Do you ever feel as though you’re just going through the motions? Perhaps it’s hard to enjoy sex because you’re always stuck in your head, feeling disconnected from your body to the point where it doesn’t even feel like it belongs to you.
It can sometimes feel like a physical block, a complete dissociation from felt sensation, where you enjoy sex and intimacy on an emotional level but can’t connect to the physical enjoyment.
Maybe you struggle to maintain eye contact, feeling a lack of connection to the person you’re with, unable to really tune into what you’re both feeling.
Feeling challenged by staying in your body during sex is a challenge with staying in the present moment. For whatever reason, intimacy feels scary and vulnerable, and so instead of staying with the experience you leave your body, which is where we feel the present moment, and come into your mind instead – and the safety of thinking about the past or the future.
In this way we move from feeling connected to feeling protected. We sacrifice connection in order to protect ourselves from the vulnerability of real, in-the-moment intimacy.
Because of this, the process of learning to stay in your body during sex is a process of helping yourself to feel safe again. When we feel safe, we can be with our whole experience, without needing to escape into the mind.
Here are some tools you can use to do just that.
1. Slow down
Slow everything right down. Give yourself time, without pressure: instead of trying to make sex work last thing at night, or when you know you’ve got something else you need to do soon, make some space for exploring pleasure at a time of day when you’re feeling energised and relaxed.
It can also help to experiment with practices to help you stay in your body outside of the bedroom, so that when you do want to have sex you’re doing so from a place of feeling yourself a little more. This means that when sex is initiated, instead of trying to connect to your body and to pleasure in a short space of time, you might already be halfway there.
2. Release expectations
Feeling the pressure of expectations is a really fast way to create insecurity. Reframing sex as playfully exploring pleasure, instead of needing to reach an outcome, can help here. What happens if you take orgasms off the table as something to be achieved? What happens if you share an intention to follow pleasure, rather than ‘have sex?’ What happens if you experiment with different forms of physical intimacy instead – massage, playfighting, watching each other self-pleasure?
Opening up to different ways of exploring sexuality and pleasure is a great way to begin to find what feels good for you. It might be that your body needs lots of physical closeness with another person in order to really feel safe enough to have sexual contact with them – and that’s ok.
3. Notice your breath
Getting stuck in your head means you may be triggered into a stress response, which is what happens when we feel unsafe. When this happens our breathing usually changes too: perhaps your breath becomes shallow and fast, or constricted. You may notice that you hold your breath on either the inhale or the exhale. This can be a great indicator that you’re not fully present any more, and for some people lengthening and relaxing the breath can help to come back to presence.
(It’s worth mentioning that often orgasms are associated with tension and holding the breath, and this common type of orgasm is also known as a peak orgasm. There are alternatives to this where orgasm can be experienced with relaxation and deeper breathing, but that’s a post for another day.)
4. Pause when you need to
One of my favourite tools is to ask for a pause. This works best when you have the conversation before sex is initiated, and explain that you might like to ask for a pause to come back to your body, so that you can feel connected again. Instead of placing blame or responsibility on the other person, this allows you to ask for what you need. If and when you do need to pause, you can take that moment to ask if you’d like something different: maybe to be held, receive some massage, or to try a different activity. Maybe it’s simply some reassurance.
This means that in those moments when you notice you’re not feeling fully present, you can take a minute to feel into what your body needs to feel safe again.
5. Trust your responses
The responses you have – whether it’s to numb out, escape into your mind, or dissociate from your body – are there for a reason. Chances are that there’s some fear showing up, even if it’s well hidden. Trying to push through or ignore the disconnection doesn’t help – it only serves to reinforce the experience of sex feeling disconnected.
Reframing the responses of numbing out and disconnecting as a protective behaviour is helpful here. What is that protection telling you? What does that protection want you to do, or say, or ask for?
6. Connect with the present moment
There are some simple, practical things you can use to reconnect to the present moment, too, some of which may be helpful if you have taken a moment to pause. I detail some of these in my free PDF of tools for feeling more secure in relationship.
One of my favourites is to consciously notice the textures you can feel with your hands: what are you touching right now? What can you feel? Texture, temperature, density? Taking in as many details as you can with curiosity is a great way to gently ground yourself back in the moment.
You can do this with all of your senses, too, not only touch. What can you notice in the room around you? What sounds can you hear? Are there any tastes or smells?
7. Ask for help
Finally, it’s most helpful if you can speak with your partner about your desire to feel more connected to your body during sex. Knowing that they’re on side can make those moments when you need to pause easier, and they may be able to help in offering things that can help you feel more safe.
If you’re not in the kind of relationship where you’re able to do this right now, and instead enjoying encounters with less emotional involvement, it can be as simple as letting them know your needs when things begin to escalate:
“Hey, just so you know, I might need to ask for a pause. If I do, it’s because I want to make sure I’m staying present with you, rather than getting lost in my head. Does that feel ok with you?”
Are you the kind of person who always seems to be stuck in some kind of drama? Perhaps you notice that drama seems to follow you around; you’re always attracting misfortune and challenging circumstances. Or maybe you attract the kind of people who bring drama into your life? You feel drawn to people who you’re certain you can help, but you end up feeling drained and exhausted while nothing seems to change for them?
