Feelings Involved #14: cycle of self-defeat
Dear Kitty, I am a mid 20s queer person who feels like I am behind in all ways. I have never been in a relationship or been sexually intimate with many people. Whenever I think about having sex or even talking about sex I get a lot of anxiety because of my inexperience. And feel really embarrassed to admit that I haven't had much experience. I have had a couple very emotionally intense and intimate connections. But they were never a relationship or even viewed as that. I was always the one having feelings but they were never reciprocated. I believe, at times, I'll never find someone who would have feelings for me. I know much of this shame and lack of self confidence comes from being raised in a very religious and conservative family. It took me a while to even accept and embrace my queerness. And even now, I feel so frustrated that I can never seem to fully feel or express my feelings for people – or what I want and need. I don't know how to move through this block and cycle of self defeating thoughts and beliefs… I would really love some advice. Sincerely, Stunted and Stuck
Dear Stunted and Stuck,
I’m moved by the pain that you share, and also familiar with the theme of your letter. I’ve worked with many people who saw themselves as “behind”, in relation to career, having kids, or, frequently, sex and relationships. I’ve met folks in their 30s, 40s and 50s who were coming out as queer, trans or kinky, embarking on completely new experiences, or forming sexual and romantic relationships for the very first time. Yet it’s people in their 20s who seem most intensely to feel an urgent need to “catch up;” dread at the prospect of a future without change; and self-reproach for time “lost”. This particular cocktail is not only excruciatingly unpleasant, it’s ultimately debilitating.
I wonder if FOHMO (fear of having missed out) is a particular affliction of millennials, who, more than any previous generation, have grown up saturated in imagery of what life should look like, and able – or forced – via social media to compare their reality to the (curated) experiences of infinite others. Perhaps there’s simply something about one’s 20s that renders one vulnerable to this thinking. Mainstream narratives render it a ridiculously high-pressure time: we should open the decade sowing our wild oats, footloose, fancy-free and continuously having FUN, and wrap it up “settled”, ideally married, and perhaps with a kid or 2.
I’m officially pre-millennial but certainly experienced, in my late 20s, moments of panic at the passage of time and a sense of hopelessness not having had certain experiences that I craved or believed I should have had. I’m filled with compassion when I recall how intense, at times, my sense of failure was, just as I’m filled with compassion when I read your letter. If I could say something to that 10-years-younger version of myself, I would say exactly what I want to say to you, if I allow myself to speak directly from the heart: you are so young, and you have so much time.
To feel behind implies comparison, looking around and seeing others “ahead” of you. We’re all inclined to pay more attention to things that reinforce our world-view than those that challenge it. Combine that confirmation bias with the prevalence of romantically fulfilled, sexually confident, pair-bonded people in the media, and our tendency to present the happiest, most “successful” aspects of ourselves on social media, and you have a recipe for feeling “everyone else is on track and I’m hopelessly behind.” But I can assure you that there are people in their mid-20s who have had little or no relationship or sexual experience. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it does mean that you’re not alone.
It’s still pretty common for queer people to start having sexual encounters and romantic relationships a little later than their straight peers. If your sexuality is barely visible in the dominant culture, or explicitly censured in your family, it takes time to come to an understanding of oneself and feel confident enough to act. Connecting with other queers may also take time. Those circumstances might cause many valid emotions, but they’re not a reason to judge yourself. Yet internalised homophobia is fertile ground for other kinds of shame to take root. Having weeded out the idea that queerness is wrong, we might find ourselves attacked by other harmful beliefs about our sexuality – such as a conviction that we’re not doing it right, or on schedule.
That you accept and embrace your queerness now is wonderful, and demonstrates skills in overcoming negative and unfounded beliefs about yourself. Can you now embrace your whole sexual self, lessening the aversion to your (relative) inexperience? Your sexuality is legitimate. Regardless of whether something ticked the official relationship box, whether feelings were reciprocated, those meaningful experiences are part of your journey as a sexual being. Furthermore, your sexuality is not simply the sum of the experiences you’ve had with other people: it’s deeper than that, a part of who you are. Consciously choosing kinder or more positive vocabulary may help. Rather than “stunted”, could you describe your sexuality as fledgling, embryonic, evolving, budding, curious? Rather than having something embarrassing to “admit”, experiment with the idea that you have an exciting journey ahead of you. Run with whatever evokes a warmer feeling toward this part of yourself – and know that a bit of “fake it until you make it” goes a long way!
Given that the idea of talking about sex makes you anxious, I applaud you for your letter. By putting words to your feelings and reaching out, you’ve made a great start. Could this begin a process of befriending the whole topic of sex and relationships, learning to approach these themes in a more open and relaxed way (with no pressure to have sex)? Advice columns like this one are a great way to learn about the breadth of sexual realities – and the myriad ways in which real people don’t fit the socially-sanctioned mould. Buy a comprehensive, sex-positive book like S.E.X and dip into a chapter now and again. Perhaps there’s a good friend with whom you could imagine broaching the topic of sex in a general way. Choose things that feel a little challenging, but manageable, and when discomfort arises, just notice it and accept that it’s there right now. The idea is to slowly increase your comfort with these topics; moving gently and patiently will likely be the best path.
You recognise that you’re blocked, repeating self-defeating thoughts and beliefs: for me, too, this is what feels “stuck” (not your sexuality, which is living at its own, perfectly valid, pace). You mention struggling to access or express your feelings for people, and I sense that feeling your feelings in general is difficult for you. Words like “behind” and “stuck” may start as an attempt to describe one’s emotions and perniciously become a way of seeing oneself, a condemnation with which we are, ironically, stuck. Can you allow yourself to feel, for example, sad about not having had more sexual experiences, or fear about not finding someone who will love you, without slipping into “I’m behind; I’ll never find someone”? This will take practice, but I’m confident it will be worthwhile.
Take your time, S&S, and may you soften and soothe your way unstuck.