ playful/ curvy/ enthusiastic/ attentive to my partner”). Think about the good things that are true about you—even write a list. In daily life, whenever you catch yourself saying bad things about yourself, substitute a true, good thing. It can take a lot of practice to re-wire years of negative programming, but it can be done, and your more positive focus will spill over into the bedroom.
When you’re making love, what helps is to stop thinking so much about yourself and start being curious about your partner. What is wonderful about his or her body? How might she like to be touched right now? What does he seem to be particularly enjoying today? Also, let go of thinking and pay attention to sensations. What do you notice about the way you’re being touched right now? Which parts of your body feel particularly alive at this moment? Does the feeling shift? Where do you feel hot, tingly, longing for more? When you stay in the present, you can truly savor your body’s pleasurable experience.