Sex or Soothing?
Discerning the core emotions of intimacy.
Posted Jan 19, 2021
Our culture misleads people to believe it’s not "manly" or “normal” to need and ask for comfort. For example, we rarely see images in TV shows or movies of "big, strong alpha-males" saying phrases like I’m upset honey! Can I have a hug? or I feel so sad, can you sit with me while I tell you about it? or My anxiety is through the roof, can you hold me? Although times are slowly changing, the two core emotions that are still most "socially acceptable" for men to display are sexual excitement and anger.
But when we are socialized out of acknowledging tender emotions and needs — which in fact are universal to men, women, and every gender — these human experiences don't just go away. The mind and body are tasked with finding creative ways to soothe fear, stress, sadness, anger, anxiety, loneliness, and shame. One way to cope is by developing defense mechanisms such as addictions, obsessions, and distractions which keep us away from knowing our needs. Another way to get basic needs met without acknowledging them directly is by co-opting other “acceptable” emotions, like sexual excitement. Channeling needs for comfort and soothing into sex is actually a clever compromise. During sex, men (and others) who wouldn't think of asking for comfort can unabashedly get held, caressed, kissed, hugged, and loved-up.
Dylan wants sex when he feels sad because he wants to be held. In fact, the need to be held when we feel sad is biologically programmed into our brains.
Jonathan looks for sex when he’s lonely. He believes it is weak to let someone know that he's lonely or to admit that he needs company. Alternatively, he thinks it is acceptable to find and ask for sex, which satisfies his need for human connection.
Marty craves sex when he is anxious. He shared with me how reliably sex calms him. It helps him feel less anxious. The days he has sex he feels more confident.
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with using sex for comfort. Still, bringing additional awareness to our specific emotions and needs helps us: 1) know ourselves better; 2) get our needs met more directly; 3) and provides more options for relief.
Awareness starts with a basic emotion education.
Emotion Education 101
Sexual excitement is one of the seven core emotions on the Change Triangle. Each core emotion has a unique survival “program” that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. Core emotions drive us to take specific actions that are adaptive for surviving and thriving in life. For example:
- Sexual excitement drives us to reproduce.
- Sadness and grief drive us to seek comfort and connection.
- Fear drives us to run from danger and seek safety.
- Excitement drives us towards people, places, activities, and things that interest us.
- Anger drives us to fight in self-defense. (And, it also drives positive change.)
When a core emotion is set off in the brain, its “program” causes specific sensations and impulses to arise in our bodies, like sexual desire, which is often felt as sensations in the groin area with an impulse to seek orgasmic release. Sometimes we are aware of these sensations and impulses. Sometimes we are not aware, like when we bury our emotions and numb ourselves.
Regardless of whether we have awareness, emotions affect virtually every organ in the body. They have energy that pushes up for expression. That’s why pushing down emotions uses up vital energy, and it puts stress on the mind and body. Suppressing emotions can lead to symptoms of depression, anxiety, addictions, aggression, irritable bowel syndrome, headaches, and more.
Emotions Can Wire Together
To understand how sexual excitement becomes bound to fear, sadness, and other emotions, we need to understand the following:
- Emotions cannot be stopped. All we can control is how we respond to emotions after they have been set off. For example, if someone insults us, core emotions like anger and sadness will be evoked in the brain and the body. If we have awareness, we can validate and process those feelings, then take action to calm and soothe ourselves. Alternatively, we can bury emotional experiences that are intolerable with defenses. When we bury emotions and needs, they don't go away. They still exert a force within us operating out of awareness.
- Through childhood experiences, two or more emotions can become associated, or bound together. For example, it’s common to see people blushing when complimented. Pride and embarrassment, two distinct emotions, arise simultaneously. In another example, we have all witnessed parents yelling at their children when their child gets hurt. For the parent, fear and anger arise together. (Sadly, many parents unleash anger on a child at the precise moment when their child needs comfort, not punishment. Discerning emotions is crucial for parenting as well.)
