Perfectionism

Is Sexual Perfectionism Destroying Your Sex Life?

Why sexual anxiety may be due to perfectionism, and what you can do about it.

Posted Jun 02, 2019

Do you experience anxiety before sex and/or during it which spoils the experience? Do you find yourself stressing out about the possibility of not performing well and, as a result, bring about precisely what you fear? After all, sex needs to be perfect, right? And if it’s anything less, then it’s not what it must be. Right? The answer is a resounding no! In fact, this is the sort of thinking that creates your performance anxiety in the first place. 

More precisely, sexual perfectionism may involve any, or all, of the following perfectionistic demands or “musts”:

  •  I must have an orgasm.
  •  I must have good timing (come to orgasm at the right time, neither prematurely nor too late).
  •  I must satisfy my partner.
  •  I must be able to have and maintain my erection.
  •  My partner must approve of my body.

If you tell yourself any of these musts, then you probably suffer from sexual perfectionism, a self-disturbing, self-defeating form of performance perfectionism. And if you are a sexual perfectionist, you likely exhibit this type of perfectionism in other aspects of your life, such as job performance, school, etc. So, the problem in bed is likely part of a larger problem that stems from a demanding form of perfectionism.

Demanding Perfectionism Versus Aspiration Perfectionism

Now, I’m not telling you to surrender your high sexual standards in order to get rid of your anxiety. For it is not your idealism about how wonderful sex can be that is creating your self-defeating sexual anxiety. Indeed, an orgasm can range from none whatsoever to indescribable ecstasy. There can be the tender throbbing of utter elation where your bodies coalesce and resonate like one well-tuned clock, but there can also just be bad timing. Of course, you prefer the sweet titillations of two hearts beating as one to the dysphoria of the latter. And, of course, you don’t want sex to be “just okay.”  

And here’s the point: Perfect sex is not an unreasonable ideal to shoot for, but there is a fundamental difference between an aspiration and a requirement or demand. It is quite reasonable to aspire to have perfect sex, but it unrealistic to demand that you be perfect, because this is impossible or damn near it. Instead, you can keep working to improve your performance. How liberating! You are not going to turn into a pumpkin if you mess up. You can, in fact, learn something that you can use in successive attempts to do better. The sky’s the limit since you can always improve, and that’s what’s so exciting about giving up sexual perfectionism. You set yourself free to explore, try new things, get excited about your relationship without worrying and ruminating about what can be a wonderful experience—if you let it.

Now, it may be comforting to know that you are not alone. My research suggests that at least half the population are demanding perfectionists, and as you can see, this can show up in how you perform and feel in the most intimate moments. So, what can you do about it?

Work on Your General Tendencies to Demand Perfection

The first step in overcoming sexual perfectionism is realizing you have it. The next step is working cognitively, behaviorally, and emotionally to give up your self-disturbing, self-defeating demands for sexual perfection. As mentioned, these demands are typically associated with broader perfectionistic tendencies. For example, some sexual perfectionists may ruminate and make themselves anxious about presentations at work or school. Thus, you can work on your sexual perfectionism by working on your tendencies to disturb yourself over other nonsexual activities in your life. In fact, in my latest book, Making Peace with Imperfection, I identify 10 different types of demanding perfectionism that may also lead to sexual perfectionism, and I provide systematic exercises you can do to make such positive change. These 10 types of perfectionism are:

1. Achievement perfectionism

2. Approval perfectionism

3. Moral perfectionism

4. Control perfectionism

5. Expectation perfectionism

6. Ego-centered perfectionism

7. Treatment perfectionism

8. Existential perfectionism

9. Neatness perfectionism

10. Certainty perfectionism

For example, if you are also a certainty perfectionist, you will worry about the possibility of messing up sexually, as well as otherwise. If you are a control perfectionist, you will demand control over your sexual activities, as well as other aspects of your life, and will experience anxiety when you think you can’t control them, including what happens in the bedroom. If you are an approval perfectionist, you will stress out over whether you will get the approval of others, including your sex partner. The basic idea is to work on giving up these various types of demand for perfection, but not your aspiration to be excellent at what you do, including how well you perform in bed. Again, it isn’t your perfectionist goal that creates the problem, it’s your demand that you reach it. 

Take Some Advice From the Sages

With the understanding that your sexual perfectionism may be rooted in more general tendencies to demand perfection, let me offer some particular tips for working toward overcoming your sexual perfectionism, gleaned from the wisdom of sages such as the Buddha, Socrates, Epictetus, Nietzsche, and Kant, among others:

  • According to Buddhism, reality is impermanent, and suffering occurs when you demand that reality be other than it is. Now, the plain truth is that there is no certainty that you will perform the way you want or prefer. So, let go of your demand for certainty. Once you do, you are free to resonate with reality, instead of experiencing anxiety over it. 
  • Your body is never going to be perfect, and it is ever-changing like all material things in this universe. As Socrates would admonish, stop demanding bodily perfection, looking for flaws, and ruminating about them. Once you give up this unrealistic perfectionistic demand about physical reality, you are free to enjoy your body rather than getting bogged down with berating it.
  • As the wise Stoic philosopher Epictetus would remind you, you cannot control how others view you or your body, but you can control how you view yourself and the world. So, stop demanding what is not yours to demand, namely whether your partner will approve of you or your body. Instead, direct your attention to enjoying your sexual experience. 
  • You are not your orgasm. If you don’t have an orgasm or an erection, that doesn’t mean that you are a failure. Separate your self-worth from your sexual performance. As the renowned philosopher Immanuel Kant would tell you, your worthiness as a person remains intact and is not diminished by how well you do in bed.         
  • Meditation is a good way to let your perfectionistic demands go. As the Buddhists prescribe, this involves directing your consciousness to your breathing or to a pleasant object and gently pushing all intruding thoughts away. This is good practice for learning how to focus on the pleasant sexual experience instead of clogging your mind with intrusive thoughts. So, try some mediation before having sex!
  • Some sexual perfectionists retreat from having sex rather than risk not measuring up in bed. They may be inclined to substitute masturbation for fearless, unabashed sex. Now, masturbation is good, but don’t substitute it for sex with your partner! Strengthen your willpower muscle by pushing yourself to have sex rather than shying away from it. As Aristotle would tell you, this is the only way to develop strong sexual habits.
  • Fantasizing is good too. As philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would instruct, you don’t have to be angelic. (Some moral perfectionists demand that they not think inappropriate thoughts and, as a result, stifle their sexual imagination.) And, again, don’t substitute masturbatory fantasizing for fantasizing while having sex with your partner.
  • If you don’t perform as you prefer in bed, Epictetus would remind you that it is the way you perceive this event that upsets you, not the event itself. So, you can reframe it as an opportunity to learn what not to do next time.
  • Don’t analyze your sexual performance as you are having it. (“Is my partner really enjoying this or just pretending?”) Again, remember that you have the power to focus on the experience itself. Push any intruding thoughts away, and let yourself be in the moment of your experience.

The above tips can help you to move away from the self-defeating demands of sexual perfectionism toward an aspirational form of perfectionism. But this will take practice and perseverance. As discussed, sexual perfectionism is typically part of larger perfectionistic tendencies that can also create stress in other aspects of your life. Working on these wider tendencies can help you overcome your sexual perfectionism.

The ideal of magnificent sex awaits you. Go for it. And remember, no demands!

Facebook Image: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

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