Is there any topic more complicated than sex? At one level, sex is pretty simple. It’s a set of erotically-charged behaviors. At another level, sex is a gateway to our deepest human longings—for connection, for escape, for pleasure, for validation, for power.
We live in a largely “sex-negative” world, and most of us have spent years internalizing the message that sex is bad/dirty/wrong/sinful/dangerous. For those of us whose sexual identities, gender expressions, skin, and bodies are systemically marginalized in our culture, the message that “you are wrong as you are” can feel downright suffocating. These toxic messages meet up with the inescapable truth that sex evokes profound vulnerability—physical and psychological nakedness. And the result is a perfect storm of struggle!
But here's a modern twist. Today, we aren’t just bombarded with shaming and silencing messages about sex. We also absorb a set of well-meaning messages encouraging us to be confident in the bedroom. We are told to break free sexually—to be sex-positive, liberated, free, and bold. This opposing set of messages is a new variation on an old theme. The risk of internalizing the liberation-at-all-costs message is eerily similar to the risk of internalizing the puritanical message. That risk? Disconnection from self . Under this new paradigm, sex becomes a performance, an attempt to offload shame by proving your comfort with sexual expression, your freedom, and your prowess.
Therefore, if you are craving more confidence in the bedroom, you must begin with self-compassion. Our intimate relationships are a powerful crucible for growth and healing if we are committed to practicing relational self-awareness. Relational self-awareness is an ongoing curious and compassionate relationship with ourselves that becomes the foundation for a thriving intimate partnership. In my work as a relationship educator and couples therapist, what has become abundantly clear to me is that our relational self-awareness must include cultivating sexual self-awareness.
Sexual self-awareness requires us to shift from an outside-in experience of our sexuality to an inside-out experience of our sexuality, quieting the noise so that we can cultivate a deep, close, and nuanced understanding of our erotic self. Each of us deserves to feel at home in our skin, able to express our wants and needs in the bedroom. Each of us deserves an experience of erotic confidence that is authentic rather than performative. That is why the journey toward erotic confidence must be fueled by fierce self-compassion. According to researcher Dr. Kristin Neff , self-compassion has three aspects:
- Self-kindness: Relating to ourselves the way we would relate to a dear friend.
- Common humanity: Understanding that we are far from alone in our struggles and insecurities.
- Mindfulness: Cultivating present moment awareness without judgment.
Self-compassion is about being on your own team. It is an ongoing commitment to forgiving yourself for not having it all figured out, for being imperfectly and deeply human. And it is a prerequisite for great sex.
Real-life sex is a far cry from what we see in movies or porn, and real-life lovers are far from perfect. Self-compassion helps us meet these moments with humor and playfulness, so that the “mistakes” become the stuff of intimacy not embarrassment, connection not despair. The degree to which we can reckon with our imperfections is the degree to which we can take risks in the bedroom—to ask for what we need, to lose ourselves in the moment, and to savor the experience of giving and receiving pleasure. Self-compassion helps us show up authentically so that we can create intimacy with another person. Real erotic confidence is a willingness to allow ourselves to be seen in our full humanity.
Your sexual self changes as you move through the chapters of your life, so it’s never too late to become more self-compassionate… and therefore more sexually confident. Here are some practices to get you started.
- Notice your self-talk. We carry on an inner dialog all day long. Start to pay attention to how you talk to yourself when you’re having sex. Are you self-critical about how your body looks, or smells, or feels? Do you pressure yourself to keep an erection? Do you pressure yourself to have an orgasm quickly... or slowly... or quietly... or loudly? These performance anxieties, while understandable, are the antithesis of self-compassion. Practice noticing when these self critical thoughts creep in. The moment you say to yourself, “I’m having those critical thoughts again,” you put some much needed space between yourself and the thought. Practice replacing the critical voice with a gentler one: “Everything is OK. Take your time. You are safe.”
- Bring mindfulness to bed with you. Mindfulness is present moment awareness without judgment, and it is a pillar of self-compassion. Sexuality researcher Dr. Lori Brotto (2014) found that teaching women mindfulness skills helped them feel more entitled to sexual pleasure... and more likely to have an orgasm.
- Enlist a teammate. Research by Dr. Allen Mallory and his colleagues (2019) found that being able to talk your partner about sex is tied to all kinds of good stuff like sexual desire, sexual arousal, lubrication, orgasm, erectile function, and less pain. Talking with a partner about sex grows trust, and building trust makes it easier to talk about sex. Relationship scientist Dr. Sue Johnson says, “In fact, surveys tell us that in real life, folks in long-term relationships who can talk openly about their sex life have more and better sex than new or more reticent couples. What really determines what kind of sex you are going to have isn’t the novel positions you find in the sex manual or the new tips in the latest magazine. It’s how safely attached you are to your partner. Emotional presence and trust are the biggest aphrodisiacs of all.”
Carrying around at least some amount of sexual shame is the inevitable byproduct of growing up in this culture, so many of us need to practice shifting away from sexual shame and toward wholeheartedness. Pressuring yourself to be confident in the bedroom ends up creating a variation on a shame-filled narrative. Practicing compassion toward your beautiful, evolving, and imperfect sexual self creates a foundation for experiencing joy and connection in bed.
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Brotto, L.A. & Basson, R. (2014). Group Mindfulness-Based Therapy Significantly Improves Sexual Desire in Women. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 57, 43–54.
Mallory, A.B., Stanton, A.M. & Handy, A.B. (2019). Couples Sexual Communication and Dimensions of Sexual Function: A Meta-Analysis. The Journal of Sex Research, 56:7, 882-898.