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How to stop self-sabotaging your happiness (and pleasure)

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Two weeks ago, Bloody Good Bloke arrived home from his trail run to an important announcement.

“Excuse me. I’ve decided we have to have sex every day this week.”

“Righto”, he grinned.

“What if we make 7-8am our intimacy time before we start work – we don’t have to have sex if we don’t feel like it, but at least just to do some kind of intimacy thing every morning. Like a head rub or a massage or something.”

“Sold”, he said, his eyes crinkled in amusement as they often are when he’s laughing at my unexpected announcements.

If you’ve been following this blog a while you’ll know that I’ve been on a sex-learning mission for a few years. I’ve been on sex retreats in Mexico, and done a whole bunch of epic online programs – The Well F#%ed Woman, Coming Together for Couples, Vaginal Kung Fu, and even Sexual Mastery for Men, all of which have blown my tiny mind and revolutionised my sex life and relationships.

You’ll also know that I’ve come a bloody long way, since the days of being unable to come at all, and really pretty numb and confused about sex in general.

[Trigger warning — this post mentions sexual abuse. Please make sure you are well resourced if you choose to read on.]

A few weeks ago, something new happened.

I woke up feeling vibrant. Bloody Good Bloke laughed at me (his favourite activity) as I bounced around like a hyper kangaroo, full of excitement about nothing and everything.

We sat down to meditate, as we do every(ish) morning, this time with Tara Brach guiding us in a body awareness meditation. Cheers Tar. I could feel the aliveness zinging all over my body, it was such a beautiful feeling.

Once the recording finished we sat with our eyes open, looking around, staying present. Bloody Good Bloke reached out and held my hand. He traced his thumb back and forth over the back of my hand.

I sat quietly with all my attention on the lovely ripple of sensation radiating across my hand and up my arm.

BGB then leaned over and kissed me really gently on the back of my neck.

I stayed in the body awareness and observed all the sensations, zapping all over my body.

I felt alive, excited, joyful, with the stirrings of turned on-ness.

Then I noticed another feeling unfurling right alongside the pleasure.

Fear.

It uncurled inside me and pressed upwards on my chest. It was subtle enough to miss, but because my body was flooded with my attention, I was able to notice the sneaky little fear snake wiggling up into my mind.

Neville leapt to attention “We must get back to work, stat. We do not have time for this pleasure feeling.”

Suddenly I was feeling urgency, like I was in a rush to get to my computer and do serious worky things.

Usually at this point I would do something to shut down the intimacy, perhaps jump up and pad over to my computer.

Instead, I sat and observed the intermingling feelings. Pleasure, happiness, relaxation, urgency, fear, pressure, discomfort.

I didn’t try to get rid of or ignore any of the feelings, I just kept noticing what was arising.

All of this happened within a few seconds.

“Can I tell you about a weird thing that just happened?” I asked Bloody Good Bloke.

I explained to him how I’d been observing the pleasure of aliveness, and suddenly found myself feeling fear, like I urgently needed to do something numbing – something that would bring my energy back to neutral, stat.

As I tried to explain the sensations with words, an insight popped into my head.

“Sheesh”, I realised out loud. “When that horrible thing happened to me when I was young… I think I might have paired pleasure with shame and fear!”

Puzzle pieces started falling from the sky and slotting themselves together on the kitchen bench in front of me.

Bloody Good Bloke spontaneously put his hand over my chest and rubbed it back and forth slowly, comforting me.

Then out of nowhere, I was sobbing. Proper, gasping, ugly sobbing.

Bloody Good Bloke held me as I let that old part of me really go for it with the full face roar-crying — in between laughing with BGB and saying “How cool is this?! I think I’m having a trauma release thingo!” — before swiftly returning to hysterical crying.

For the rest of the day I felt bone tired, my morning bubbly energy had plummeted.

Instead of trying to push through, as I would have done previously, I let myself snuggle up on the couch and sleep while BGB worked. My nervous system felt like it had been through a hurricane.

It felt like another piece of the trauma had come up to be healed, leaving a brilliant insight in its wake.

Pleasure and aliveness do not feel safe for my nervous system.

Any time I feel extremely alive, full of pleasure, or joy or excitement, I often do something to bring myself back down to neutral. I make myself sit at my computer, I look at something mind-numbing on my phone, I suddenly find Netflix interesting — instead of allowing the pleasure to percolate.

I’ve been working with a coach and learning EFT to try to stop sabotaging my pleasure. Not just sexual pleasure — any kind of peak joy or aliveness. I hold myself back and constantly find myself seeking out neutral states, even though I now find it pretty easy to get myself into a state of excitement and joy when I want to.

