Scientists agree that frequent sex can improve heart health, build a more robust immune system, and increase the ability to ward off pain. Sex changes brain and body chemistry, boosting certain hormone levels that keep us young and vibrant. Sex can also alter our mental state by releasing endorphins that act as antidotes to stress, anxiety, and depression.
But among the greatest miracles of sex is its most secret – its capacity to help us work through deep-seated emotional conflicts and satisfy unmet childhood needs.
The human body is designed to heal itself. We have an immune system that protects us from disease and repairs us when we are damaged. Pain acts as an alarm, alerting us to the problem. In response, all of the body’s systems, including the mind, are called into action to aid in the process of self-recovery. Similarly, when we encounter emotional conflict, we also experience pain. The mind mobilizes its own defense to assist in repairing the emotional wound in the same way we release an army of antibodies to heal a cut finger. Whether it’s physical or psychological, we are hard-wired to lessen pain, helped by innate mechanisms.
Among the mind’s most inventive weapons in the battle for emotional recovery are our fantasies. We create them to counteract anxiety or pain, substituting pleasure where conflict exists.
As children we use imaginative play to help us gain mastery of challenging events. We try out roles as sports stars, princesses, police officers, and superheroes, enabling ourselves to feel powerful in a world in which grown-ups are in charge. In play, we find comfort often returning to the same games or stories again and again because their familiarity provides a zone in which we feel safe and increasingly competent. This same mechanism will apply later in adulthood when “playtime” occurs in the bedroom.
As we grow out of childhood and societal expectations and norms gradually restrict our imagination and behavior, we begin to apply lessons learned toward navigating the harsher realities of adult life. Yet, fantasies remain an essential part of helping us cope with life’s myriad conflicts. Now we imagine being billionaires or CEO’s or celebrities, rewarded with power or fame for our accomplishments, or we fantasize writing the great American novel or producing a film, becoming the pillars of our community, or simply winning the lottery. We have learned to convert painful feelings of disappointment, helplessness, failure, or loss into manageable and sometimes even pleasurable ones.
Just as fantasies of great wealth or status serve to help us feel less powerless in an ordinary lives, sexual fantasies are the minds way of helping us gain mastery of unresolved conflicts or unmet needs. They are not simple random imaginings as we are led to believe. At their base lies fragments of our history, that reach far back into the forgotten past. By the time we leave adolescence, most of us have eroticized some aspect of unmeet needs from our childhoods, encoding them in our sexual fantasies. These encoded sexual fantasies, which continue throughout our adult lives, transform the pain associated with old wounds into sexual pleasure.
As a society, we have yet to appreciate the healing nature of sex. Instead we have a complicated relationship with sex, simultaneously promoting sexual images in popular culture – movies, television, and advertising – while demonizing those of us who enjoy it, especially women, with labels like “whore,” “slut,” and “player.” As a consequence, many of us internalize these confusing or unrealistic messages, so by the time we reach adulthood, we have no idea of what sex actually means to us. We suppress or erase our sexual desires and fantasies from our experience, if not from our consciousness altogether, creating a condition of alienation and inauthenticity – a disconnection between who we really are and how we behave. We enter a process of disengaging our minds from our bodies and souls, which often lasts a lifetime.
But if we learn to identify our sexual fantasies and true desires, where they come from and what they mean, we can unleash their full healing power. Embracing our sexual truth reverses the corrosive influences of guilt and shame, and enhances the sense of self-worth and wholeness that is essential to leading a fulfilling life. It allows us to reclaim abandoned parts of ourselves and integrate them into our being, also crucial to health. And equally important, our true desires can also became a diving rod that leads to choosing partners with whom we can build a respectful, honest and trusting relationship, whether it is for a single night or a lifetime.
By following the steps of Intelligent Lust we embark on a journey of self discovery in which we uncover our true desires and then use those secrets to create powerful change.
STEP ONE: Getting in the Right Frame of Mind
Like any traveler, we must prepare. Following the steps of intelligent lust requires having the right attitude. We must be willing to open our mind to our deepest thoughts and to get past social taboos and psychological prohibitions that cause us to limit our sexual experience. It will help us put aside what you have been told is “normal” and discover what our real sexuality is beyond the prescribed conventions we may feel compelled to follow.
We can begin by creating the time and space for quiet contemplation. Chose a private space free of distractions to navigate the exercises to follow. A neutral place, absent of personal history, prevents contaminating the experience with negative associations or memories – a garden, park bench, beach, backyard deck, front porch, or even the back seat of a car – to navigate the exercises. Designate it as a place to return to. Keep a notebook or diary handy to record your experience.
Trust Your True Desires
Have faith in the healing power of your desires. Keep this mantra in mind. Our fantasies are antidotes that have meaning and purpose. Whether it’s a wish to be dominated, or to be tenderly made love to, our sexual fantasies convert painful, confusing, or unresolved feelings from the past into manageable and pleasurable ones in the present. We use them to transform helplessness into power, loneliness into emotional attachment, inadequacy into competence, weakness into strength. If properly understood, we can use them to find energy and direction to reconcile old conflicts and satisfy unfulfilled needs. Honor them as you would a friend.
Give Yourself Permission to Explore
Even experts vary on what a definition of healthy or normal sex should be. Why should we then accept someone else’s ideas about sex before we identify and understand our own desires and ideals? Instead, we should dig deep into our souls and psyches and examine what we truly feel about sex even at the risk of feeling disloyal to our families or churches. Following the steps of intelligent lust requires giving ourselves permission to be different.
Be Compassionate Toward Yourself
Suspend all self-judgments, tone down the moralism, draw from our reservoir of compassion, and direct it toward ourselves. Life is full of contradictions and paradoxes, which, with maturity, we learn to accept. To become whole we must fully embrace and integrate all parts of ourselves and our desires, however contradictory, dark, or difficult they may appear.
Confront the Consequences of Change
Choose to act courageously, acknowledge the discomfort that comes with change, and still move forward. By confronting our fears, we have the potential to not only discover the many truths about ourselves, our relationships, and partners, but also a passion for life itself.
Commit to Maintaining Openness and Self-Acceptance
Following the steps of intelligent lust requires a commitment to maintain openness, honesty, and acceptance regardless of the outcome while we sort through what we really feel, think, and believe in relation to sex. There are often vagaries to our thoughts at first. It may take time for them to solidify and for us to feel certain and secure with what we believe is true.
Accept and Honor Your True Desires
Our fantasies and desires remain relatively constant throughout our lives because the unmet needs from which they originate often goes unsatisfied or the underlying conflicts remains unresolved. Many women focus their sexual attention on the desires of their partners and simply don’t know or place value on their own.
By accepting and honoring our true desires, we take responsibility for their gratification and create the opportunity for them to truly serve their healing purpose.
Check back for STEP TWO: Identifying Your Sexual Fantasies.
Stanley Siegel, Intelligent Lust
First published in Psychology Today on August 30, 2011.