The Subtle But Powerful Mindset Shift That Can Transform Your Sex Life
As a sex therapist, I help people struggling with sexual dysfunction, when their bodies aren't working as they'd like. What may be surprising is that, for the majority of my clients, their bodies work just fine. Yet their sex life still feels like a struggle.
What I've learned is that most people's concerns come down to an issue of mindset. Many people approach sex in a way that sets them up for feelings of failure and inadequacy. A theme for my clients is difficulty enjoying what is happening and instead fretting about what isn't. Frequently, sex is spent anticipating the next moment, worried about the last moment, or hardly being in the room at all—rather than fully present in the moment. Stress, anxiety, fears, and distractions diminish your access to pleasure and pull you out of the experience of connecting with your partner and what you are doing together.
The answer to this dissatisfaction is shockingly simple: a heat-of-the-moment mindfulness practice.
Learning to slow down and pay attention is a good skill to have in all areas of life, and it's an amazing skill for having more satisfying sex and for creating a stronger sense of connection with your partner. Sex is enhanced when you can relax and be fully engaged in each moment, taking in the breadth of your experience. This includes the subtlety of the physical sensations you are having in your whole body, the thoughts and feelings you are having while doing it, and the awareness of your partner. But there are several factors that keep us from this enjoying this full presence of mind.
What behaviors keep us from being present during sex?
1. Goal orientation puts you in the future.
The first threat to great sex is the tendency to be goal-oriented. A lot of people assume that the goal of sex is orgasm. It's nice to be able to have an orgasm if you want one, of course, but focusing on that as the end goal creates issues. First, not everyone can have an orgasm—at least not every time. If that's your goal for yourself or your partner, you are set up to fail at least some of the time. Your body changes, and your responsiveness fluctuates, so there's no way you're going to bat a thousand. Focusing on orgasm makes it harder to reach one, especially if that's combined with any worry or self-consciousness about your performance.
Shooting for a goal like that also minimizes the rest of the experience. Anything but that seems "less than." Even the word "foreplay" implies that there is a main event that really counts. The rest of the encounter is just used to reach the orgasm, without value by itself. But if you are not paying attention to the rest of the experience, you won't be able to savor or relish all the sensations. You can be so focused on moving forward that you are in the future moment, not the present one. If that's the goal, and especially if you are pressed for time or energy, you tend to want to do only what's needed to get there and nothing more. That's why many people have an "efficient" way of having sex—they're doing what moves them toward orgasm the most quickly.
2. Sexual problems keep you in the past.
Sexual problems also tend to take you out of the moment in sex. If you or your partner suffer from real sexual dysfunction, or even if you simply struggle with different levels of sexual desire or different roads to arousal, you are more likely to be thinking about what's happened in the past and whether it's about to happen again.
People living with vaginismus, for example, or other conditions, will likely have sex lives that look different from the ones represented in the media and in most popular discourse, and that's perfectly fine. But if you believe that sex is defined by doing certain things with certain body parts, you have set a trap for yourself. Because as soon as you either don't have the body parts or don't have the same use of those body parts, you are automatically failing. You tend to hide when you struggle, not connect more deeply. You also tend to avoid things that make you anxious, so you may end up avoiding sex and intimacy because of the sexual trials you're experiencing.
3. Distractions take you out of the experience entirely.
Lastly, minds are busy creatures. You can get so consumed with thoughts, ideas, and stories that you are totally unaware of what is going on around you, disconnected from the present moment and the actual person you are with. You may find it hard to turn off your mind from constantly running through your to-do list or overanalyzing worries about life and work. Thoughts of planning, evaluating, and strategizing about what you will be doing next are swirling around in your mind like a whirlpool. It may be hard to switch gears and put those concerns aside to show up and be present with your partner. If your mind is busy and you are "all in your head," you may have a hard time "getting into your body."
Your mind may also be busy with self-conscious and self-critical thoughts. Worry about your body, your sexual performance, or the state of your relationship can also get in the way of you having a good time in sex. Your expectations about sex—for you, your partner, and your encounter as a whole—can start to consume you. And your judgments about how you're doing compared to those expectations can be another layer of mental busywork that gets in the way of sexual enjoyment.
Choose to enjoy each moment of what is rather than what may be.
I invite you to accept my definition of sex—that it's the physical expression of our innate drives for love, intimacy, and pleasure. It's about pleasure and connection, in varying proportions—that's all.
Focus on a goal of orgasm or following a specific sexual script often makes it difficult to be present in the moment, and it can create pressure and anxiety for one or both partners if sex isn't a straight line from initiation to arousal to orgasm. Sex is dramatically enhanced when you stop being destination-oriented and start enjoying each step along the journey. It is great fun to play in the space before or totally outside of orgasm: allowing arousal to build, subside, and build again. New possibilities open when you are not driving directly to climax. And if you or your partner struggle with arousal or orgasm, taking the focus off the outcome and learning to enjoy touch and connection allows you to enjoy what you're doing (and may very well make it easier to reach orgasm later if you want to).
This attitude will serve you well if you encounter changes in your life that affect your (or your partner's) sexual functioning. Whether you have a permanent change at some point or are just faced with a night when you're too tired to be as responsive as usual, you have more options for pleasure and connection if you enjoy what is without worrying about what may follow.
Here's how to get back to your body.
To get back to your body—where you can be aware of your physical self, feel and focus on sensation, and connect with touch and stimulation in a way that allows you to get aroused and interested in sex—try practicing mindfulness in the moment.
Focus on your breathing, noticing how it feels on the way in and out. You can even try synchronizing your breathing with your partner's so that you inhale and exhale at the same time. Once you are breathing in unison for a while, switch to alternate breathing, where you breathe in as your partner breathes out and vice versa. This intentional exercise brings you back into your body, and matching it with your partner helps you focus on them again.
If you feel thoughts, worries, and self-judgments building in your mind, don't get attached to them. Notice them, and then shift your focus from the mental and into the tactile. See if you can immerse yourself in the physical sense of touch while giving up attachment to any particular outcome, whether it's an erection, an orgasm, or anything else. Make yourself slow way down and pay attention to what the sensations actually feel like, taking pleasure in the stimulation you're receiving, whatever form it might take.
By drawing yourself back to your body, rather than focusing on a destination, you can start to appreciate the full breadth of the sexual experience.
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Jessa Zimmerman, M.A. is an AASECT-certified sex therapist, licensed couples’ counselor, author of Sex Without Stress, and the host of the Better Sex Podcast. She holds a bachelor's from Cornell University, a master’s in Psychology from Saybrook University, and has completed a certificate in Sex Therapy from the University of Michigan. She specializes in helping couples who have a good relationship but are avoiding sex because it’s become stressful, negative, disappointing, or pressured. She educates, coaches, and supports people as they go through her nine-phase experiential process which gives them real world practice in changing their relationship and sex life.