A Lesson from #MeToo: Intellectual vs. Somatic Knowing

We do ourselves a great disservice when we devalue the power of feelings. The somatic landscape holds much of the information that we seek, and yet so much of how we live prevents us from knowing that. A client once reflected in session, “I used to hate having emotions. Now I know how to use them.” I could have jumped with joy. Country, let’s make this the norm.

When I saw Caitlin Flanagan’s response to what “Grace” shared about her date with Aziz Ansari, I felt nauseous. She made a lot of damaging comments, but the one I’m taking on here is her belief that Grace could have simply left. It is a brutal misunderstanding of the power of feelings, and I cringe knowing that anyone read it and agreed. From Grace’s account, we can pretty safely hypothesize that she was stuck in a freeze response. When neither fighting nor running away are perceived as possible, our parasympathetic nervous system offers up this third option. In extreme cases, it can look like playing dead. It can also look like playing along. Now whether or not that’s actually what happened for Grace, no one can say except her. We can, however, use her story to look at what has become a common encounter.

The #MeToo Movement has been extraordinary for shedding light on the pervasive epidemic of unsafe sexual behavior. We’re finally voicing this deep collective trauma and with each new story, we’re made increasingly aware of the need to understand what brought us here and how to move forward in a way that is healthier for everyone. This is a psychotherapeutic process like any other; it’s just on a very grand scale. So we will be well on our way to healing if we can learn and enact the wisdom offered to us through the psychotherapeutic process. Most relevant here: the need for embodied wisdom.

Historically, we tend to get stuck on deciding who’s responsible for an unpleasant sexual encounter. What therapy teaches us is to be interested primarily in understanding and navigating the interpersonal dynamics involved. Even in the most objectively black and white circumstances, the ability to say whose fault something was is only helpful in bringing us to the next steps: what each person can do moving forward. So rather than looking at fault, we ought to be looking to answer more specific questions like, “Why couldn’t Grace leave?” and, “Why couldn’t Aziz notice her cues?”

It’s very fortunate that #MeToo is bringing us into exploration of these gray areas of human interactions. It’s where some of the most important work can happen, and that’s exactly why it’s so challenging. What’s happening in response to what Grace shared should make very clear how impossible it is for us to quickly lay blame somewhere and move on. The subsequent conversations it has provoked have been a loop of “he should have…” and “she should have…” Often both things are true. But the complexity does not end there, as there is a myriad of reasons that brought each of them- and any two people- to this interaction wherein one person left feeling violated. So it’s time we distinguish between intellectual and somatic understanding.

“Somatic” means whole body. The word is used as a way to point to the entirety of an experience rather than to artificially separate what’s happening in someone’s body from what’s happening in their brain. The two are inextricably linked, and that’s extremely important to understand particularly as it relates to sex. Our bodies will tell us right where we are with things, which is vital to pay attention to, because knowing something intellectually is not the end of the process. You can think of it like learning to play a musical instrument. Studying theory is helpful, but you won’t be able to really play until you’ve practiced.

We’ve been more acutely onto this knowledge over the last decade or so. We’re realizing that intellectual insight is limited. It does not automatically translate to being able to do anything with the information. We can understand something, but not believe it. We can know why something is happening, but feel unable to prevent or change it. We can even fully believe something in thought while our body strongly disagrees. Embodied knowing simply takes further work.

When so many people are upset by a topic this disturbing, one of the greatest challenges is finding our common goal in the work. Fortunately, this one is quite clear: we all want safe and enjoyable experiences with others, especially when it comes to sex. Knowing that is an important part of the process, because we now get to address what’s in the way of getting there. Our current roadblock: we’re lousy at attending to feelings.

The experience of feeling unable to do something is, in the moment, no different that being physically unable to do it. This awareness is built nicely into all fields of psychotherapy in the form of verbiage for states like post-traumatic stress, which is a response to a real or perceived threat of injury or death. Fortunately, this knowledge has been sneaking into popular culture in various ways. We’ve finally begun to consider the “placebo effect” a legitimate effect, for instance. And indeed it is. If it has an impact, it’s an effect.

