What’s Ruining Your Sex Life?

Sexuality invites us to be in the moment, connected to our body, our senses, and to another person. Yet having a “critical inner voice” sounding off in our minds during sex is a little like having an extra person in the room critiquing everything from our desirableness to our performance. These critical inner voices take us out of the experience, remove us from our bodies and leave us disconnected from our partner, robbing us of the precious aspects of sexuality.

It’s probably no surprise to hear that research has shown that having higher self-esteem and a more positive body image is correlated with increased sexual satisfaction. On the other hand, negative thoughts toward ourselves heighten our stress levels, which can decrease sexual satisfaction. One recent study showed that measures of self-esteem, autonomy, and empathy were positively associated with sexual pleasure, while other research has revealed that people with low self-esteem may also perceive their partners in a more negative light. What all this tells us is that our ability to see ourselves and our partner through kind, empathic eyes has a big impact on how much we enjoy sex.

One of the main culprits guiding us into a negative head space during sex is our critical inner voice. The critical inner voice is a destructive thought process that sabotages our sexual satisfaction. The extent to which we listen to this “voice” correlates with our feelings of self-consciousness, insecurity, and shame. It can also lead to self-limiting, or even self-destructive, behavior.  While most of us know that the buzzing sound of our self-critical thoughts can be a major buzzkill when it comes to sex, we aren’t always fully aware of how much this voice affects us.

Years ago, when researching for the book Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice, my colleagues and I interviewed individuals and couples about the critical thoughts they experienced around sexuality. We found that many people had critical inner voices about themselves or their partner or about sex in general before, during, and after sex. On the one hand, we found the presence of such thoughts to be expected and relatable. After all, a person’s sexuality is very personal, and it can feel fairly vulnerable to be open to another person. On the other hand, we were struck by the degree of cruelty in the voices people expressed as well as the  painful emotions that often accompanied them.

One common way people can be very unkind to themselves and their sexuality is in the critical inner voices they have toward their bodies. Common examples I’ve heard include:

  • You look terrible naked. It’s humiliating to take off your clothes.
  • Your breasts are too big (or too small).
  • Your penis is too small, she will not be satisfied. She’s going to laugh at you.
  • You look so old. She isn’t attracted to you anymore.
  • He’s going to see how ugly you really are.

A lot of critical inner voices surface in anticipation of being sexual. Many people have described having thoughts like:

  • Do you really think he is attracted to you? Why would he be?
  • You’re going to be so awkward. She’s going to lose interest.
  • He won’t like you anymore if you sleep with him.
  • Why are you thinking about sex again? Are you some kind of pervert?
  • Watch out, he’s probably just using you.
  • You’re going to embarrass yourself.
  • She’d rather be with someone else.
  • You shouldn’t pursue sex. You’ll just be rejected.
  • It’s gross to want sex.
  • You won’t know what to do.

Many people have critical inner voices during sex that remove them from being in the moment. Mean attacks start to creep in that are directed toward themselves, their performance, their partner, or toward sex in general that stop them from enjoying the experience.

  • You’re not making her feel good.
  • You should be doing this or that.
  • He’s probably turned off by you.
  • You’re not feeling enough. What’s wrong with you?
  • You’re so bad at this.
  • She doesn’t seem that excited.
  • You’re doing something wrong.
  • You won’t be able to finish.
  • You’re going to finish too quickly.
  • You’re not going to have an orgasm.
  • Don’t show him/her what you want. You’ll look like a freak.
  • Why can’t he/she tell what you want?
  • He/she thinks you’re terrible at this.
  • He/she is so awkward (or insensitive).
  • Can’t he tell you’re not feeling anything?.
  • She is so tense, what’s wrong with her?

These kinds of thoughts make sex far less enjoyable. For one thing, they take us out of the free flow of the experience and causes us distress, but they also disconnect us and sometimes even alienate us from our partner. Oftentimes, when one person starts to listen to their critical inner voice during sex, their partner notices a change. The sign of one person seeming distracted or slightly less enthusiastic can then trigger the other person’s critical inner voice. “Wait, what changed? What did you do wrong?”