If these are patterns you recognise in your life and relationships, then you might be caught in the drama triangle.
What is the drama triangle?
The drama triangle is a model that we can use to understand how conflict plays out. It often describes a form of codependency: whichever role we’re playing, we’re encouraging the other to stay stuck in their own patterns so that we feel validated, unconsciously getting our psychological needs met.
Crucially, it’s a pattern that can feel addictive and impossible to break out of, because to do so requires confronting some of our deepest vulnerabilities. While drama may sound unwelcome on the surface, it can also feel safe when we’ve been given a blueprint that relationships alway involve some kind of conflict. This typically happens in early childhood, whether we’ve been involved in these codependent patterns ourselves, or witnessed them in our caregivers.
The triangle itself is made up of three different roles: the victim, the rescuer, and the persecutor. It can involve two or more people, with each person playing different roles as the dynamic changes.
Let’s explore each of these places in more detail.
Being in your inner rescuer can look like being drawn to people who have lots of drama in their lives. You feel certain that you’re the person who can fix things for them, but nothing you do seems to help in the long term. Perhaps you’re the person everyone comes to for help – but it’s never reciprocated, and instead you often feel drained and exhausted, as though no-one is taking care of your needs.
If you identify with your inner rescuer, you’re likely to attract people who will drain your energy. These are the kind of people who will always be complaining and needing something, while never taking any steps to help themselves. They’re not actually invested in improving their situation, and so nothing you can do will ever be enough.
But that doesn’t stop you from wanting to help, because you still care about them, and you desperately want their situation to improve. And maybe this time things will be different? Maybe this time they’ll really listen to your advice?
While taking care of people who need help is generous and kind, rescuing is different: it’s a way of taking the focus away from the rescuer’s own challenges by ‘fixing’ someone else’s. This is a really smart strategy for distracting yourself away from your own anxieties!
And here we can begin to see the vulnerability that being in your rescuer protects you from: feeling needed and wanted feels safe. Often, self-worth becomes so entangled with feeling needed that it can feel impossible to let go of wanting to help, even when it’s at the expense of your own wellbeing.
Often, this dynamic ends in a big blowout when all the pent-up resentment finally explodes.
Being in your inner victim can feel like a feeling of stuckness, that nothing will ever improve or change. The victim is a place of, “poor me!”
Perhaps you’ve tried therapy, books, courses… and while your mental health is solid, still nothing ever seems to help. You’re aware that drama often follows you around, and you may even have been told that you’re high maintenance.
While we all need to learn on our support network for help, being caught in a victim mentality is different: it’s a way of keeping yourself small by not facing up to what’s really going on under the surface.
If you identify with your inner victim, you’re likely to often have some kind of drama going on in your life. Maybe it feels like it follows you around – for some reason, you’re just the kind of person to attract misfortune. You likely have lots of people in your life who want to offer their help, but nothing ever seems to really change for you.
You might even find yourself feeling resentful of the people who care the most, or deeply mistrustful that they really want to help. Perhaps you push them away without even realising why.
It can feel super vulnerable to really accept help if you’re caught in a victim mentality, because that means taking responsibility for where you’re at, and making a change. And this is really understandable: you may never have learned to feel safe in relationships that don’t involve drama. It can feel addictive.
People in the victim role will unconsciously seek out someone in one of the other roles: either a rescuer who will try to ‘save’ them, or a persecutor who they can blame. This shifts the responsibility for the victim’s position onto one of these other roles.
The final role in the drama triangle is the persecutor. In a conflict between two people, this is often the role that either the victim or the rescuer will end up in when the original roles inevitably fail to resolve the situation.
A common way that this can go is for someone in their victim to trigger a rescuer response in the other person. The rescuer starts to give their time and energy to fixing the victim’s problem, trying everything they can to help. When the rescuer realises that they are giving more than they have the capacity for, they begin to feel resentful and withdraw from the situation. When the victim notices this, they start to blame the rescuer instead, and the rescuer becomes the perpetrator.
From here, the perpetrator may themselves switch to the victim role and seek out a rescuer.
How to break the pattern
So what can you do if you notice that you’re stuck in this cycle?
If you recognise that you’ve been playing these roles in your relationships, or you’ve been dragged into others’ drama triangles, the first thing to do is to notice it with compassion.
All of the roles in the triangle appear because there is a deeper need that we’re not having met: for validation, for affection, for safety, for peace. We unconsciously try to get these needs met by acting out drama or seeking codependent dynamics, which may work in the short-term, but over time feel draining and inauthentic.
Something I’ve learned on my own journey, and in my intimacy coaching work, is that accessing the deeper needs and fears that motivate each of these roles is the most powerful way to really make changes.
This can be done in a really gentle and safe way, opening a dialogue with the parts of yourself that really need some attention and care, and starting to meet those needs in a healthier way.
If this is something you’re curious to know more about, click here and let’s see if I could be the right person to support you.
Do you battle against parts of yourself that you don’t like very much? Maybe you have some people-pleasing tendencies that you’ve identified as a ‘problem,’ or you hate how emotional you get when you need to assert a boundary.
Do you feel frustrated at how easily you cry when you get upset, or wish those anxious voices asking all the ‘what ifs’ would just go away for good?
