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Some Tips on Overcoming Sexual Performance Anxiety

The problem may not be in your erogenous zone.

Key points

  • Often, when worrisome people have sex, they don't give attention to their erotic thoughts, and instead begin ruminating during the act.
  • Irrational thoughts can create performance anxiety, which in turn lead to lack of orgasm or erection.
  • Handling sexual performance anxiety begins with taking the focus off of orgasm.

Many people who fail to reach a climax during sexual intercourse have no underlying physical problem. Instead, the problem may be due in part or whole to worrying about not being able to perform. In such cases, you may need a bit of old-fashioned reason rather than a Viagra pill.

So how can worrying about sexual performance actually prevent you from performing? The first thing to note is that it distracts you from sexually interacting with your partner. Often, when worrisome people have sex, they don't give due attention to the more erotic thoughts and responses that typically accompany successful sexual relating. So instead of thinking erotically, you may start thinking and ruminating about how awful it would be if you couldn't perform, how this would reflect poorly on your masculinity or femininity, and what your partner might think of you.

Such thinking produces performance anxiety. Anxiety is a future-oriented emotion in which you catastrophize about the consequences of a possible future event. In the case of sexual performance anxiety, the event in question is failure to perform sexually, and the perceived catastrophic consequences are loss of self-respect and fear of how you think others—especially your sex partner—would view you.

So maybe you think that a man must have an erection, or that a woman must have an orgasm. And maybe you think this despite the obvious biological fact that having an erection or orgasm is not a necessary condition of being a man or woman. If you never had another erection or orgasm again, you still would not shed your gender!

"Well maybe I'm still a man if I fail to perform, but that's not what I'm supposed to do as a man," you might be thinking. "I'm supposed to have an erection; and if I don't have one, then I'm somehow defective, kind of like a clock that doesn't keep time is still a clock."

Now, a little existential advice might help to take the edge off this popular "natural law" perspective. You are not like a clock! A clock does not have free will. Its ticks and tocks are purely mechanical. A clock does not have subjectivity; it is not self-conscious. But you are—and there lies the rub.

There's nothing wrong with your erogenous zone

Your "malfunction" is typically not in your mechanical part. It is not in your penis or your vagina; it is not in a malfunction of your erogenous zone. Rather, it is a set of irrational thoughts that are creating performance anxiety—which in turn lead to your lack of orgasm (or erection, or etc).

A major part of performance anxiety is fear of what others (most notably your current partner) are going to think of you if you fail to perform. You may fear that your partner will stop seeing you as sexy or as not being a "real man" or "real woman."

As such, you may tell yourself that your worth depends on whether or not you can reach a climax. "What good am I," you think, "if I can't even have an orgasm?" But you are not identical to an orgasm. Again, you are not a mere mechanism. You are a being who can think, reason, act, feel, desire, and sense. You are a self-determining being, a being who can autonomously decide things. You, therefore, also have an inherent value and dignity. So respect yourself—good sex, after all, begins with self-respect!

And besides, it's not really earth-shattering if you don't have an orgasm or you can't have an erection. It is not on the level of a nuclear meltdown or an earthquake in which thousands of people perish. It is not the equivalent of murder or rape. It is not the end of the universe. As far as bad things go, it really isn't so bad—unless you tell yourself it is. But that is where your willpower comes into play; you can make of it what you will.

Finally, you cannot control what others think of you. Is your partner going to be pleased with you? How well will you compare to others, sexually? What will he or she think if you can't reach a climax? These are thoughts that shouldn't occupy you because you're simply not in a position to control what others think. On the other hand, you can have considerable control over your sexual experience. You can think erotic thoughts, touch, feel, and sense. You can attempt to stimulate and imagine that your partner is as intensely stimulated as you are. Here, your imagination is all the reality that really matters. At the end of the day, ranking the sex as good, bad, or somewhere in between may not be a good idea in general, but it is definitely a very bad idea while in the midst of the sexual encounter itself. To do so is already to chill off the experience.

If it turns out that you had foreplay but no climax, this is still not terrible, horrible, or awful. The enjoyment reaped through the encounter need not afterward be desecrated by the failure to be orgasmic. It is what it is—and it can still be pleasant unless you catastrophize about it and dilute this pleasure with needless anxiety. The quest for sexual gratification should not itself be turned into a source of grief.

So, what to do about sexual performance anxiety?

Here are, in sum, some things you and your partner can work on:

  • Stop defining yourself as an orgasm. You are much more!
  • Respect your inherent dignity and value as a human being.
  • Stop worrying about what others are going to think of you.
  • Focus instead on what you can control—your subjective world of erotic thoughts, fantasies, sensations, and feelings.
  • Stop exaggerating how bad it is to not have an orgasm.
  • Stop rating your sexual experience, especially while you are having it.
  • Appreciate whatever pleasure you reap!
More from Elliot D. Cohen Ph.D.
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