As I’ve written about in zero detail before here (How to open the doors into the padlocked room where your libido lives) and here (How to handle sexism and objectification), I was, as way too many people are, repeatedly sexually abused by a near-stranger as a really young child.

So it makes sense to me that my nervous system would have paired pleasure with painful emotions like fear, shame, and guilt. It’s not rational, trauma never is.

I shared my new insights about shame and pleasure with a few friends, and their reactions were surprising.

Despite not having been “technically” sexually abused, a number of my friends said “it’s like you’ve just described me – any time I feel sexually alive – I find myself desperate to go and do something numbing. One minute I’m in the flow of things, the next minute I’m thinking about how the floor needs vacuuming.”

Do you do this too?

It seems that this is far more common than I expected.

Even for women who haven’t experienced sexual trauma, I’d bet that almost every woman ever has at the very least experienced a lifetime of mini traumas, with inexperienced sexual partners who learnt their “skills” from misogynistic porn, lurky lurkison men lurking everywhere, subtle or overt sexual harassment, having their ass grabbed in night clubs. Not to mention the regular old objectification and sexualisation of women that still pervades advertising and media to this day.

No wonder many of us have paired sexual attention with fear or shame. No wonder our nervous system would prefer us to sweep the balcony than risk moving out of our neutral/ numb comfort zone into sexual pleasure or embodied aliveness.

The nervous system is a piece of high tech survival equipment. If it’s learnt that sexual attention or pleasure is unsafe – it’s going to need our help, love and patience to help it feel safe to melt into that blissful surrender mode that we all deeply crave. No matter how far away it feels.

Since this insightful roar-crying, I’ve been having chats with my nervous system.

Any time I feel alive, or full of pleasure, I check and see if there’s any fear or shame present too. If I have pesky “I need to work” thoughts when I’m in the middle of something lovely, connected or enlivening (not just sexually), I acknowledge Neville and try to find the fear that’s lurking beneath his announcements. I acknowledge the fear and let it be there.

What you resist persists – so now I try never to push my nervous system past where it feels safe to go.

Instead, I put my hand over my chest where I feel the fear, and silently reassure that fearful part of me that it’s ok. If it happens during sex, I slow things down, or stop what we’re doing till I feel safe again.

I wanted to commit to a daily intimacy practice so that I could confront and learn to heal the subtle fears. The fears that tend to intervene in my sex life with miscellaneous self-excuses for why I don’t have “time” for intimacy.

And so, BGB and I have been practicing making space for intimacy every morning for the past 2 weeks.

One morning I felt my turn-on rising so swiftly it almost choked me with panic when the fear rose swiftly to meet it. At that point I’d usually dissociate and check out mentally, I suspect. But this time I spontaneously found myself reciting in my head “I’m safe, I’m safe, I’m safe, I’m safe”. I have no idea where it came from, it hadn’t been on my mind at all, but to my surprise, it helped, and I started to relax into enjoyment again.

I felt safer. The freaking-out part of me (Bev) hadn’t yet been looped in on the “we’re safe” comms from my rational brain, Nev, who knew all was well.

I’m helping Bev, my nervous system learn to trust that I’ve got her back.

I’m showing her that I won’t ignore her fear signals anymore. That I’ll follow through on what she needs in any moment instead of rejecting or suppressing her.

Even if that means making sex grind to a disappointing halt unexpectedly.

As a result, Bev is starting to let me relax deeper and deeper into surrender, beauty and pleasure.

Every now and then I feel compelled to write a deeply personal blog post like this, where I reveal things about myself and my relationship (and Bev) that I feel a little uncomfortable about sharing. But this feels important.

We don’t talk about this enough.

Not even to ourselves.

If you find yourself avoiding pleasure, aliveness or intimacy in your life, it might be time to kick off a few chats with the long-rejected parts of you.

Parts who might have learnt to be fearful of stepping outside your comfort zone – even into enjoyable states.

Parts who are likely self-sabotaging your happiness and pleasure

– not because they’re bastards, but because they’re protecting you from a threat they don’t realise has passed.

If you’re thinking there might be a fearful Bev in you, but you’ve no idea where to start with helping her feel safe, join me for my upcoming workshop (date TBC) on How to be Less of a Dick to Yourself (AKA Self Compassion for Sceptics)! Click here to register your interest.

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Pstt - enjoyed this blog post? Splendid news! If you fancy getting these snippets of self-deprecating radical honesty delivered freshly to your inbox moments(ish) after I take them out of the gluten free oven (every week or three-ish), subscribe over here.

I have an online workshop coming up (details TBC) called How to be Less of a Dick to Yourself (AKA Self Compassion for Sceptics)! I would love you to join us — It’s going to be bloody splendid! Click here to register your interest.

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