It makes a lot of sense that we’d want parts of ourselves that we don’t like to just go away. It can feel as though they’re sabotaging our efforts to have healthy relationships, causing all kinds of behaviour that feels unhelpful.
Where do these parts come from?
I call these different parts of our personalities mini-characters. Mini-characters are often quite young parts of ourselves that have specific needs and fears. They show up to protect us from something that feels vulnerable or scary, in the only way they know how. Your anxious mini-character that always wants to ask ‘what if’ helps to keep you safe by making sure you consider all the possibilities… but when this part becomes overactive and out of balance it can feel draining, difficult, or completely paralysing.
Often, all mini-characters really need is to be heard and felt – not suppressed or fought against. The challenging behaviour they cause happens when they act out because they need our love and attention.
When we slide in and out of mini-characters unconsciously, we have no choice in allowing them to take over our behaviour. When we allow ourselves to get to know all of these parts of ourselves, we can take a step back and have more choice in how we behave.
Integration happens when we can welcome these parts of ourselves, give them permission to be here, and listen to what they need. This doesn’t mean that we’re indulging them, or allowing ourselves to get lost in them – it means that we’re giving them space to express what they need to express. We can acknowledge them as being important parts of ourselves, and we can choose whether to allow them to influence our behaviour or not.
Caring for difficult parts in this way usually allows them to find a better balance, where they act out less to get our attention in challenging ways.
Here is a process for bringing all of these parts back into balance, and finding integration.
Step 1: Recognising
The first step to integrating a mini-character is saying hello to it. We first need to notice that it’s there!
Which parts of your character do you find most frustrating or difficult?
(It’s important to recognise that mini-characters can feel positive and welcome too – which parts of your character do you enjoy and feel proud of? For this process I’d recommend focusing on something you’re feeling challenged by.)
Pick something specific that feels easy to access – perhaps a people-pleasing part, an anxious part, a controlling part, or something else that you can easily identify and name.
Take a moment to flesh out this mini-character in your mind: when do they show up? How does it feel to act as this mini-character? What are their go-to behaviours? What are they most likely to say when they feel challenged?
Give this mini-character a name that feels accurate and right to you. This might simply be “people-pleaser” or it might be something more personal to you.
Step 2: Noticing
Once you have a good idea of this mini-character, the next step is to take this knowledge out into the wild and see how often they become activated.
The aim isn’t to try and change anything here; it’s simply to become more aware of when a mini-character shows up. The practice is to become able to notice in the moment – or as soon afterwards as possible – when a mini-character has become activated.
When you do recognise that a mini-character has appeared, all I recommend doing is noting it to yourself: “My people-pleaser has become activated,” or, “My anxious mini-character has shown up.”
If you have someone in your life who you trust enough to talk about this with, it can be helpful to be able to say this out loud too. You can explain that you’re wanting to become more aware of this particular part of your personality, and let them know that you’d like to name it out loud with them when it shows up. Make sure they understand that you’re not needing them to do anything or change anything – only witness you noticing.
Every time you do this you take a step back from identifying as the mini-character, which is a vital step in introducing more choice in how you then behave. A mini-character can be present without being “I” or “me.” When we can notice mini-characters showing up without identifying with them completely, we can choose how much energy and attention to give them.
Step 3: Accepting
By already recognising and noticing, you’ve done an awful lot of work towards integrating. Accepting happens when we can also find love and compassion for these parts of ourselves.
My favourite way to find acceptance is to open a dialogue with the mini-character and ask it questions: what does it need? What is it afraid of? This is a process I go through often in my one-to-one work, where we interview the mini-character and find out its qualities and gifts.
Ultimately, mini-characters are important parts of ourselves that we simply wouldn’t be the same without. They bring challenges, but they also bring benefits.
A process you could try yourself is to open a dialogue with the mini-character you’ve identified by journaling.
Let’s use the example of a people-pleasing mini-character:
Find a quiet place where you can take some time to yourself, and bring to mind a moment when your people-pleaser becomes activated. Allow yourself to pick up a flavour of this mini-character so that you can access it easily, without becoming overwhelmed by it. Give yourself time to feel what it’s like to act as this mini-character, knowing you can step back out again when you need to.
Then, speaking as this mini-character, take some time to journal in response to these questions:
What do you really want?
If you got that desire, what deeper need would be met?
What are you most afraid of?
How do you limit [your real name]?
What gift do you bring?
What do you need most right now?
Once you’re feeling that this process is complete, take a moment to thank this mini-character for sharing their insights, and do whatever feels most helpful to say goodbye to them for the moment. Perhaps having a shake, taking a shower, or something else that feels nourishing to you.
Reflect back on the answers you wrote down: are there are needs this mini-character has that your whole, adult self can provide? Can you meet these needs yourself?
This is a process, and you may like to revisit this exercise multiple times. Don’t worry if you weren’t able to answer all the questions this time around; allow more insights to come later, or the next time you decide to give this mini-character some space.
You can use these three steps of recognising, noticing, and accepting any time you find there’s a part of yourself that you feel resistance to, that you simply don’t like, or that you feel you’d be better off without. It may feel counterintuitive to learn to love and accept a part of you that feels difficult or challenging, but it can be an incredibly powerful way to connect more deeply with yourself and bring all the parts of your character back into balance.
Finally, if you feel that this is too big a process to go through alone and you’d like some support, you can read more about how I work here.