If at one time we used an orgasm to soothe anxiety and other forms of distress, and it worked, we'd be wiring our brain to associate soothing distress with orgasm. The mashup of tender emotions with sexual excitement is the brilliant way the mind makes sure core human needs for soothing are met. The binding of emotions to one another happens unconsciously and should not be judged. And, it's not a bad thing. But awareness of this phenomena gives us power and flexibility over our impulses, which is always beneficial for individual and collective wellbeing.
Mental health is vastly improved by being in touch with the full range of our core emotions and being able to identify each and every emotion distinctly. We benefit by knowing if we are sad, fearful, angry, disgusted, joyful, excited, or sexually excited.
Since emotions live in the body, we must be able to sense them below the neck. If we slow down and listen to our body, we can learn to recognize the impulse and need of a particular emotion. At first, this can be a challenging endeavor like learning a new language. But with practice, it gets easier and we start to feel better: calmer, more connected, more confident, and more in command of our wellbeing.
Want to Experiment With Discerning Your Core Emotions and Needs for Intimacy?
- Notice the impulse to want sex next time you have it and validate yourself.
- Pause to notice what you’re experiencing in your body by scanning your body from head to toe. No matter how subtle, notice what you sense below the neck: sensations, emotions, areas of tension, energy, impulses, longings, and desires.
- Name any emotions you recognize inside yourself without judging them or you. Ask yourself: Am I sad? Am I feeling fearful? Am I lonely? Am I feeling insecure? Is my ego bruised?
- Just validate if it’s soothing you need because you're upset or if you feel sexually excited because something titillated you.
- Congratulate yourself for being open and curious about your internal world. Give yourself compassion and praise.
- For lifelong wellbeing, we want to discern internal awareness (naming your emotions) from any external actions (asking for sex or a hug). It's important to choose actions that are healthy for you (asking for a hug instead of grabbing a drink) and foster loving relationships (asking for what you need).
All humans are born with basic needs for emotional connection and with a desire to be seen and tended to, especially in times of emotional stress and distress. How beautiful that we have a wired-in capacity to soothe each other in so many ways: with reassuring words, a gentle voice, soft gazing eyes, hand-holding, a hand on the back of our head or shoulder, and other forms of non-sexual touch like hugs and cuddles. We can improve our collective and individual health by helping to expand the definition of masculinity so it is in sync with our biology.
Changing the Culture
Things don't change unless we talk openly with the people we love and care about. I'll end this post with a call to action to help our individual and collective wellbeing.
Four Things We Can Do to Encourage Authentic Relating
- Share emotion education that explains all sexes and genders have the same universal core emotions and needs for positive connection and soothing. The Change Triangle is my favorite emotion education tool for this purpose.
- Inform the men in your life and others who put up a guarded front that the need to connect with others and share one’s true feelings and thoughts is normal for all humans, and not specific to sex and gender.
- Invite any “tough-acting” people in your life to share their tender feelings and needs (especially the emotions and needs they struggle with most) while also stressing that you will not judge them as weak or feminine, just human and courageous. You could say, “No pressure but I wanted to let you know I’m here if you need a hug or someone to just listen. I would not judge you.”
- Explicitly say things like:
- When you tell me how you feel, it makes me love you even more.
- When you feel weak or upset, I still hold the big picture that you are big and strong.
- I know it’s hard to confess needing affection, but when you do my respect for you only grows. And it gives me more permission to let you know my needs.
The first step to greater well-being begins with the understanding that men, women, and all genders have the same wired-in core emotions and needs. It is normal for both men and women to desire both sexual connection and soothing connection through non-sexual touch like hugs and the sharing of thoughts and feelings. Needs for affection and soothing are as “masculine” as needs for strength, power, and ambition. Emotions and needs for soothing are not for the weak, they are for the human.
Damasio, A. (2005). Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Penguin
Fosha, D., Siegel, D., Solomon, M. (2009). The Healing Power of Emotion: Affective Neuroscience, Development & Clinical Practice (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). New York: W.W. Norton
Fosha, D. (2000). The Transforming Power of Affect: A Model for Accelerated Change. New York: Basic Books
Hendel, H.J. (2018). It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self. New York: Random House
Kaufman, G. (1989). The Psychology of Shame. New York: Springer Publishing
Levine, P. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books