Throughout the course of therapy, people are often surprised when I advocate for something called “self-focus.” It is difficult for clients to wrap their minds around the fact that it may be good or helpful to pay close attention to themselves, even more so than others in different situations. Why is this so?
The notion of being focused on the self has a negative connotation for many. People generally assume that being self-focused is the same as being selfish. Some religious and cultural forces reinforce this viewpoint with rigid thinking that any focus on the self is sinful or unacceptable. Women in particular can be socialized to uphold this view, which may result in a more extreme negation of the self and an excessive focus on taking care of others. Moreover, men can be socialized to believe that their lives don’t have as much value and should be sacrificed readily for others, such as in emergency situations or war.
Yet self-focus in the therapeutic sense is actually an important concept, and it applies to a whole range of issues that bring people into my (virtual) office.
Being selfish is to ignore another person’s experience, while being self-focused is to be aware of your own.
It is difficult if not impossible to be a healthy individual – let alone have a healthy relationship with another person – without a certain degree of self-focus. For instance, self-focus is an integral part of learning how to have healthy communication, which is often at the root of relational problems. In fact, nearly every couple I have worked with has communication issues that underlie any other presenting issue they initially reach out with.
Self-focused communication implies that people learn how to have intimacy with others not by giving more or managing others’ emotions, but instead by learning how to attune to their own internal experience. Then, they learn to use skills such as “I” statements about their own emotions and thoughts to help others know them more and to ask for what they need. The premise here is that only the individual knows their own experience, emotions, and needs, and therefore can be the only one to accurately communicate them. They cannot expect others to simply know what these are; instead, they must be clear and direct. This can create more understanding and closeness in the relationship, which is always the end goal.
At the same time, this kind of self-focused communication is at the heart of cultivating healthy sexuality. Healthy communication leads to more emotional intimacy in relationships, and healthy sexuality is often a natural outgrowth of that. More specifically, partners learn how to communicate about their experience, emotions, and preferences regarding physical intimacy, which necessarily involves a focus on the self.
The reason that this may seem counterintuitive to clients at first is that culture shapes our expectations surrounding sexuality in the opposite way. Media messages tell us that idealized sexuality need not involve any direct communication. Instead, we learn that we should simply know how to please our partner from the outset:
“We are taught that to be a great lover you have to skillfully turn on your partner and your partner has to skillfully turn you on. Additionally, you have to do this by what amounts to reading your partner’s mind and knowing what your partner will enjoy without your partner’s having to share anything.” (Weiner, L., & Avery-Clark, C., 2017, p. 8)
This abstraction of such sexual prowess is a myth. In reality, attempting to mindread in this way is an impossible task. It does not work, and it does not lead to greater connection or a more gratifying sex life. On the contrary, failing to communicate usually results in frustration, disconnection, and dysfunction in the bedroom.
What is the solution? Self-focus. The idea here is that it is not your partner’s responsibility to please you; rather, it is your responsibility to get to know your own experience and so to be able to communicate to your partner what pleases you. This not only increases your self-awareness, but also is a profound gift to your partner. They can save time and energy trying to “guess” what works for you and instead be empowered to give you pleasure on your terms. You both leave the encounter feeling more known and satisfied.
Practicing self-focus in these ways may seem scary at first – it can feel vulnerable to speak your reality and needs aloud to another. Yet with time and practice, these habits can become easy and second-nature as you learn to tap into your truest self and show up authentically. The fruit of such self-focus is deeper relationships and a more pleasurable sex life, which is worth any perceived risk.
— Tim Horvath, MA, LMFT
Weiner, L., & Avery-Clark, C. (2017). Sensate Focus in Sex Therapy The Illustrated Manual. London: Taylor and Francis.
Tim Horvath is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in North Carolina and sees clients in our Cary and Durham offices. To schedule an appointment with Tim or any of the therapists at Carolina Sexual Wellness Center, call 919-297-8322.