Being unable to feel into yourself and your body cuts you off from many things. It makes pleasure difficult to really feel, with sexual pleasure often reduced to a very narrow experience that relies primarily on tension and urgency. Pleasure and sexual enjoyment happen in the body, so finding it hard to stay in your body limits the pleasure you can feel.
Becoming more aware of how your body feels from the inside not only enhances more relaxed, expanded forms of sexual pleasure, but also opens you up to noticing many other pleasurable sensations that aren’t necessarily related to sex. And the more you notice, the more there is.
Disconnection from your body also makes it hard to make the best decisions for yourself, because the alternative is to think through everything instead of understanding your needs from a deeper, more embodied, place. Thinking through things instead of feeling into them leaves you susceptible to getting caught up in stories around what you ‘should’ want, instead of trusting your instincts.
In my personal life, a couple of years ago I remember being asked the question over and over again, “What do you want?”
The truest answer I gave was, “to learn to feel more deeply.”
Despite years of meditation, I was never taught to go into my body and feel what was there, as an embodied practice.
I found it difficult to identify what really brought me pleasure, and sex was often focused entirely on the other person. I found it almost impossible to talk about what it was I really wanted.
But there’s an upside to being disconnected, too. Deep intimacy can feel really vulnerable and often scary, and avoiding staying in your body and feeling all of this can be a really helpful protection against overwhelm.
It’s possible to gently come back into connection with yourself in a way that feels safe, though. So that you can enjoy pleasure, and your body’s deep wisdom, without checking out.
Below, I’d like to share four tools that I’ve used to become more embodied and connected to myself. They are simple, everyday things that you can practice as often as you like, and they’ve been huge on my journey.
1. Practice Compassion
First of all, we must be in a place where we can accept everything we feel, or might feel, without trying to suppress it or judge ourselves for it. We must understand that learning to feel ourselves will mean allowing for the anger and grief as well as the pleasure and joy, and feeling challenging emotions or sensations can be taken as a sign that we are making progress. It’s a way of practicing intimacy with ourselves; allowing all of our experience to be seen, acknowledging it, and meeting it with kindness.
There are many ways to go about this, but my favourite is through an acknowledgment that the ‘negative’ feelings are there for a reason. We feel anger to keep us safe. Feeling grief is proof that we are capable of forming deep, emotional attachments, and it also teaches us about what’s important to us. Viewing difficult feelings in this way can help us to accept and welcome them.
2. Notice Background Pleasure
This is a simple practice that Michaela Boehm talks about often in her podcast. Throughout the day, whenever you remember, and no matter what you’re doing, feel for some pleasure. Even if you’re uncomfortable or a little too cold, or your foot’s gone to sleep, find some place in your body that feels good, and focus your attention there for a moment.
If pleasure feels inaccessible to you in that moment, focus instead on anywhere in your body that feels neutral. Where do you not feel pain or discomfort? Where feels okay?
Take a moment to savour this experience. Can you give this place your whole attention? Can you find words to describe in more detail how this place feels?
Making this a daily habit helps to keep our attention more in our whole bodies, as well as tuning us in to the pleasure and comfort we can feel.
3. Practice Embodied, Active Listening
Noticing how our bodies respond while we’re in conversation can be a really helpful way to connect with others more deeply, as well as ourselves, in a more embodied way. We’re being given so much information, all the time, by what we can feel – even if it’s numbness.
Next time you have a conversation see if you can feel any sensations while you’re listening. Is your body echoing emotions that the other person is displaying? Or are you getting a more felt sense of your own attitudes towards the person? Perhaps you’re able to pick up on what the other person is feeling before they’ve even made it explicit.
Practice noticing this experience that your whole body has in the presence of another person, without judging or attaching stories to feelings that come up.
4. Discover Your Somatic Markers
It’s called a ‘gut feeling’ for a reason. Our body can give us so much information about our needs if we pay attention, but it can take a little time to tune in to this wisdom if we’re not used to listening to it.
We can develop this sense through practice. One way I like to do this is to start with fairly inconsequential things: what kind of tea would I like to drink right now? There’s always a story attached (I never drink peppermint tea in the morning… I’m trying to drink less caffeine… last time I drank camomile tea I was too sleepy afterwards…) so it becomes a practice of gently moving my attention away from these thoughts and towards how my body feels. Does anything light up inside when I think about each option? Do I feel any closing or opening? Do these senses conflict with the stories my mind is playing through?
A helpful way to use this for me recently has involved decisions around how I spend my time; whether I really want to go out and be sociable, or whether I’m feeling obligated and actually I’d much rather stay home. Often I’ll know I’d rather take some me time when the thought of running a bath leads to a feeling of openness and relaxation in my belly.
Conversely, for me, agreeing to do something with someone who my body knows will drain too much of my energy right now is often indicated by a subtle tightness in my chest, a sensation of wanting to pull away, or a dropping sensation in my belly. I can notice these feelings in other situations too, and recognise them as a sign that I may not be doing the best thing for myself.
This is very much an ongoing journey for me, and sometimes it’s not possible or appropriate to do as my body says in this way. But developing and maintaining this sense is extremely helpful for when it is needed, and opens me up to being more present with my body and its needs.
