My Crippling Loss of Confidence—and Our Fragile Sexuality

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For sixteen years and 1,000 posts, everything I’ve written in Sexual Intelligence has been about sex.

This piece is, too. To get there, though, you’ll need to be a bit patient. C’mon in.

I’m writing this on my way home from a week in Ireland. After a couple of days of teaching, I drove myself around the country for five eventful days. For history buffs (I am) or beer drinkers (I’m not) Ireland is a great place to visit, but the country has a serious, well-known drawback—horrible roads. They’re extremely narrow, poorly marked, and completely unlit. Americans would call many of them country lanes rather than roads for cars.

Reminder: like their British cousins, the Irish drive on the “other” side of the road.

So on an overcast Irish morning (forgive the redundancy), I climbed into my rented car with steering wheel and gearshift on the “wrong” side, heading to hidden-away thousand-year-old towns on twisting roads laid out in medieval times.

What could possibly go wrong here?

As I eased out of Dublin and into the old-fashioned countryside, I soon found out. I was continually facing cars coming toward me that were way too close. I kept edging to my left, only to hear the sounds of roadside brush scraping the car. I’d quickly move to the right, only to see the next car rushing toward me with what seemed like only inches to spare.

Move left, hit brush or loose stones, move right, get nervous, move left. Lather, rinse, repeat. See a 12th-century monastery, talk with a professional guide and/or colorful locals, get back in the car, do it again.

Eventually I drove a little too far to the left, hit some sharp stones, a rain gutter, and only God (this being Ireland) knows what else, and when I finally wrestled the car to a stop, I discovered I had destroyed my left front tire. It wasn’t flat—I had destroyed the tire and bent the rim. Disrupted my trip a bit, yes.

Fast-forward through getting the spare sort-of tire on the front, driving way too carefully for an hour to my next town, finding a shop, buying a new tire, and getting everything all fixed by the next afternoon. That’s not the interesting part.

The interesting part is how much trouble I had driving after that—because of awful feelings I couldn’t even identify. It was more than fear. I know what that feels like.

It took me an entire day of wretchedly careful driving, clumsy stopping, not wanting to make right turns (which cross traffic, like an American left turn), and feeling confused about my terrible internal state before I sat down, after a late and unhappy dinner, to talk about what I had done and how I felt. To a pub-keeper. He was undoubtedly surprised at my earnestness, especially since I wasn’t drinking, or even complaining—I just needed to talk out loud and discover what I was feeling. And after a half-hour of talking about myself, I found out.

I was ashamed of what I’d done. Events had proven me arrogant, inadequate to a challenge I was dismissively certain I could manage.

But much worse, I now no longer trusted myself. Driving—an American’s most basic right, most basic skill, most basic experience—I suddenly couldn’t do it without thinking. I didn’t trust my own judgment—of distance, speed, geometry, safety—and I was terrified.

Get this distinction—I wasn’t so much terrified of driving, or of getting hurt, as I was terrified of not being able to trust my own judgment. My judgment: my trusted companion through a 35-year clinical career, life as a self-employed entrepreneur, the deaths of my parents, high-profile involvement in contentious political issues, the gradual erosion of my aging body, financial and legal decisions about which I lacked sufficient knowledge.

And now I didn’t trust my judgment. Without it, I could barely inch forward at even a deserted country intersection.

And yes, I felt humiliated—like discovering I was a fraud, which I’ve never feared I was. But the shame didn’t cripple me. What crippled me was something my patients talk about all the time—the Lack of Confidence.

And now we’re finally coming to the sex part. Thanks for your patience.
* * *
For three decades, patients have asked me, begged me, pleaded with me: “How do I develop more confidence sexually?”

My answers have varied, depending upon the person:

* You don’t need confidence. Sex is that special thing that you can just enjoy no matter what happens.

* Go ahead and feel confident—not about any particular outcome (like erection or orgasm), but about the fact that you can enjoy whatever you do, and can enjoy being with the person you’re with (depending on how you choose your partners, of course).

And in the longer term…

* We’ll identify what makes it hard to trust yourself sexually, resolve that, and then you’ll feel confident. This could be anything from fear of your “promiscuity” to fear of believing you’re OK.

* We’re going to reconceptualize sexuality so that just being yourself is all you need to “do” to be adequate. Then you’ll feel confident.

* We’re going to investigate how religion, culture, and other influences have created visions of sexual adequacy that you can’t possibly live up to. We’ll resolve those, and then you’ll feel confident.

* We’ll help you accept your own sexuality so you can imagine a partner accepting your sexuality.

* We’ll help you communicate better and be more open to the sexuality of someone you care about, so you’ll feel more confident about handling whatever comes along.

This sort of thinking has helped a lot of people over 35 years.

I’ve always felt that sexuality was sort of the low-hanging fruit of human experience—it’s so much easier to navigate than things that are legitimately difficult, like raising a child, learning another language, installing skype, or saying no to a donut.

My patients keep telling me otherwise. They insist that sexuality is a terribly difficult thing to relax into, to feel familiar with, to talk about, to improvise. They lack Confidence.

Now I understand this a little bit better. Almost everyone trusts their judgement about something—whether it’s shopping for groceries, matching their clothes, doing their job, handling their kid’s cough, following a football game, or yes, driving.

For many of my patients, sex isn’t one of those ordinary things they trust they’ll do adequately. Of course, to them it seems that everyone else in America is good at it—great at it—presumably every day, and twice on Sunday. And now I have a slightly better sense of why that’s so disconcerting, so disruptive.

Every week I see people who are one lost erection away from disaster, one didn’t-quite-orgasm away from humiliation, one not-tonight-dear away from feeling emasculated. They want me to fix something so that they’ll be able to trust sex and themselves, even if they never have before.

I tell them that by itself sex is pretty simple, but that their unique experience of our culture (say, punitive religion), their unique biography (say, alcoholic parent), and their individual psychology (say, feeling guilty for their submissive fantasies) are combining to make sex so complicated that of course it’s hard to relax and trust it—or themselves.

Many people are terrified to trust their judgement about whether they’re sexually normal, or sexually attractive, or sexually adequate, or perceiving their partner accurately, or communicating effectively. They’re afraid to trust their judgment about the “right” way to kiss, or whose responsibility birth control “should” be, or whether it “should” be an intrusion.

This week, a narrow, twisting Irish road and a green-eyed Irish pub-keeper helped me understand this a little better.

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