One of the biggest sources of confusion and alarm for clients is when they find themselves struggling with various sexual thoughts, feelings, or fantasies that feel foreign to them or add odds with their values. This is a significant source of distress for many individuals, and one that arises from a lack of understanding of how the human mind works. As a result, folks with these concerns may find themselves feeling out of control, fearful of their own desires, and self-identifying themselves as sex addicts. The good news is that sexual thoughts, feelings, and fantasies, now matter how outlandish, are often normal byproducts of the human mind, and rarely, if ever lead to acting out on them.
In my work with my clients, I often find that defusing some of the stigma around these internal sexual preoccupations helps to lighten the weight and pressure surrounding them. Often the biggest source of distress is not the fantasy itself, but the meaning that the individual ascribes to it. For more on the meaning of sexual fantasies, take a look here. Things may tend to feel more out of control if they seem monumental with importance, infused with pressure, and viewed as dangerous or pathological. For example, someone with chest pain may easily feel overwhelmed and out of control, fearing the worst case outcome of a heart attack, but will feel significant relief and sense of self-agency if he or she learns that the pain is merely heartburn. This is how our human mind works. When we fear and dread the worst, we are much more likely to feel out of control.
The sex addiction community has long identified shame as a common experience amongst sexually compulsive individuals. However, I disagree with them on their understanding of the role of shame. I do agree that shame can by a byproduct of some kind of developmental trauma, but I also see cases in which the shame is mainly focused on the sexual desire itself, rather than some kind of characterological flaw. In other words, yes there are plenty of people who live with shame due to childhood trauma, but there are also plenty of folks whose main source of shame is their sexual desire, which makes them feel more out of control, and more compulsive. So, instead of focusing on what made someone so screwed up that they would act out compulsively in sexual ways, I have found that just normalizing these sexual desires is in itself very helpful in quickly reducing the intensity of the compulsive feelings. This doesn’t mean that some people require deeper work, but I find this to be a much more sex positive approach because it doesn’t assume that the desire or fantasy is pathological.
Let’s get back to the subject of thoughts, feelings, and fantasies and what they are all about. Freud, back in the day, coined a term– primary process– to describe the human mind’s way of dealing with primitive urges through dreams and fantasies. The secondary process refers to our more sophisticated way of getting our primitive needs met in the real world– in socially sanctioned ways. This is why thoughts and fantasies so often differ from our actions– the thoughts and fantasies are part of the primary, more primitive process, while our actions are part of the more sophisticated, secondary process. There is a big difference between the primary and secondary process. Think about it. We’ve all had murderous urges towards people who have hurt us badly, but how many of us have actually committed murder? We may have all had fantasies about doing something in appropriate in a work or school setting, but do we usually do it? The point is we all have our more primitive, animalistic side to ourselves, what Jung called the “shadow.” And I believe it is not unhealthy for us to be able to take a look at this shadow and really get to know it without running away. For more on this, take a look at my article Facing Your Shadow.
As a result, I’ve come to believe that any kind of attempt to ignore, block, or suppress primitive process thinking is fundamentally impossible and wholly unnecessary, bound to fail, and will only create more preoccupations (obsessions) that keep building to a boiling point until they finally spill out into the secondary process in the form of compulsive behavior. However, by acknowledging that our most private thoughts, feelings, and fantasies are part of our most primal natures, and that this is just a harmless remnant of our evolutionary ancestry, we are able to be mindful of our internal desires without necessarily giving them too much power.
Here’s a good example: Try not to think of a pink elephant. Come on, keep trying. Try harder. What you may find is that the act of trying to stifle the image of a pink elephant forces you to conjure it in your mind. The harder you try, the more that pink elephant keeps romping in your head, growing larger and larger, until it just crowds out everything else in the room. This is what happens when we try to suppress our sexual thoughts, feelings and fantasies– it just makes them stronger. Now next time you think of a pink elephant, instead of shooing it away, try to imagine what it looks like– how big is it, how long is the trunk, does it have any unusual marking, etc. Make friends with your image. And then just forget about it. No need to keep dwelling on the pink elephant, it will just go away on its own. As do most unwanted thoughts, feelings, and fantasies.