Why is it so gosh darn hard to talk about our feelings?
Consent. Boundaries. Communication. These are key to a healthy relationship; these are the Speak About It tagline. This week on #hotgoss, we explored why communicating clearly and openly about emotions and boundaries, especially when it comes to sex and sexuality, is a lot easier said than done.
Under normal circumstances, communicating about emotions and relationships is difficult. There are so many reasons why people find it challenging to have honest conversations about emotional or sexual feelings, boundaries, and desires. We might be afraid of conflict, afraid of judgement, or feeling tired, hopeless, or unsure of how the other person will respond. Communicating an emotion that might not be shared by someone else leaves us feeling vulnerable.
Vulnerability is vital for good communication. It's also scary. To be vulnerable is to open yourself for the potential of rejection. It’s one thing to feel like somebody doesn’t like a song or TV show you like, but when someone rejects an emotion or feeling, it feels more intimate, like you are being rejected for who you are.
Fear about communication can manifest in both mental and physiological ways. You may feel nervous or scared, but you may also feel shortness of breath, tension in your muscles, nausea, or other physical signs too. These symptoms are all part of your body’s learned stressed response. More on this later.
Communicating our feelings is also not something in which most people are practiced. Says author, Carey Yazeed, “Some partners have a hard time emotionally opening up because they simply don't know how." We don’t have classes in school beyond the occasional reminder about ‘the golden rule;’ high school health classes mostly focus on nutrition or substance use, not healthy communication. In high stakes situations, whether it’s asking someone out or a fight with a partner, we rely on practiced and learned behaviors. But if we don’t practice clear communication, we can’t use it when we most need it!
Communication under duress is even harder. We don't want to ignore the reality that we're writing this during a global pandemic. A global crisis makes communicating all the more difficult and all the more important. Many of us are alone, far away from friends and people we love. Others are stuck in close quarters with roommates, partners, or families. Vulnerable populations, like those facing housing insecurity, lack of health insurance or income are most adversely affected, with the racial disparities of the pandemic growing by the day. All our lives are touched in some way.
Anxiety disorders are already the most common mental health struggle in the United States. However, even folks who don’t usually experience symptoms have reported feeling increased anxiety during this time, manifesting in sleeplessness, lack of focus, and irritability, anger, and...you guessed it: difficulty with relationships.
Needless to say, we’re all more than a little stressed out right now. When we experience a stressful event, our body produces a stress response--a hormonal response to stimuli perceived as a threat to our safety or survival. The body over-produces adrenaline that helps us spring into action to protect ourselves from the perceived threat. Our stress responses are conditioned over time: whether we experience a series of stressful incidents or something huge, our body becomes primed to respond to lesser stimuli in the same way later.
Because of the physical response to stress hormones being produced, high levels of stress result in a lot of wear and tear on the body and mind. Current stressors or traumas often bring up past traumas. Trauma can be linked to a number of issues later in life including chronic health conditions like heart disease and back pain, high risk behaviors like drinking/drug use, and issues related to intimacy and romance, such as problems trusting, opening up, and communicating.
In a moment of tension, panic, or conflict, we may rely on one of a few acute stress responses: Fight, flight, or freeze being most common. We experience these responses when we’re having vulnerable conversations, and we experience these responses at a greater rate when we’re experiencing trauma. Stress responses can manifest in many ways that may affect communication around sex, dating or intimacy. For example, if a person is feeling judged for not wanting to have sex, they may tense up and be unable to communicate an important boundary. (Freeze.) Maybe your partner is stressed about losing their job, and they get defensive or aggressive when you call them out for not doing the dishes. (Fight.) Or, your long distance honey is stressed about finals and they are avoiding your calls or texts. (Flight.)
When your stress responses is activated your brain and body are focused on the now--on survival, or making it through an interaction or situation--not necessarily on slowing down and being thoughtful or intentional with words or feelings to preserve the health of your relationship.