Being vulnerable with someone you care about, for most of us, feels a little uncomfortable. When we share what’s really on our minds and hearts, when we talk about our fears and resentments, when we ask for what we really want, we’re opening up to the possibility of being hurt, rejected, or laughed at.
For some people this can feel unsafe to the point where it becomes difficult to trust your own judgement at all. Is the discomfort you feel when you share your vulnerable parts a sign that you’re finally opening up and allowing deeper intimacy? Or is it a sign that your boundaries are being crossed and, well, it’s not safe to share so deeply with this person?
Here are some signs that it might be safe to explore being vulnerable.
1: You’re acting within your boundaries (and limits)
The first thing to get clear on is where your boundaries and limits are. Having fuzzy, unclear, or badly defined boundaries is a surefire way to introduce feelings of unsafety, because ultimately you are the person responsible for deciding what you will allow into your life, and for filtering out everything that you don’t want.
However, there’s a good chance that you’re already pretty good at all of this (and if you’re not, check out my Ultimate Guide to Setting Boundaries).
So the other key thing to know about boundaries is that they are contextual and flexible. They are not impermeable barriers – they can be moved and shifted. You can experiment with them, negotiate them. If you’re used to being very firm and clear with your boundaries then this might feel like an edgy place, but it’s important to bear in mind that being able to talk about your boundaries and have a little flexibility (within your own limits) is an important part of sharing vulnerability.
This can also create more safety, by knowing where your limits are and negotiating contextual boundaries within them.
2: You have a good support network
Being vulnerable is much safer to explore if the person you’re exploring with isn’t your only form of emotional support. Having a close friend or two, family members you can turn to, or a professional you speak with regularly is really important. Not only does this protect your relationship against codependency (because you’re not relying on the other person for all of your needs), but it also helps to give you more safety and security from which to explore more challenging places.
3: Your boundaries are received well by your partner
It’s a great sign if you are able to assert boundaries and limits without the other person becoming defensive or aggressive. This doesn’t mean that they may not be upset if your boundary means they don’t get something they want! But if they are willing to talk with you and they have the capacity to hear your needs without invalidating you then this shows that they can work with you to find solutions that work for you both.
4: You are able to share fears and receive reassurance
Notice whether you are able to share your fears and stories with them, and they make time to reassure you when you ask. It’s unlikely that anyone would ever be in a relationship that’s completely free from occasional fear, anxiety, or insecurity! How you deal with these feelings within the relationship is the most important thing. If your partner is willing to make space for your fears, listen to you, and assure you that the stories you’re telling yourself are not true, then they’re telling you that they can hold your vulnerability without taking it personally.
5: Your partner’s actions match their words
Do they say they want to help you to feel more secure (within their own boundaries), and take steps to help with this? Are they open to changing their behaviour or compromising on things to help you feel safer in the relationship? This is a tricky one, because it’s important that they are not stepping into a people-pleasing role. But if they actively want to find ways that they are happy to give you more support, this shows you that your safety is important to them.
6: They can clearly communicate and hold their own boundaries
Just as important as you knowing your own is them knowing theirs. If you can both do this well then this creates lots of safety in any relationship, because you can make requests of each other while trusting that neither of you will override your own boundaries. You can trust each other to say yes and no.
7: The things you’re most scared of don’t actually come true
Finally, it’s worth checking in: do the things you’re most scared of ever come true in your relationship? Perhaps you fear being taken advantage of, being forgotten about, being laughed at… Do these things ever happen? Is there any evidence they are happening?
Chances are you’ve had experiences of this happening in the past, but it’s important to differentiate the past from the present. It’s really common to project past experiences onto current situations, and before we know it we’re not really seeing our partner when we look at them – we’re seeing someone from five, ten, twenty years ago.
Which is pretty unfair on them!
So reflect every so often (and particularly when your fears get activated). Is there any real evidence that what you fear is happening right now? If you’re unsure, can you check with your partner by asking for a reality check? By asking for reassurance that your stories aren’t true? Yes, this may feel vulnerable to do – but this can be a great practice to give yourself a new experience in proving to yourself that your fears are unfounded in the present moment. It’s also a great opportunity to find out their response to your fear.
At some point in any relationship, you can make a choice to trust and connect or to hide and protect. Trusting and connecting can feel unbearably vulnerable for reasons that you may or may not be able to identify. It’s worth remembering that if there are plenty of green flags present, it could be a great opportunity to test your vulnerability in small ways and relearn how it can feel to allow deeper connection again.
It feels sometimes as though new relationships are where the most difficult feelings come up.
You know the other person well enough to really care, but you haven’t yet built a foundation of trust that allows you to feel really secure in the relationship.
Perhaps you find yourself anxiously waiting for them to return your messages, wanting to know when you’ll see each other next, preoccupied with wondering where they are and what they’re doing.
Or maybe you experience what feels like a physical barrier, or wall between you and the other person. You long for closeness and contact, but something stops you from really allowing them in and telling them how much you enjoy their company, inviting them to meet your friends, or even returning their messages.
Both of these responses come from an underlying feeling of not being safe within this new relationship. Whether the precise fear is of them abandoning you, betraying you, or of losing yourself, some part of you is protecting yourself from feeling that fear – by limiting the kind of connection you are having.
