Alexandra Solomon, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist at The Family Institute and faculty at Northwestern University who joined us at Sessions Live 2019 to provide a response to the keynote, "Finding the Erotic Self." She has also appeared on the Sessions Platform, where she and Esther address the question of, Do the Young Love Differently Than the Old(er)?
To find out more about Alexandra's work and upcoming projects and events, visit www.dralexandrasolomon.com.
Our intimate relationships are a powerful crucible for growth and healing if we are committed to practicing relational self-awareness. Relational self-awareness is an ongoing curious and compassionate relationship with ourselves that becomes the foundation for a thriving intimate partnership. In my work as a relationship educator and couples therapist, what has become abundantly clear to me is that our relational self-awareness is incomplete unless it includes sexual self-awareness.
We live in a largely “sex-negative” world, and most of us have spent years internalizing a host of cultural messages conveying that sex is bad/dirty/wrong/sinful/dangerous. For those whose sexual identities, gender expressions, skin and bodies are systemically marginalized in our culture, the message that “you are wrong as you are” is even more suffocating. Internalized toxic messages meet up with the unavoidable truth that sex evokes profound vulnerability— a nakedness that is both physical and psychological—creating a perfect storm of struggle which leaves us ripe for shame and for acting out.
But here’s the catch. In 2019, we also get a set of well-meaning messages encouraging us to break free sexually, which encourage us to be sex-positive, liberated, free, and sexually bold and confident in the bedroom. But this set of opposing messages is a new variation on an old theme. The risk of internalizing the liberation-at-all-costs messages is eerily similar to the risk of internalizing puritanical messages: disconnection from self. Under this new paradigm, sex becomes a performance, an attempt to offload shame by proving your comfort with sexual expression, your freedom, and your prowess.
Sexual self-awareness requires us to shift from an outside-in to an inside-out experience of our sexuality, quieting the noise so that we can cultivate a deep, close, and nuanced understanding of our erotic self. Each of us deserves to feel at home in our skin, able to express our wants and needs in the bedroom, and each of us deserves an experience of erotic confidence that is authentic rather than performative. Therefore, the journey toward erotic confidence must be fueled by fierce self-compassion.
According to researcher Dr. Kristen Neff, self-compassion has three aspects:
Self-compassion is an ongoing commitment to forgiving yourself for being imperfectly and deeply human, for not having it all figured out. And it is a prerequisite for great sex.
Real-life sex is a far cry from the perfect encounters we see in movies or porn. Self-compassion helps us meet these real-life moments with humor and playfulness, making “mistakes” into opportunities for intimacy, not embarrassment. The degree to which we can reckon with our imperfections is the degree to which we can take risks in the bedroom—asking for what we need, losing ourselves in the moment, and savoring the experience of giving and receiving pleasure. Self-compassion helps us show up with authenticity so that we can create intimacy with another person. Erotic confidence is willingness to allow ourselves to be seen in our full humanity.
Our erotic self grows and changes as we do, so cultivating sexual self-awareness is the work of a lifetime. Carrying around at least some amount of sexual shame is the inevitable byproduct of growing up in this culture, so many of us need to practice shifting away from sexual shame and toward wholeheartedness. Pressuring yourself to be confident in the bedroom ends up creating a variation on a shame-filled narrative. Practicing compassion toward your beautiful, evolving, and imperfect sexual self creates a foundation for experiencing joy and connection in bed and leads to true erotic confidence.
For more on developing sexual self-awareness and creating an inside-out experience of your erotic self, check out my upcoming book, Taking Sexy Back: How to Own Your Sexuality and Create the Relationships You Want (New Harbinger, February 2020).
Dr. Alexandra Solomon is on faculty at Northwestern University and a licensed clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. She is a sought after speaker and teacher, and she is the author of two books—Loving Bravely: Twenty Lessons of Self-Discovery to Help You Get the Love You Want and Taking Sexy Back: How to Own Your Sexuality and Create the Relationships You Want.