On top of this, technology complicates communication. Technology is an amazing tool, but as we are relying on it more and more, it also means we might be communicating more often but less well. We might be constantly texting, but what is the value or depth of those conversations? How are we connecting and what are we missing when we’re behind screens?
During a time of mandated social distancing, online or phone communication may be the only means we have to connect with partners. It can be stressful to try and make these moments meaningful. Communicating over distance might be a new medium for connecting with friends, family or romantic/sexual partners, and that learning curve is real! Particularly when you’re sexting or engaging in virtual sex, concerns about trust, privacy, or just looking silly are totally real.
Technological difficulties, whether it’s the inevitable talking-over-each-other-in-the-Zoom-meeting or your WiFi going out, can feel even more irksome and infuriating under duress. Likewise, valuable communication tools like tone, facial expressions, and body language are not always resources we can rely on when communicating through screens or over the phone. Plus, according to this NYTimes articles, gendered and racialized disparities in how often people talk and are heard seems to be exacerbated over video conferencing.
We’re expected to work from home in front of our screens, socialize from home in front of our screens, and entertain ourselves at home in front of our screens. Physically we might be hurting: with back or arm pain, eye strain, neck cramps, all of which can affect our emotional state and ability to communicate. That’s exhausting! It’s understandable that by the time your boo logs on to Google Hangouts at the end of the day, you two might be irritable and downright done with screens. Maybe you’re out of work and you view your phone as a way to unwind or relax by scrolling through Instagram or watching Netflix. Your brain might have trouble compartmentalizing and feel resistant to opening up via technology that view as a place of comfort, not as a place for tense conversations.
Not to mention, our computers and phones are venues for peak distraction. It can be hard to say zeroed in on one conversation when your email, texts, DMs, to-do lists are lurking just off screen. Distractions can hinder active listening and make it much more difficult to empathize with your partner or for someone else to make you feel heard. So, while it’s never been easier to get in touch, technology can also make it harder to really talk to each other. And that can make us even more stressed out.
There’s hope! Just because it's hard to communicate or we are having a stress reaction, doesn’t mean we can’t do anything about it! It’s important to remember that while we can’t control our emotions, we do have some control over our behavior. Yes, communication is difficult, stressful and frustrating, and all of those feelings are valid. But, whether you’re in the middle of a global pandemic or just in the regular ol’ kinda-stressful place of trying to communicate with a romantic partner, you have the power to communicate clearly. Here’s some tips:
- -Look within. Figure out how your body responds to stress. This is where mindfulness practices might be helpful. Take some time to notice how you’re feeling in anticipation of an emotional conversation with your partner. The simple act of noticing can help mitigate or manage overwhelming feelings. If your heart or mind is racing, what helps you slow down? Breathing? Exercise? Taking a screen break? Experiment and find what works for you.
- -Self soothe and regain control. Anxiety is tough, and we can feel out of control for so many reasons. Lean on your self care routines: breathing exercises are especially helpful for anxiety. Or, find an activity that makes you feel useful: according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, the belief that you are “doing something” can quell fear and racing thoughts. Replace focusing on the ‘what-if’s with small, actionable tasks. Likewise, acknowledging what we can and can’t control in our lives, including a partner's response to us when we share something intimate, can also help quell anxieties.
- -Check in with yourself. And then check in with others. It may feel like, particularly right now, that the only person we have is ourselves. But there’s a difference between being alone and spending quality time checking in with yourself. Take time to take your mental health temperature. And then, remember you're not an island and check in with others. It can be easy to assume that just because someone doesn’t bring something up there’s nothing wrong. There’s no harm in double checking!