If you have an anxious attachment style
If you identify with the more anxious approach, then it’s likely that a lot of your energy and focus is on the other person. Perhaps you can recognise some people-pleasing tendencies, or patterns of resentment showing up when your needs aren’t met (because you find it hard to clearly ask for them in the first place).
The antidote to this is to bring some of that energy back to yourself. Nurture your connection with yourself, your own desires and needs, both within the relationship and on your own. This is particularly true if you notice you have a pattern of abandoning your own hobbies and friends when you enter a relationship! Spending some time reminding yourself of all the important things you have in your life can be a great exercise to try, whether you do this via journaling or another method.
What brings you most joy in your life?
If you had a whole day to yourself, how would you most like to spend it?
What need(s) is your relationship filling, and can you fill any of those needs on your own or with friends?
The benefit of this exercise is in the reminder that you are already a whole, complete person, you can take care of yourself, and you already have a life with things that bring you joy – so you’re not dependent on the other person to provide these things for you.
If you have an avoidant attachment style
If you identify more with the other side, with having a barrier that stops you from really letting the other person in, then there’s a different approach you can try.
Here, it’s likely that sharing more of your life with them feels really vulnerable. It’s easier for you to keep them at arm’s length and pay the price of a diminished connection, than it is for you to share more of yourself with them and feel the fear of either losing the other person, or losing yourself.
The antidote here is to share that vulnerability with them.
This doesn’t require any other action, or change in behaviour – simply getting really well acquainted with your fear, so that you can share it. It’s an awesome opportunity to grow intimacy without having to actually face those fears yet.
This might sound like,
“I’m noticing that we’re spending more time together lately and it feels really vulnerable for me. I have a fear that I’ll lose myself in new relationships / that if I get close, the other person will disappear.”
Sharing and naming these things can be a great first step to removing their power, and letting the other person know what’s going on allows you to come up with creative ways that you can create more safety for you both, together.
Ok, so you’ve identified that you’re a people-pleaser. You’ve noticed a pattern of feeling frustrated in your relationships (whether romantic or platonic – it can show up everywhere) because you fail to communicate your wants and needs early on. You go along with it, telling yourself it’s not so bad, until you reach breaking point… which usually ends in an emotional blowout or simply giving up and cutting the other person out entirely.
Either way, there’s a lot of resentment that slowly builds and it’s really, really draining.
It feels impossible to put yourself first – what if your requests are too much? What if you hear a “no?”
It feels so much easier to simply go along with what the other person wants, tolerating that small, niggling discomfort, than it does to ask for what you really need. Doesn’t it?
I have some good news for you – it’s possible to change this pattern and start advocating for yourself. Here are some ways to start that process.
Make Peace With Your Inner People-Pleaser
This part of you – the part that wants to accommodate, that wants to put others first, the part that wants to keep everyone happy – this is an important part of you. It may feel like something that you want to change, get rid of, even something you’re ashamed of, but I’d like to start by encouraging you to welcome it and give it permission to be a part of your character.
A good way in can be through journaling. Here are some prompts that might help:
“My people-pleaser gets most activated when…”
“I first learned how to take care of others when…”
“My people-pleasing part protects me from…”
“My people-pleasing part benefits my relationships by…”
People-pleasing is a response that you likely learned at a young age, in response to something that felt overwhelming. Really common experiences where this happens include parents being emotionally (or physically) unavailable: as a young child this can be felt as an abandonment, and by learning to please and accommodate we are ensuring that we won’t be abandoned again. After all, if we keep everyone happy, and don’t upset anyone, they are less likely to leave us!
It can be really helpful to make friends with your inner people-pleaser by acknowledging that it serves a really useful purpose. It has gifts for you: perhaps you’re a really loyal and caring friend, or you feel a lot of motivation to do work that makes a really positive impact on the world. Maybe you work in healthcare or another profession where putting others first is part of your job.
These are really beneficial and wonderful things – your inner people-pleaser is important, even if it becomes a over-active in some situations.
Learn to Identify Your Own Wants and Needs
While your inner people-pleaser is an important part of who you are, it’s still possible to balance it a little better so that it doesn’t show up in ways that sabotage your relationships.
How do you start doing this?
It’s possible that you’ve been suppressing your own needs for a really long time. Maybe you don’t even know how to think about yourself at all!
In my experience, the body knows what the body wants. It’s the mind that starts chattering over the top, overriding what we feel, telling us that our needs are not as important. So I like to start with the body.
This involves gently starting to increase awareness for what you can feel – not what you think. Can you give yourself some space and time to pause, slow down, check in with your body, and ask what you really need in this moment? Maybe it starts with small enquiries – how you want to spend the next ten minutes, or what type of tea you want to drink.
I’ve written more about this in a blog post titled, Learning How to Feel More. There are a several practices and ideas there if you’d like some more inspiration.
Ask for Help from People you Trust
Finally, it’s important to acknowledge that your inner people-pleaser developed in the context of a relationship (perhaps with family at a young age, or in early sexual relationships). As an adult, this part of you becomes activated within the context of a relationship. This means that the most effective change will happen – yes – within the context of a relationship.
This could look like speaking with someone you trust about this part of yourself, and asking for their support. Perhaps this is a close friend, or family member, or something you could do with a partner.
This is a great thing to work through within a coaching relationship too, for the same reasons.