But historically we have been very poor at acknowledging emotions as real, legitimate, and unpreventable. It’s that last one that seems to give us the most trouble, because we can learn to make choices that make particular emotions less likely to surface in certain situations. But this control is limited, and it’s limited even more so than our ability to control something like hunger. With hunger we can eat regularly, eat enough, eat well, carry snacks, and so on. But with emotions, we have far less control because emotions most often surface in response to other people, who are ultimately out of our control. You can be well rested, well fed, and in a great mood and fear will still surface when you nearly hit someone who walks in front of your car. So our greatest power comes in our ability to respond to our own emotions appropriately. And no matter the context, an appropriate response means one that comes from a place of compassion and openness. These are the qualities that allow us to listen to, learn from, and make use of our feelings. Once we can do this for ourselves, we can begin to extend the practice to others.

Now think about that myriad of reasons that, even without knowing their unique backgrounds, allow us to guess at why Grace and Aziz would find themselves in such a confusing and painful exchange. To name what I’m sure is far too few:

  • People, especially females, are routinely objectified. Objects are things that we can interact with as we please. The impact we have on them is irrelevant, and so we often don’t even consider it.
  • We fail to teach people, especially males, how to interact with their emotions. We will even use shame to suppress them. Since emotions do not long tolerate being ignored, they find ways to get their needs met surreptitiously or violently.
  • The above factors create a very dangerous combination. Objects are handy sources for getting our needs met, since they require nothing of us. We don’t have to admit our feelings to them in order for our needs to be fulfilled. So it confuses, scares, and sometimes angers us when an object suddenly speaks up about their subjective experience.
  • We teach women that sex won’t be all that enjoyable, and to be polite about that. This was actually written in pamphlets given to women at the turn of the 20th century. That’s only a few generations back for a lot of us, and so its remnants remain strong.
  • We are persistently reinforced with the notion that there is a way to successfully manipulate our interactions with others, and that most of it has to do with pursuing and distancing. If we pull back a little, the other person will come pursue us. If we lean in too much, they might distance. They’re distancing themselves because they want to be pursued. You can’t be explicit about pulling back or you’ll hurt their feelings. Most plot lines depend on our belief that we should be indirect. The next time you’re watching a television show, imagine what would happen to the trajectory of the story if just one person were able to share what they were feeling.

It is no surprise then that we have ended up here where one person wasn’t trusting their feelings and the other wasn’t even noticing them. So who’s fault was it? Everyone’s. It is collectively our fault. We train our females to resist their urges to fight or flee, and we train our males to fight no matter the circumstances. Most of us contribute to this even though we consciously try not to. It’s my fault for not speaking up last week when someone used the term “man cold.” It’s the fault of every catcaller. It’s the fault of every person who agreed to distribute that pamphlet to our great-grandmothers. It’s the fault of the schools that fail to teach sex ed. It’s the fault of everyone who’s ever said, “You’re just emotional.” We must attend to all of this if we want healthier interactions. Fortunately, we’re already amidst a gender revolution, and I suspect that one of its many gifts will be to draw us away from rigid roles that train us out of our natural states of being.

I hope that any of us could find our way to relating to either person in an interaction like Grace and Aziz’. If any of it seems easy, I encourage you to recognize how you’re devaluing your abilities or taking them for granted. The ability to leave, speak up explicitly, or accurately read bodily cues are all strengths. If they’re strengths you have, figure out for yourself how that came to be, and then help others to develop these qualities. If these aren’t strengths of yours, listen to the subtle cues of your body, and then learn to do so with others.

It is returning to embodiment that brings us health. We need our sensations and emotions in addition to our thoughts in order to understand what’s happening in the moment and to act accordingly.

Further Reading and Resources

Books:
Healing Sex by Staci Haines
Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine
Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
The Sex and Pleasure Book by Carol Queen with Shar Rednour

Research:

http://usabp.org/research/somatic-oriented-journals/

https://traumahealing.org/resources/

http://journalofpositivesexuality.org/archive/

How to Speak Out Effectively

The current political climate is tumultuous to say the very least, and in the wake of a few conversations I’ve had online, I was asked to share what I do to effectively manage difficult conversations. So here are a few important factors to consider, which I included in a previous post and have expanded upon for you here.