- -Take your time. There can be a lot of pressure to rush into or through tense conversations. Technology can often speed up that pressure--maybe another Zoom meeting is on the calendar or you’re worried your partner or friend might not call you for another week and you’ll lose your chance to talk. Tender conversations take time, and figuring out your emotions may be a slow going process. Don’t be ashamed to say, “Hey, can I think about how I’m feeling about this and get back to you?” Many decisions may be happening on a quicker-than-usual timeline during the pandemic, so revel in those moments when you can give you or your partner’s feelings the time they deserve.
- -Practice! There’s nothing wrong with rehearsing or even writing out a conversation before you have it. Journaling or talking to yourself can help you identify and work through complex emotions.
- -Switch things up. Do you get distracted when you’re video chatting? Sick of your tiny iPhone screen? Want to throw up when someone calls you on the phone? Maybe it’s time to get creative about how you have a conversation. For some, talking on the phone instead of over Zoom or Skype might offer a welcome break from screens. For others, communicating via text (or even email) allows time to be more thoughtful and carefully craft responses. Before you have the conversation, think about where and how you want to have the conversation in a way that best meets everyone’s needs.
- -De-brief. Attachment theory says that we are just as affected by in-the-moment events as we are by the way we handle them in the aftermath. Following an emotional conversation or moment of anxiety, take some time to think about how you connected or responded and why. This can be an important part of the puzzle of figuring out how you function and move through the world. A therapist or counselor can help work through this with you, or try calling an uninvolved friend or journaling to work out your thoughts.
Just because you are social distancing doesn’t mean you can’t have boundaries. Whether those boundaries are “I can’t respond to your texts during my work day,” or “I need time to masturbate alone in the apartment.” or “I am not in the mood to have sex right now,” it’s okay to need space or to state a boundary around relationships or sex. Now more than ever, boundaries are vital. And they still exist, even if you're not meeting face-to-face.
It might be nerve wracking to need to state a boundary, fear of judgement or rejection can arise. Utilize some of the advice we shared above when navigating these conversations. If you are on the receiving end of a stated boundary, be empathetic and understanding. Be a trustworthy and open listener and help ease your partners’ anxieties and fears, not fuel them. Boundaries are not selfish, they’re healthy. By stating a boundary--whether that’s an emotional boundary, romantic or sexual need, or mental health concern--you are ensuring that you have the emotional and physical energy to sustain yourself and your relationship.
And remember, boundary setting can and should be a mutually caring activity. We all have needs and boundaries. Just because you express your own boundary, doesn’t mean you can’t listen to or care what the other person wants too. There is often healthy, productive, and loving compromise that can come out of vital conversations about boundaries. But you can only find this compromise through open and clear communication.
With that, have a happy and healthy time communicating with those you like and love!
So there you have it! Masturbation is totally normal, totally healthy, and totally hot. People of all ages do it, whether it's tied to sexual urges, pleasure, curiosity, boredom, relaxation or self care. So go forth, and love yourselves! With consent!
~Looking for more information about how to have a healthy relationship with masturbating? Check these out:
Pleasure Activism - adrienne marie brown. This book is about pleasure and finding it in all forms, but has a great chapter about self-pleasure and sex!
Come As You Are - Emily Ngoski is the oft cited expert on arousal and orgasm, and has some great information about how self-pleasure can open up personal understandings of your own unique sexuality.
We LOVE this 30 Day Masturbation Challenge. R29 paired up with sex therapist Vanessa Marin to provide some step-by-step tips that actually show you the nuts and bolts of how to get down with yourself. It's awesome!
Our pals at AstroGlide are full of good advice, check out their Handy Guide to Solo Sex here.
Check out this masturbating guide for women and femme folks!
O.school has a lot of videos and guides for all different aspects of sex and sexuality. We like their "Is Masturbation Normal?" article because it's thoughtful, well researched, and offers lots of links to practical advice!
Speak About It is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that partners with high schools and colleges to educate, entertain, and empower students to create positive change within their communities, advocate for and practice healthy relationship habits, and prevent sexual violence.
Copyright 2016 Speak About It, Inc. Website by Alexandra Valleau