How might it be to ask them to check in with you? To ask you directly what you want more often? Or simply to share an intention with them, that you’d like to prioritise your own needs more, to give yourself permission to start practicing saying “I want…” with them?
Having someone on your side to ask for reassurance can be really powerful too – being able to share a desire or need with them, knowing you can ask them to reassure you that you haven’t asked for “too much.”
This question comes up a lot. You know where your boundaries are, and you know when someone has crossed them… But how do you tell them that it’s happened without seeming angry? How do you ask them to change their behaviour without causing an argument?
Why is it Hard to Set Boundaries?
I think this is a particularly common challenge for women because, within many western cultures at least, we’ve been socialised to go with the flow rather than rock the boat. Personally, I remember being told that I was ‘bossy’ when I was a kid. I can’t help but wonder what lessons I learned – that I had to be really careful about the ways I expressed my opinions and preferences. That being assertive was not welcome.
Alternatively, perhaps you grew up in a home where there were lots of arguments. Being afraid of conflict at a young age – seeing your parents fighting can be really scary – can lead to fears of conflict as adults too, and you learn to appease and accommodate in all your relationships in order to avoid more arguments.
Whatever the reason, being afraid to assert boundaries can be really damaging. It means avoiding pain in the short term, but by abandoning your needs you’re setting yourself up for exhausting relationships where resentment grows quickly.
So what can you do about this? I want to talk about three possible ways in.
Setting Boundaries Before Breaking Point
Many difficult boundary conversations – you know, the ones that end in tears and emotional responses, feeling that your needs are invalidated because you’re angry and upset – arise because the conversation is simply left too late.
This is the cost of not speaking up as soon as you first notice that something’s up.
And it didn’t really feel like a big deal, did it? It was only a small thing. You tell yourself that maybe it won’t happen again. Maybe you can just ignore it and it’ll go away.
But then it happens again, and again, and every couple of months or so everything builds up into a situation where you can’t stop yourself from speaking up. It’s not a choice any more – you’re at breaking point. The discomfort from That Thing They Keep Doing is greater than the fear of asking for something different.
But the problem is, now you’re upset. You’re angry. You’re emotional. And so the conversation is doomed from the start because you know that your emotional response will lose you credibility. You feel the tears coming and fight them back, out of fear you won’t be taken seriously.
Imagine if you’d have been able to have this conversation right at the start. At the very first inkling. When you weren’t so annoyed. When you could have communicated much more clearly and rationally.
It could have been a very different conversation!
Using Non-Violent Language
First of all, you can look at the language you use. How might you bring up a boundary violation with your partner? How could you ask them to make a change in a way that communicates you’re on the same side, you want the same thing, and that you appreciate their needs too?
Non-violent communication (NVC) has some tools we can use here, and I give one framework in my Ultimate Guide to Setting Boundaries in Relationships post. There are absolutely ways of making clear requests in a non-combative way, which will reduce the chances of triggering defensiveness or aggression in the other person – leading to far more productive negotiations. And don’t be afraid to learn some new skills here. Having difficult conversations is not something most of us were taught in school, but it’s so, so crucial to having healthy relationships.
Exploring Your Relationship with Conflict
The second approach I would suggest is to look at the fear of conflict itself.
Somewhere along the line you learned that conflict wasn’t safe. That it couldn’t co-exist with love and care. Chances are, your desire to avoid conflict points to some areas where you could find some big opportunities for healing some unresolved childhood traumas. And trauma can involve things that felt normal and mundane: growing up in a home where there were lots of arguments, or where you didn’t feel you could express anger without being laughed at or ignored.
This causes problems in adult relationships because disagreement is unavoidable. The only way we can avoid conflict is by ignoring the things we disagree about, and pretending that it’s no big deal. In the long term, this leads to resentment.
So how might it be to be able to experience conflict without feeling fear? Or to experience conflict while still feeling loved? How might your relationships be different if you were able to assert your boundaries, knowing you may risk some conflict, but feeling secure enough in your relationship to be able to handle that?
The first step is to say hello to the fears and emotions that come up for you around conflict. Is there a fear of rejection or abandonment, perhaps? Or something else? It’s important to become more aware of what happens for you in those moments, and gently work with the parts of yourself that feel difficult – rather than trying to suppress or change them.
Journaling and self-reflection can be a great way to start exploring this.
You could try some of these prompts:
“When I disagree with someone I care about, the thing that stops me speaking up is…”
“My earliest memory of conflict happened when…”
“If I start an argument, the thing I am most scared of happening is…”
“Avoiding arguments protects me from…”
In my experience of open relationships, jealousy often stems from comparison. Do you find that you compare yourself with your partners’ exes, other lovers, or even their friends? Does it bring up a feeling of competitiveness, fears of not being enough, and maybe even of being abandoned?
If so, I have something that might help.
(And this applies to monogamous folks too – jealousy is definitely not an issue that only crops up in polyamorous relationships.)
The first thing to know is that comparing is a very human thing to do. It’s how we understand who we are and make sense of the world, by being able to identify the similarities and differences between ourselves and others. It’s not necessarily a bad thing… it actually comes in kinda useful a lot of the time.
It’s what we do with comparison that matters.