Ride your anger; don’t let it ride you.
Anger towards an oppressive force is an early stage of healing. While you’re in it, direct your anger as specifically as you can. Do not let it turn to shaming others. Avoid speaking in absolutes and making generalizations. Be mad as hell, just not at everyone. That feels crappy anyway.

Ask permission.
Ask if your feedback is willing to be received. This isn’t necessary in an original post online, but it is in any conversation- especially ones with strangers. Before you get into it, ask the other person if they have a few minutes to hear your experience. If they say no, you’ve wasted no energy on them, and that’s a win for you.

Respect feelings.
There isn’t a thing that anyone can do to avoid the surfacing of an emotion. What can be controlled is what one does with them. Heated conversations are filled with emotions, and most of the time they aren’t being named. Even so, if you respond accordingly to the emotional tone, you are much more likely to be heard. They aren’t very difficult to see or hear, if you’re open to understanding. Just take a moment before you respond to see if you can pinpoint what the other person is feeling (you can always try asking!), and then guide your response accordingly. This prevents the dialogue-killer where everyone is stuck in that feeling of, “But you don’t understand!”

Every emotion stems from a need. Get clear on what you’re dealing with, and why.

A big one to remember: anger stems from fear, and it aims to set a boundary. Respect that. Respond in a way that shows that you hear them, and that you’re safe.

Make it personal.
Speak about your experience only, and attach your experience to facts. A point is not made stronger, but weaker by exaggerating or using absolutes. Tell the person what you feel, and why, in response to the situation at hand. That will indeed mean being somewhat open, and that’s exactly what’s needed in order for someone to hear you. If you can’t communicate with at least some openness, that’s ok. Wait to say your piece until you can, or find someone who can say it for you.

Jump at opportunities to speak up.
Especially when you can use privilege for the good. It is easiest for a person to hear something from someone they consider an ally or the same as they are in some way. When that’s you, it creates a beautiful opportunity for change if they say something with which you disagree. Remember that what you say can be very simple. “Something feels off about that, ” or, “My experience has been different than that,” are brief and safe, but very powerful statements that can get others thinking. This isn’t easy either, but it’s easier. And it feels really, really good.

Boundaries and Why They’re Awesome

Your boundary is the edge of your experience. It’s where you begin and end. It’s not your skin, but rather an extension of your body in energy form- the space directly around you. Its width and shape and permeability are aspects that only you can determine. We often move about unaware of our boundaries until something is off. When someone feels too close to you, they’ve encroached on your boundary. When they’re too far, your boundaries are not in contact with each other.

Gestalt theory offers a nice little brain-stretching hypothesis: there is perhaps no contact without boundaries. I completely agree with this. If you cannot feel yourself, you will not know when you’ve come in contact with something other than yourself.

This is not to say that we can’t or shouldn’t feel intertwined with or part of each other at times. Rather, it is through a strong sense of one’s body and boundary that intermingling can occur on a deep level and in a safe way.

When I feel strongly grounded in myself and aware of my space, I have a sense of my entire body. I can list many sensations and any associated emotions. I can feel, see, smell, hear and taste. I can detect what isn’t me or mine, because it comes with a different sensation profile. Speaking of Gestalt, do you know what we did as therapists-to-be during our trainings? We smelled each other! Talk about boundaries! Breathing in another person’s scent is a very clear way to have an experience of the self and the other. On a very deep level, even if their particular smell is familiar or evocative, you can really feel their separateness. In fact, these can be some of the clearest moments of those three parts: “I, you, we.” It’s this sense of “That is not my scent. It is yours. And your scent creates in me a feeling of…” Mine. Yours. Ours.

Embodying yourself and your space brings clarity and safety. It means tuning into your senses and allowing them to guide you from moment to moment. It is when we are checked out and unaware of our boundaries that we experience confusion, taking things personally, feeling bitter and resentful. Embodiment does not solve pain, but it does make pain clearer so that it can be dealt with appropriately. If you’d like to know more about that particular aspect, I say a whole bunch about embodiment in my article on The Body and Aliveness.

