Over the years, I have been interviewed by countless magazines, newspapers, and other media outlets, but the one article that has garnered the most response and feedback by far is an interview I did with Vice in late 2016 on the subject of individuals that have lost their virginity later in life.  I have heard from people as far away as Germany and India for whom that article especially resonated. Indeed, the spotlight on communities of individuals who have experienced a crippling lack of sex has recently made headlines with the unfortunate car attack in Toronto by a self-described incel (involuntary celibate).

Going back to the Vice article (which you should definitely check out, it’s excellent), its main thesis is that individuals who missed out on the normal sexual experiences of early adulthood often feel like a tremendous part of their identity or self-esteem is missing, which then propels them to seek to soothe that hole by making up for a prior lack of sexual experiences. In this blog post, I will focus on those individuals who have regrets about missed sexual opportunities, but the same advice will hold true for anyone with any other kind of regrets.

I have often seen individuals who sought out sex workers as a means to catch up on their “numbers” and then opted for a self-diagnosed label of sex addiction when caught by a partner or spouse. Of course, this behavior is not a sign of addiction but rather an attempt to find validation, virility, and self-acceptance through sexual conquests. For this reason, a focus on sex as the main driving factor is often overly simplistic and superficial. For the behavior to no longer have its desired effect, the individual needs to come to terms with intrinsic elements that seem missing.

In my clinical experience, no amount of “making up” behavior will ever undo this gaping hole. It is never enough. And so the individual always needs to up the ante, raise the stakes to try to fill the emptiness. What we must do is stop this never-ending cycle, and learn to bury the past instead of reliving it through failed attempts at undoing. In these situations, I have often found that examining the underlying “schemas” (the complex web of thoughts, beliefs, and emotions) surrounding the behavior can prove fruitful. For example, I inevitably find that my clients that struggle with feelings of sexual regret also hold deep feelings of personal inadequacy and low self-esteem. Early experiences of sexual rejection have often become internalized as markers of inferiority. As we dig deeper, it becomes evident that the sex is only the tip of the iceberg; the regret of missing out on sex and the subsequent pursuit of it turns out to mask a more dogged pursuit for an integrated sense of wholeness.

To start, I ask my clients struggling with these issues to identify what I call “pathogenic beliefs” that are negatively influencing them. The word pathogenic means disease-causing, so I am literally referring to beliefs that cause pain, usually in the form of depression or anxiety. For example, I may ask, “When you think of your past sexual regrets, what thoughts come to mind?” Inevitably, something along the lines of “I’m not good enough,” or “No one could ever find me attractive” come to the surface. I want to isolate on those beliefs since these are the pain-causing agents we need to change. Often, when we get a pathogenic idea into our heads, we then reinforce it through a process of confirmation bias, in which we only notice confirming events and minimize or ignore any evidence that may disconfirm the belief. This process plays out in a number of other ways– for example, studies show that those who identify as liberal only pay attention to news with a liberal slant, while those who are conservative only follow conservative-leaning news.

Going back to our discussion of sexual regret, however, what we want to do in order to challenge our beliefs is to seek out disconfirming evidence. One example is to look at current or former relationships. Folks who are struggling with sexual regrets are sometimes currently in an existing relationship. If the individual believes that no one could ever be attracted to them, I ask, “Well, what about your partner? Do you think he/she is not attracted to you?” Often they answer, “Yes, but he/she is required to, they are married to me.” This is a perfect example of a cognitive distortion, in that the individual cannot see that they are attractive to at least one other person. I may say something like, “Your partner is not your mother, and so is not required to love you, so why do you think they got together with you in the first place?” What I’m simply trying to do here is to plant the seeds of doubt into my client’s faulty narrative.

I will then help them to identify other points of disconfirming evidence. Remember, much of trying to undo sexual regrets involves efforts at securing a sense of validation that was missing in the past. A faulty belief such as “I’m just not good enough” may accompany these behaviors. So, I will help my client identify other areas of their life that disconfirm this prevailing narrative. For example, they may have received an honor or promotion at work, lost 30lbs as part of a disciplined approach to their fitness and nutrition, or found a way to overcome a family crisis.  Invariably when I point these out, I am met with some resistance. They may be so used to devaluing themselves that they don’t even allow themselves the opportunity to soak in and acknowledge their successes.

In addition to noticing disconfirming evidence around them, I also encourage my clients to actively create their own moments of disconfirming evidence, not just passively wait for them to occur. For example, we may set up some small challenges that they can surmount as experiential proof. I’ll wrap it up here, as my main point is that a) sexual regrets are very common, b) acting to undo or make up for those regrets is equally as common, and c) getting off the hamster wheel of regret-behavior-ongoing regret requires a deeper dive into the underlying beliefs that continue to reinforce the behaviors and regrets. Inevitably, what my clients begin to realize is that regret over lost sexual opportunities often has nothing to do with the sex itself, and the answers they have been seeking have been inside of them all along.