Many couples describe how once they start listening to their critical inner voice, sex becomes more mechanical, not a shared personal experience. However, even when they’re able to ward off their inner critic during sex, they may notice voices creeping in after sex. After being sexual, people have described having thoughts like:

  • You didn’t feel enough.
  • He/she didn’t seem that into you.
  • You were too excited. He/she probably thinks you’re desperate.
  • You’re so gross/ perverted.
  • He/she’s not going to want to be with you again.
  • So what if you felt good, this one time? It won’t be that way next time.

Whatever our specific voices may be in relation to sex, the solution remains the same. In order to feel free and ourselves in relation to our sexuality, we have to challenge this inner critic. Here are some steps you can take to start to challenge your own inner critic:

1) Write the “voices” down: The first step is to write down all of the negative thoughts you have in relation to your sexuality. These can be thoughts about your body, your performance, your partner, or sex in general. When you do this, you should write your voices in the second person, as if someone is saying them to you. For example, instead of saying, “I’m just bad at sex,” you would write, “You are just bad at sex.”

2) Explore the roots of your attitudes: Oftentimes, when people start listing their voices, more and more start to come to mind. It can feel like being flooded with critical commentary. Sometimes, the attack will start specific, but as you continue writing, deeper, more rooted attitudes about sexuality start to surface.

For example, one woman started out by writing, “Sex is too complicated. It just isn’t for you.” As she got further into her list of voices, she wrote things like, “Sex is dangerous. It’s dirty. You’re going to get a disease. It’s gross to want sex. Good girls shouldn’t want sex.” Although, she wasn’t as aware of these critical inner voices in her present life, she recognized some of the thoughts as exact phrases her mother had said to her about sex when she was growing up.

Just like our critical inner voices, our attitudes about sexuality often come from our past. Whether they were direct things said to us, as in the case of the woman mentioned, or attitudes and beliefs we picked up on, these forces help mold our sense of our own sexuality. Making connections to where our negative attitudes come from can help us separate these feelings from our past from our real point of view in the present.

3) Respond to each voice attack: After writing down your voices, you should go back to each and every attack and respond from a compassionate, realistic perspective. Try to talk to yourself the way you would a friend. This time, write your responses in the first-person to identify these expressions as your true point of view. For example, if you wrote down the attack, “You are so awkward. No one would want to be sexual with you,” you may write the response, “I may feel awkward when I’m listening to all these voices, but I’m actually a comfortable, affectionate person. When I’m relaxed, I like how I am sexually.”

4) Discover your own attitude toward sex: As you peel away the overlays of your inner critic, try to have an open and welcoming attitude toward your real feelings about sex, whatever they may be. This is the time to let go of all the “should’s” and discover what you really enjoy and desire. Try to have a curious, open, and nonjudgmental perspective toward yourself. Have self-compassion for any experiences that may have hurt you in relation to your sexuality. Do not let your inner critic convince you that you have to limit, restrict, or punish yourself based on those experiences. Remember your sexuality belongs to you. It is yours to understand, explore, and enjoy.

5) Open up to your partner: If you’re in a trusting relationship, you may want to talk to your partner about how your critical inner voice attacks your sexuality. This may feel uncomfortable at first, but being open and vulnerable often inspires your partner to do the same and brings you both closer on a deeper level. By sharing your insights and what’s going on in your head, you allow your partner to really know you and to understand the aspects of your sexuality that may have little to do with them. This may help them to not attack themselves as much in relation to their sexuality. Talking openly in this way can benefit your relationship, but studies also show that couples who can get to be comfortable talking about sex actually enjoy sex more.

Kicking your critical inner voice out of the bedroom may seem easier said than done, but continuing to be aware of your voices and how they affect your sexuality is something that can benefit you throughout your life. It can help you have more fun in casual situations and enjoy more lasting intimacy and closeness in a long-term relationship. Being alive to your sexuality is a practice in maintaining an important part of who you are. One of the most effective ways to do this is to keep challenging your inner critic and exploring your own, real feelings about your sexuality.

To hear more from Dr. Lisa Firestone on the critical inner voice and sexuality, join her for the Webinar, “Finding Healthy and Satisfying Sexuality.”

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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