I talk about boundaries often, because therapy is hugely about exploring them. The relationship between myself and a client must begin by getting clear on where we each end, and where we make contact. Most of this happens on the client’s end, but because different people evoke different experiences, I always have some adjusting to do, too. And the way we interact together is always a rich source of exploration. The most healing in therapy happens in that contactful space between our bodies. We explore what it feels like (sensations and emotions), and why (thoughts). We look at how the narratives about our contact are helpful or hindering in terms of meeting needs, and we practice safe and meaningful contact. As a person is ready and willing, they can then begin to practice this outside of the therapy room.

The clarity of knowing what’s “me” and what’s “not me” enables us to communicate with ourselves and others in a way that feels good (even when it’s difficult), and works to meet our needs.

It’s terribly important to remember that boundaries are flexible. Inflexible boundaries are what we call defenses. They serve us fine in specific circumstances or for limited periods of time, but they hold us back if overused. A solid boundary has a built-in function that allows for adapting to new circumstances and new information. Sometimes I think of something my first therapist said to me about being like seaweed. Seaweed takes root in the ocean floor. It moves back and forth with the tides, but it stays firmly planted. The image really worked for me me, and I think of it often when it comes to the sense of my space. (Note: the metaphor either ends if and when the seaweed is uprooted, or you can follow me down a bit of a hokey metaphorical path about the subsequent journey of the seaweed in which I WILL make this image continue to work. I’m flexible. Case in point.)

Sometimes we think we are clear on our needs and boundaries, but in our attempts to communicate them to others, we inadvertently spill over into someone else’s space. This happens because we sometimes forget, or never got to learn, that we each have control over exactly one person: ourselves.

Discovering what you’re made up of, where you end and others begin, and how to navigate space pays off like crazy. It’s powerful and relieving to discover not only that it is up to you to meet your needs, but that there are clear and meaningful ways to meet them even when others are involved.

Read This Book: In Quest of the Mythical Mate

This should be required reading in high school. I mean it. I decided this when I was reading it for the first time in one of my couples therapy courses in grad school, because I suddenly found myself overflowing with insight into a bunch of my old friendships and relationships. Every single person who walks into my office does so because of something that is relational at the root. I strongly believe that studying relationships in our formative years would go incredibly far in creating more ease and fulfillment throughout adulthood.

Psychologists Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson walk you through the stages that every relationship goes through. They are a direct parallel to the work of Mahler, and Erikson, both of which many of you will already been familiar. Because the book is written for professionals on how to use a developmental model in couples therapy, it’s packed with case examples, which I believe is why it’s readable by anyone. Each point is driven home with a felt sense of learning about real people.

One of the major gems is in realizing that a lot of people don’t effectively make it property through separation and differentiation. Differentiation is the process of determining, on a very deep level, yourself from another. It results in a healthy expectation of differences, and the belief that the connection will sustain through working them out. Holy shit is that hard! But it’s really important. The muscle needs to grow properly, so that it can be used properly when it’s needed later.

But because a bunch of us still have differentiation work left to do, it’s extra difficult when it comes up in our relationships. And it comes right after symbiosis, which is that amazing cocooning time of “we are one.” It just isn’t fair that after months of that you find out something about the other person that devastates you. This is why it’s the stage where a lot of couples break up.  Differences are hard enough to negotiate without lingering beliefs about how they’re inherently dangerous, and will result in complete disconnection. That’s why we gotta process that shit! A couple may still break up, but instead of doing it over distress at the process and past triggers (which we are rarely conscious about without some good therapy), it can be about the reality of now.

Many of the other learnings are similar in that they are as near to cause and effect as you can get with psychology. The model grounds you in understanding what is trying to be worked out, and encourages progress by laying out the sorts of practices that will get you what you need.

How to Read It-

Because this book is written as a guide for therapists working with couples, it’s heavy on case examples, and therapeutic interventions. Many of my clients have enjoyed getting this kind of psychoeducation about the process. But you may also find that hearing about other people and techniques isn’t for you, as it’s a whole lot of clinical stuff. If that’s the case, I recommend reading the first two chapters, the chapter(s) covering the stages you suspect you’re in, and the frequently asked questions in the back.

