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The Yin and Yang of Sexual Mindfulness

How being gentle and fierce in a relationship can benefit intimacy.

Key points

  • The idea of yin and yang refers to duality or that opposites, like male and female traits, can exist in harmony.
  • It is essential to evaluate when to increase the yin or yang in interactions.
  • Learning to be both gentle and fierce helps individuals and couples feel greater intimacy.

Common sense and research tell us it’s time to throw out rigid roles and embrace what we can become. Our culture often encourages certain gender roles. For example, women should be gentle, caring, and accommodating, and men should be bold, fierce, and decisive. However, these strict roles don’t help us meet our relational or sexual needs or reach our individual potential. Perhaps both men and women need to embrace masculine and feminine traits.

Yin and Yang

Much like the balance between male and female traits, the idea of yin and yang refers to duality or that opposites can exist in harmony. In fact, opposites can bolster one another. Dr. Kristin Neff, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, talks about the yin and yang of self-compassion. At times, we feel the need to be loving, connected, and tender with ourselves and our partner, which is the yin in us.

However, there are also times when the yang in us will demand that we speak hard truth, stand up for growth, or tap into a feeling of empowerment to address a difficult reality. When we are stuck in viewing ourselves one-dimensionally, either as all yin or all yang, we miss opportunities to show both gentle and fierce compassion.

In sexual relationships, partners can slow down the arousal process to explore emotions that surface. Partners can also speak up about needs for variety, consistency, or pacing of sex. Sharing these feelings can be done in gentle ways using a soft start-up. Both are needed, and we have to develop these elements of yin and yang in balance.

Dr. Neff explains,

In yin self-compassion, we hold ourselves with love—validating, soothing, and comforting our pain so that we can ‘be’ with it without being consumed by it. In yang self-compassion, we act in the world to protect ourselves, provide what we need, and motivate change to reach our full potential.1

If we only use validating compassion (yin), we will miss growth opportunities and expand our skills. But if we only use protection (yang) compassion, we may fatigue and feel discouragement. Both gentleness and fierceness are needed in our individual lives and our relationships.

Balancing Yin and Yang

Unfortunately, when women try to balance the yin and yang in their lives, some may interpret their fierceness as anger or aggressiveness. If men include a healthy amount of yin in their lives, they may be accused of being too soft, vulnerable, or emotional. These attitudes are harmful. Both men and women need a healthy balance of yin and yang, gentleness, and fierceness. Research shows that yin compassion helps people experience better emotion regulation and mental health.2 Yang's compassion can enable people to cope with stressful events and feel more motivated to improve.3

Yin and Yang in Your Relationship

When we hit a bump in our relationship, as we all do, it’s important to access both yin and yang compassion. Compassion creates an environment of trust, gentleness, and forgiveness. Research shows couples are happier in their relationships when they use compassion.4 But compassion is more than giving your partner a pass. Gentleness does not mean we make excuses for bad behavior. Instead, yang compassion speaks a hard truth in love, addresses a wrong with strength and clarity, and confronts hurt feelings with strong vulnerability.

Yin and yang are not simply “male” or “female” traits. These are mature, kind, loving traits that strengthen and unify our relationship. It takes courage to be gentle and fierce, and it takes skill to learn how to employ these facets of compassion to fit the situation. What this looks like will be different in every relationship, but it may be something like staying present and open in an argument and speaking up despite hurt feelings. It may be initiating sex when there has been some emotional distance and encouraging sharing vulnerable feelings. These are hard paths to navigate, and even if we aren’t perfectly successful, we will learn to create more connection and unity.

Dr. Neff reminds us of the constant need for balance,

When I’m being tender toward myself or others in a yin way, for instance, I consciously ask whether the force of yang is needed. And when I feel yang energy arising, I try to make sure that I have enough yin, to remind myself that the use of force is more effective when it is combined with tenderness.

Give yourself and your relationship both the gentleness and fierceness of yin and yang.


[1] Neff, K. (2018). Why women need fierce compassion.…

[2] Inwood, E., & Ferrari, M. (2018). Mechanisms of change in the relationship between self‐compassion, emotion regulation, and mental health: A systematic review. Applied Psychology: Health and Well‐Being, 10(2), 215-235.

[3] Chwyl, C., Chen, P., & Zaki, J. (2020). Beliefs About Self-Compassion: Implications for Coping and Self-Improvement. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 1-16 doi: 0146167220965303.

[4] Fahimdanesh, F., Noferesti, A., & Tavakol, K. (2020). Self-compassion and forgiveness: Major predictors of marital satisfaction in young couples. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 48(3), 221-234