Despite the era in which we live, where any information (right or wrong) can be found instantaneously at your finger tips via a Google search, one of the most common problems I hear in my office is the struggle of my clients to overcome sexual shame and accept their sexuality. You might wonder, how could one still be ashamed of being gay when positive messaging about homosexuality can be found all over the internet and mainstream media? How could one still be afraid to admit their fetish to a partner when Fifty Shades of Grey was a runaway best seller? These are important questions to ask since I believe they directly address the mechanism through which the change process occurs.
You see, it’s not enough to cognitively understand something. It’s not enough to have facts and figures in front of you. And it’s not enough to have other people around you convincing you to dispel your opinions. That’s because there’s a huge gap between knowing and believing. Knowing is having disposal to certain information. But believing is when that knowledge becomes internalized. And true change only happens when our beliefs become internally congruent with the things we know. And it is this process of changing beliefs that requires lived experience in order to take hold.
We’ve all heard the phrase “walk a mile in someone’s shoes”, or some other version, which basically means that you can’t truly understand another person’s experience without having lived it yourself. We are all familiar with these ideas because on some level, as we’ve all had the experience of having that “light bulb” moment when we finally say to ourselves “now I get it!” If you think back carefully, I think you’ll realize that those realizations only come from experience, not reading or fact gathering.
In therapy, there’s a term for this process, called the “corrective emotional experience.” This term has most often been used by psychoanalysts to describe a scenario in which an individual learns new things by testing the psychotherapeutic relationship. So for example, if the client has a false belief that he or she will be criticized for opening up one’s vulnerabilities, but attempts to do so with the therapist anyway and sees that the therapist is caring and sensitive, rather than cold and rejecting, that would be experienced as a corrective to the old belief system and would form the basis for a new realization. No amount of cajoling or reassuring on the part of the therapist would have the same effect. Indeed, it may even be likely that such efforts would be experienced as deceptive and manipulative, rather than sincere if the client has not yet witnessed the therapist that way through experience.
So let’s take this conversation now to the realm of sexuality. When my clients are attempting to change old belief systems around sex, to embrace rather than disown authentic aspects of their sexual selves, or feel unstuck enough to get in touch with a more adventurous side, whatever insight they glean from me in our work together is helpful, but it is not enough. Instead, just as in the case of the “corrective emotional experience” outlined above, true change happens through a process of testing new behaviors. In other words, action has to support insight for truly meaningful change to occur.
So what would something like that look like? First, we want to start out with a goal and build a plan around that. If we are aiming to reduce shame, we need to construct some action items that would allow the client to be very sure to experience some success and validation to counter that shame, but also to build confidence and momentum to continue to move forward. If someone has a fantasy that they’ve been mulling over for a while (let’s say bondage for example), but feel too embarrassed to try, even though they know that other people do it and they’ve read 50 Shades a dozen times, we want to plan out a new activity that may expose them to mild levels of anxiety, but not feel too overwhelming. If the activity is too far beyond their comfort zone, it will just reinforce the negative shame-filled beliefs. My role in this capacity becomes just as much facilitator as therapist.
Often times what we are really doing is challenging the dominant narrative about oneself that has crystallized in the client’s mind. Take a look at this article I wrote about sexuality and creativity in which I discuss this topic of narrative formation. One prominent psychologist, whose name escapes me at the moment, described humans as “meaning making machines.” In other words, one of the most important differences between us and other species is that we are constantly trying to connect the dots between our various life experiences in order to create a coherent story line which makes sense. I think this is a very important idea because it places the primacy on experiences as the foundation of our beliefs, and then it is our thoughts that then rush in to fill in the gaps and make meaning of those experiences.
Sometimes, and this is the tricky part, those meanings become very rigid and fused with powerfully negative emotions that prevent us from avoiding any new experiences that would challenge those crystallized but unhelpful belief systems (narratives). Indeed, research shows that experiential avoidance is one of the biggest factors associated with negative mental health outcomes such as depression and anxiety. The way out is to challenge that experiential avoidance by purposefully seeking out new experiences in a structured and graded way, so as to ensure forward momentum and minimize anxiety. What that may look like is very idiosyncratic and depends highly on the individual needs of the client. But my point in this article isn’t to give a step-by-step instruction guide, but to get the reader thinking along these very crucial lines– in which ways are you avoiding experience and in which ways do you seek out new experiences to challenge your existing beliefs?