What To Do With What You Learn-

As you read, remember that you needn’t be in relationship now, nor do you need to have ever been in a romantic relationship in order to benefit from this learning. We are invited into these stages with everyone we encounter- our friends, therapist, co-workers, teachers, everyone. Consider which parts you’re adept at navigating, and where you tend to get stuck, and then put your new knowledge into practice. This book is full of wisdom, but it’s not enough to simply understand concepts. If you aren’t already in therapy, find someone to work with so that you can move through those stuck places. It is one of the very best places for exploring relationships, because the therapist-client relationship is a real one. But better yet, it’s one in which you get to do direct exploration. It is real-time exploration of how you are, and practice for how you want to be with others. We are hurt in relationships, and relationships are exactly where we heal.

“I just need to be single for a while.”

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” -Rumi

If you want to learn how to better yourself in order to be healthy for your next relationship, you may find that you’re more likely to learn while you’re in a relationship. In order to truly master something, you must embody it through practice.

When someone says that they need to be single for a while, I get curious about what that means for them. It’s often said right after a break-up, especially by the serially monogamous. And I very often hear it spoken in tandem with the existence of a budding relationship. So let’s dive a little deeper into this.

Our society is pretty big on dating. “You’re young!” “Live a little!” “If I were in my 20′s again….!” “You have to find out what you like!” Dating is a really important way to learn about yourself and others. And it’s fun! And awful! It’s the best! And it’s definitely the worst! I love when a client comes in after a first date. There is so darn much to explore, and it’s really fertile ground for insight into beliefs about oneself and others. First dates are also a killer place to practice somatic techniques, because you need ‘em in those nerve-wracking first moments!

What our society pushes on you less frequently is exploring where you may be blocked when it comes to intimacy. Can we please make the following into catchphrases?: “You should explore that!” “Try journaling!” “What role do you think you play in that dynamic?” “Bring that up in therapy!”  “What is your intuition about this?” The messages we get the most often ought to be about enriching your life through self-exploration and learning how to get the closeness and connection that we desire. Shopping around for what you like can be a tough battle without understanding your needs and their motivations.

Knowing yourself comes via many different roads. For some, it is far easier to travel new paths with another person alongside them. While I absolutely advocate for learning to do things alone, I believe that that can be done within a relationship, and I also believe that you have to honor your natural tendencies. Some people do better when they’re partnered. If you’re trying to be single, but find yourself quickly falling in love with someone new, then I’m talking to you, chum.

Often the challenge is not being alone, but in bringing your whole self into any relationship.

When we fall in love with someone, we have all kinds of glorious ideas about the relationship to come. Some of those things turn out to be reality, and some of them do not. A lot of couples break up when one or both parties discover that it won’t be exactly as they fantasized. This makes it really important to understand what you like and why you like it, as well as to uncover what prevents you from expressing your full self.

So how the hell do you do that?!

The short answer is that you have to keep yourself conscious of your process as you move through it. The best way to do that is to work with a therapist with whom you jive. You can also read some of the kick-ass relationship books that are out there (a few of my favorites are listed below), and revisit them each time you are struggling with a new part. The counsel of a person in a relationship you admire can also be tremendously powerful. But I really encourage you to be in therapy. It rocks.

The therapy room is a fabulous place to explore both how you got here, and how to move past your stuck place. We get to explore what you’ve learned about relationships, and how those lessons are helping or hindering you. And we also get to explore the therapeutic relationship as a microcosm of what happens in your life outside of therapy. This is one of the primary ways that therapy is successful in exacting change: when we encounter those stuck places in our therapeutic relationship, the process is made conscious and you get to practice how to do something different. And then you get to go apply what you’ve learned in your current or future relationships!

