Tim Horvath is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in North Carolina and former employee of CSWC.
We all look in the mirror. Some of us may look in the mirror daily; others may try to avoid mirrors at all costs. Why is this so?
Mirrors reflect part of our identity back to us. Mirrors reveal the reality of what we look like in the world. While we each have our own subjective experience of ourselves, mirrors give us a glimpse of how we actually, objectively appear. Mirrors give us information about ourselves that we otherwise wouldn’t be aware of, and we may or may not like what we see.
From a therapeutic perspective, we have many psychological mirrors. Our behaviors, our emotions, our internal experiences, and our relationships reflect back to us some element of who we really are. It is our decision as to whether or not we choose to look at them closely and learn something true about ourselves.
Sex is a particularly powerful mirror. In our sexuality, our behaviors, emotions, internal experiences, and relationships converge. When we engage in sexual activity, we are invited to take an honest look at ourselves. Sex is one of the most vulnerable, intimate, and revealing acts a person can participate in. It’s not just something we do – an isolated act – and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Indeed, our sexuality unearths aspects of our identity that we may not have been aware of before.
During sex, you are exposed in more ways than you might think. Physically, every scar, flaw, and sensitivity of your body is unguarded and unprotected. Surprisingly, this is also true from a psychological vantage point. When you engage in sex, you are confronted with your own anxieties, fears, and wounds. Past attachments to and mistreatment by others can come to the forefront. On the contrary, sex can also bring to bear your own true confidence along with a sense of connectedness and completeness. Sex can reveal the way you treat others, your style of relating, as well as how in touch you are with our own feelings, desires, and needs.
For instance, suppose a man becomes fixated on his partner’s experience of sex. He carries with him anxieties, fear of failure, and thoughts of how he might be a disappointment to his partner. These emotions and beliefs result in erectile dysfunction and an inability to be present to his own desire. If he is struggling internally in the bedroom, his anxieties are more than likely manifesting in other areas of his life. His sexual dysfunction is merely the symptom of deeper issues that may have their origin in his earlier relationships and experiences. Sex is simply the mirror that reveals this truth about himself to himself.
Once you can see what your sex life reveals about you, what can you do about it?
The first step in the journey of personal growth is awareness. You can become aware of exactly what sex is revealing about you and your story, and you can start to notice how this shows up in other areas of your life. You might start by journaling about what you are learning about yourself through your sexual experiences.
The second step is acceptance. You can accept whatever you are experiencing during sex as a part of who you are, without placing a judgment on yourself. The more you judge yourself, your emotions, or your internal experience, the less growth will happen. The more you accept yourself, the more receptive you will be to healing and transformation.
The final step is change. After you identify and accept the information sex is giving you about yourself, you can decide what you want to do about it. You can access your own agency to make a change. It’s like looking in a mirror and examining your haircut. Only after you become aware of what your hair currently looks like can you then decide that you want a different cut. You can thus recognize your own power and agency to change your haircut into something that better reflects who you know yourself to be.
The man who has erectile dysfunction because of his fear of failure may start to recognize that he harbors this same fear at work. He may realize that this fear comes from a deep shame he feels from childhood of never feeling good enough for his parents’ standards. He realizes that he now feels this way in most of his relationships. He may decide to seek out therapy to work through his feelings of shame so they don’t continue to hold him back or interfere with his sex life. As a result, he learns to be more vulnerable in his relationships and to be able to affirm his own value, no matter what. At the same time, he puts less pressure on himself, so he is able to set aside his expectations and instead approach sex mindfully with acceptance. As a result, he feels more freedom in the bedroom and his sex life improves.
Our experience of sex is influenced by our upbringing, life experiences, innate biology and personality. The most satisfying sex can happen when we feel the freedom to bring our full and uninhibited selves into the bedroom. When we are able to enter into this vulnerable and intimate act with true confidence and self-acceptance, we will experience a freedom and connection that we might never have known is available to us.
— Tim Horvath, MA, LMFT