mixed feelings is a weekly advice column. Every Wednesday, a different mental health expert, author, or journalist will respond to your problems and existential questions. If you like this sort of thing, why not subscribe?
hi mixed feelings,
I’m a 24-year-old woman who has never been in a relationship. I’ve never even kissed anyone before. I was pretty shy through high school and a portion of college so I didn’t ever connect with anyone. I was also self-conscious and didn’t think the people I found attractive thought I was attractive. I really want to connect with someone, either sexually, personally, or both. I have no problem with the idea of casual sex, hooking up, or make-out sessions—I want to explore that—but I haven’t had experience in any of that and I don’t know where to begin. I’ve dabbled with dating apps, but I’m afraid of seeming inexperienced and I don’t know what to expect. How do I mentally push myself past feeling awkward to pursue those relationships and experiences? Are there certain things I can do or expect to ease my hesitation?” — MLynne97, she/her
You sound like someone who is aware of their tender, novice parts and I admire that. It’s a feeling I relate to. I’ve known I was queer since I was in my early 20’s, but I still feel like a baby queer in my mid 30’s. Exploring relationships and dating is scary when rejection, heartbreak, and reputation are on the line. I, too, feel shame about my lack of experience, as if sexual experience validates my queerness—it doesn’t. We’ve got to trust in ourselves.
Give yourself permission to experience pleasure
Knowing where to start can feel like the hardest part. That’s why we have to begin with what we have access to: ourselves. We are better partners to others when we know what we like and how to ask for it. So, learn to center your own needs by creating a pleasure practice. How is your solo sex life? Do you know what turns you on, excites your fantasies, and makes you orgasm? How do you practice being in charge of your pleasure and managing your sexual and non-sexual hungers?
Creating a pleasure practice involves building self trust. We do this the same way we build any other relationship, by committing to regularly communicating with ourselves, leaning into solving our own problems, learning to take good care of ourselves, and giving ourselves carte blanche permission to create our own pleasure. After masturbating, practice gratitude. Take a moment to remind yourself that you determined what you were hungry for and then successfully fulfilled the craving. Say aloud, “Thank you, beloved. I love you. I am proud of you.” Using supportive affirmations fortifies self trust when we offer ourselves compassion and praise.
When you feel hesitation, anxiety, or indecision, take a moment to connect back to your body and breathe. If staying tethered to yourself is difficult, creating a grounding toolkit could be helpful. Inside could be digital media that soothes you, such as grounding exercises, music videos that make you happy, engaging visuals, workshops that make you feel safe, worksheets that help you focus, or even a mental reminder to take a hot shower. You can also have physical objects that live in your toolkit like scents you love, fidget toys, stones, a weighted blanket, textures you like, or comfort foods. All of these help reconnect us to the present.
An exercise I keep in my toolkit is deep breathing. Deep breathing when we are stressed reassures our parasympathetic nervous system, signaling the body that it’s safe to relax. Things like diet culture and capitalism loosen the connection we have to ourselves because industries make money off our fear, dissociation, doom scrolling, and fixation on insecurities. Thankfully, our bodies are for pleasure. As Eric Sprankle, PsyD says, “Imagine worshipping a god who, despite creating 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe, is really mad about your dildos.” Remind yourself that life is for living. Never judge your pleasure against someone else’s purity metric.
Challenge sex shame every time
Brene Brown describes shame as an “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Sex shame goes both ways. We judge ourselves for having a lot of sex and also for not having enough sex. Each of us has our own definition of what good sex is, often based on the values we’ve inherited about sexual purity from our families. Check in with yourself around sexual repression. Do you feel embarrassed or guilty at the thought of sex or pleasure? Did you grow up with caregivers who criticized people who enjoyed their sexuality? Did the authority figures in your life value virginity, abstinence-only sex education, or sex-negative religious teachings? I don’t know who needs to hear this, but the concept of virginity is not real.
What is right for you may not be right for everyone—and that’s good. While some of your peers may have had their sexual debut before you, we are also living in a world of inconsistent implementation of sexuality education and limited time allocated to teaching the subject. Deciding to delay your sexual or romantic debut could give you time to beef up those social-emotional skills. Planned Parenthood's national sexuality education standards include teaching kids as young as age 8 that all people have the right to not be touched, there are healthy ways to express feelings, and how to clearly say no. Consider how much longer it takes to learn those skills if you grow up in an abusive home, or with absent, neglectful, or role-reversed caregivers. It is good for us to decide our own timeline when we are ready for attraction, romance, casual hookups, and sexual relationships.
Good sex needs more than luck
It is normal to feel worried and afraid about your sexual inexperience. In a world where we see a fight turn into a hot and heavy sex scene in a movie, we need more models on what it takes to have great sexual chemistry. It might seem counterintuitive, but good chemistry is created intentionally and with a lot of talking and planning. It’s not spontaneous and non-verbal like television makes it seem. To be a good sex partner we need great communication and emotional skills like approaching others with curiosity, the desire to share and create pleasure together, and simple attunement.
An important part of effective communication is establishing your boundaries. Your partner should be interested in hearing what turns you on and excites you. If you have less experience than a partner you may need more time to practice feeling and communicating your needs. Create opportunities outside of sex and romantic relationships to strengthen that muscle. Explain what you need in excruciating detail as if you’re helping an alien understand the function of sprinkles on ice cream. You should feel comfortable changing pace or stopping play at any time. If you feel uncomfortable, it is for a reason. If someone is moving faster than you’d like, let them know. Consent is active, ongoing, and reversible at any time.
Finally, develop self gratitude. Showing kindness to our shy, self-conscious inner children is the most important way we become the adults we needed as kids. Timid children have a lot to say, they just need permission. They need reassurance that they are doing a good job. They need reminders that they are loved, wanted, and desired. Remind your inner kid who hasn’t kissed anyone that it is okay. In fact, it was a good decision. Be kinder to yourself when you are new at something and keep practicing being a beginner. And when you are ready to kiss someone, you will trust yourself.
Once you’ve got the primary skills down (self trust, grounding, pleasure permission, addressing shame, boundary setting, and gratitude), you can move up to personality expectations. Ask your friends to write a mock dating profile for you. Does it capture your silly and serious sides? When dating feels tough, make sure to take breaks. Lavish in the luxuriousness of single-hood. Continue maintaining friendships, because not all soulmates are lovers. Embrace your ugly. Lean into the things that make you afraid. As Maria Sabina said, “heal yourself, with beautiful love, and always remember, you are the medicine.“
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Wow it’s like y’all read my mind this week!! These feelings of inadequacy are definitely amplified with the new year so thank u for this!