As I continue working on my upcoming book, I find myself naturally shifting my focus a bit more away from larger sociological constructs (although there is still plenty of that) and more towards the essential work that I do with my clients on a day-to-day basis. As I’ve written about before (here and here and here), one of the main missions of my work is to help individuals rid themselves of unnecessary internal shame, and sexuality is one of those areas that folks may often may feel the most shamed about.
And the further I go in my work, the more I become certain that self-compassion is one of the key ingredients that allows us to resolve that shame. Indeed, if I were to now be asked what is the most important takeaway that I can provide anyone through psychotherapy, I would answer that it would be the tools to cultivate self-compassion. When it really comes to it, I believe that self-compassion is one of the quintessential hallmarks of mental health.
So what is self-compassion and how do we cultivate it? First, I think it’s important to point out that it’s something that’s poorly understand. If I ask a client, for example, if they are able to experience self-compassion for themselves, they will invariably draw a blank look and state that of course they have self-compassion, or something to that effect. And this may be a client who struggles mightily with self-criticism, depression, anxiety, or any other internal conflict that would create distress.
I’ll say, let’s imagine that there is a distressed child standing on the corner of 5th Ave and 45th St (near my office) and this child is in tatters; the child is barefoot, dirty and crying for help. Now let’s imagine that everyone just walked by and ignored this child, no one comes over to help or soothe the child… would we consider these people to be compassionate? Of course not. Now let’s take a look at the similar situation where you are feeling distressed, where you are in pain and struggling with painful emotions, and you are unable to come to your own defense and soothe yourself, would we consider you to be self-compassionate? Probably not.
This is often where I see the looks change from confusion to realization. Because in essence, if we are unable to soothe ourselves, to look out for ourselves when we are feeling sad, depressed, lonely, or anxious, then on some level we either haven’t developed or don’t know how to access our internal capacity for self-compassion. In these times, we may look for soothing outside of ourselves. In substances, for example. Or in food. Or by distracting oneself through shopping, gambling, video games or a number of myriad other entertainments. Or by delving deeper into work. Or yes, sometimes even through sex. In essence, much of compulsive behavior is based on seeking external soothing due to the inability to find soothing internally. In other words, due to the inability to have self-compassion.
Or we may become so outcome-oriented, so harsh and critical towards ourselves, that we may develop intense anxieties when we don’t perform up to our own standards. We push harder and harder, ruminating and dwelling on inadequacies, which only contribute to sexual dysfunctions, as opposed to displaying self-compassion at the fallible experience of human sexuality. What I’m trying to do here is to illustrate that a number of sexual difficulties are at least partly influenced by an inability to experience self-compassion in a way that would lead to sexual acceptance, calm, and centeredness.
In my own work, I am constantly expanding my knowledge base and searching for and adopting new techniques that would allow my clients to tap into their own natural reservoirs of healing. I may use somatic or mindfulness exercises, or sometimes even visualizations to allow my clients to experientially see what it’s like to give themselves a little break during their day, to metaphorically give themselves an internal vacation from the stress, worry, and internal dialogue. When they see that they have the self-agency to create this experience for themselves, that is like a crack in the door that we can expand upon, and they can then learn to extend that self-compassion to other areas of their life, including in the service of sexual functioning and pleasure. This is what I would consider tapping into our own innate abilities to heal.
I’ll have much more to say about this in my book, but in conclusion, sexuality is often a microcosm of the deeper landscape that resides within. The tip of the iceberg, if you will. And learning the tools to self-soothe, to calm our internal world, is the essence of self-compassion. And it is these same tools that allow us to extend that same reassurance, that same pleasure and calm, that same self-created joy to our sexualities and sexual lives.