Loving someone completely means letting your heart swing on a trapeze with theirs. It’s absolutely terrifying, especially the first time. But the more you do it, the more comfortable you will feel- the more aware you will become of each minute shift in your movement. After a while, you won’t think about it anymore. And then occasionally, you’ll grab a bit of awareness and think, “My god, what am I doing?!” But then you’ll feel your hands gripped by theirs and you’ll realize that you’re safe. The likelihood that it will go well again increases. But it wouldn’t have had the chance to if you hadn’t risked it in the first place.

Everyone deserves a crazy awesome relationship, and that includes you.

Recommended Reading:

  • Hold Me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson
  • Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix
  • In Quest of the Mythical Mate by Bader & Pearson

 

How to Tell Your Partner What You Fantasize About

That scenario you imagine so often when you fantasize? Consider the impact it could have on your sex life to be able to successfully communicate what you like about it to your partner.

It is with staggering infrequency that we share our fantasies with our partners. And for good reason: it’s scary! We risk being misunderstood, embarrassed, or causing offense. The first step in avoiding those things is having some depth understanding about ourselves, so that we can communicate the specifics.

Understanding the primary emotional motivation for a fantasy is essential for your partner to be open to it. Let’s look at a common fantasy that has remained pretty taboo: bondage. Suppose “Kelly” likes to imagine what it would be like to be tied up and then pleasured by her captor. Just that one sentence is pretty vague and into your mind may sweep all kinds of scary things: pain, abuse, disrespect, etc. So we need to get more specific. We need to know what Kelly likes about this scenario. Her partner may be overwhelmed with questions or assumptions about what this means to Kelly, and if we end the communication here, this will likely result in the aforementioned icky emotions. What she really needs to say is that she likes to imagine being completely vulnerable to her partner and having experiential proof that she’ll be well cared for- even pleasured- in that space.  Relinquishing (or conversely, having) control in a safe space is one of the most common elements of bondage.

From here, Kelly can get even more specific and begin to speak to some of her partner’s concerns. In regards to pain, she may want there to be lots, some, or none. Often people desire to feel the pressure of the binding, but no pain. It’s important that she understands and communicates what she’s interested in, and why.

Understanding the particulars of your own desires is no easy task. I recommend beginning by exploring as much as you can on your own.

  • Spend some time journaling about it. This is a great place to begin articulating what you feel. We often surprise ourselves with what comes out in writing or speaking aloud. It can be a lot different and/or better articulated when it’s put into words instead of kept as thoughts.
  • Seek out the support of a therapist. Educated and non-opinionated support is the best kind there is!
  • Do some reading on the topic. Lots of people have done lots of work to help you with this process! Check out my blog post on Dossie Easton’s book on kink.
  • Shop for and try out the toys you might need. This is one of the best parts! But if it makes you nervous, be sure to limit yourself to the sex educated stores, such as The Pleasure Chest, Smitten Kitten, or Good Vibrations. You can shop online at all three.
  • Talk to friends you feel comfortable with. Our friends often know us best and can give some great ideas and advice. You’ll likely be surprised to find that, after some initial awkwardness, most people are willing, even eager, to talk about sex.
  • Post anonymously in the Reddit community. This is a fabulous beyond fabulous resource for learning about sex in all its beautiful complication. This online community is filled with friendly, non-judgmental, generally well sex-educated, and often terribly funny folk.
  • Get used to talking to your partner about sex by practicing doing so. Becoming comfortable with sharing vulnerably requires actually sharing vulnerably. (Damnit!) If you find you are often met with judgment, defensiveness, or misunderstanding, you would benefit from the support of a therapist.

As much as possible, do some exploring with your partner. It’s ok to not fully understand what you like and why. Having sex together can be a huge part of your explorative process. For this to go best, set some boundaries before you begin. For example, maybe Kelly isn’t sure if she wants pain or not. Let’s say she’s tried pinching herself a bit and has liked it, but feels nervous about having her partner inflict any pain. She can say exactly that: “I’d like to try having you pinch or bite me a little, but I might not like it, so I may ask you to stop. Is that ok with you?” If this kind of conversation seems impossible, seek the help of a therapist.

All of this can be tough work, but it’s also lots of fun along the way. It is so very worth it, because you deserve to have what you want. And a healthy sex life helps to sustain a healthy and vibrant you.