There are two ways it can go:
OPTION 1: You compare, and it triggers a competitive response. You see yourself as either inferior or superior, judge accordingly, and tell yourself all the reasons why you’re not good enough, why you don’t measure up. You assume that your partner must be drawing the same conclusions and, of course, will leave you. (Sound familiar? It might be that there’s a triggered response happening here too.)
OPTION 2: You compare, and in noticing the other person’s differences, you get curious. Instead of making assumptions, you ask questions. You feel motivated to learn more about what’s going on with your partner, and the other person they want to spend time with – from a place of curiosity rather than suspicion. This opens a doorway to compassion and connection.
I’d like to talk a bit more about this, from my personal experience:
I’ve been exploring open relationships for a few years, but it’s only been more recently that the kind of insecurity that I associate with jealousy has started to creep in. I notice it most clearly when I know very little about my partner’s other connections – it’s so easy for my mind to fill in the blanks with the ‘worst case’ scenario.
In my imagination, they are having a far more enjoyable time than I ever have with him! This mystery Other Woman is more attractive, more fun. And of course, she’d love to take my partner away from me.
(Eugh, it feels weird typing that out.)
It’s at this point that I can stop myself and notice that I’m making a whole load of assumptions and telling myself all knids of stories!
This is when I can start asking questions.
What’s their connection really like? Does she have other relationships too? What gifts does their relationship give him? What gifts does their relationship give me?
(It can be helpful to explicitly ask for reassurance here if you need it, too – I still often do.)
Now, there’s a balance to be found, because on the one hand I definitely don’t want to hear about every detail of what goes on between my partner and the other people he shares intimacy with. And he has a right to privacy too. But starting to talk openly about the love shared between my partner and the other people in his life helps me feel more connected – both to him, and to the other people he shares that love with.
And this is how being curious can shift me away from feeling competitive, and towards feeling compassionate.
If your default pattern is to compare and compete, know that this is likely something you’ve learned to protect yourself from the kind of connection that can feel really vulnerable. And that’s ok.
It takes a lot of security in yourself to be able to hold the comparison, the curiosity, and the compassion. If it was easy, we’d all be there from the start.
But noticing when you start to compete, and experimenting with asking more questions instead, is a great place to start.
Do you ever end up in a situation where you’ve agreed to something that isn’t feeling good any more? Maybe you said yes because you thought it’s what you wanted, or because you thought it’s what the other person wanted. Maybe you didn’t want to cause an argument or upset anyone.
Now, however, you’re realising that your body doesn’t feel great about that decision. It’s more than you’re willing or able to tolerate, and you know you’re no longer a ‘yes.’ Perhaps you’ve been working on being more clear in your communication, and you don’t want to ignore those signs any more.
For people who have been socialised not to upset or cause conflict (that’s loads of us, by the way) it can be really tricky to navigate changing your mind and saying no. It can trigger all sorts of stories about being unreliable, letting the other person down, being difficult or ‘too much.’ In reality, being able to communicate what’s really going on for us, in a compassionate, clear, and honest way, is a crucial skill in maintaining healthy boundaries.
Let’s break down how you can get better at saying no.
Give yourself permission to say no
First of all, check in with yourself: do you believe that you have the right to change your mind?
Imagine a situation where you’ve said yes to someone you care about, and then you later realise you need to tell them it’s a no. Visualise this in as much detail as you can: what was happening, what you both said, how you felt. How did you know you’d changed your mind, or not given an honest answer? What thoughts or feelings come up for you when you consider the possibility of telling them that you’ve changed your mind?
This can be a good exercise to try with any self-reflective practices you have, such as meditation or journaling. Try writing down or reflecting on anything that comes up for you here: what are you afraid of? What emotions do you feel? Do you feel any bodily sensations? Do these things feel familiar from anywhere else?
These clues are all great information to finding out why you might find it hard to say no. Awareness of these patterns is the first step to overcoming them.
Check that you feel safe to say no to this person
If you’re reading this, then saying no and changing your mind likely feels pretty vulnerable to you. So if it’s something you want to practice getting better at, I’d recommend doing so with someone you feel safe with, first of all. This could be anyone – a friend, partner, family member, or a therapist or coach.
Chances are that saying no only feels difficult to you in certain contexts. Maybe it’s harder with someone you’re really into who you’ve only been dating a short while, or maybe it’s not an issue at all until your relationship starts feeling more committed.
Spend a little time feeling into who you feel most challenged to say no with, and who it might feel easier to practice with. If you’re feeling really brave, you can even have a conversation with the person you feel safest with, and tell them you’re practicing getting better at saying no and changing your mind. Having the accountability and support of someone who you trust can be a huge help.
Find the right words
Once you’re clearer on why you find it hard to change your mind, and you’ve identified one or two people you might feel safe to practice with, it’s time to give it a try!
Speaking your vulnerability can be a really helpful way in. If you’ve done a little reflection and you know what you’re afraid of, why not say it out loud with someone you trust?
“I’m nervous to say this because I’m telling myself you’ll think I’m unreliable… but I’ve changed my mind. Can we do X instead?”
“I’d really like to try something different, can we do that? It might sound irrational but I’m scared to say this because I don’t want to upset you.”
Did you notice what else happened here? In the sentences above, we’ve also acknowledged that the fear is irrational, it’s something you’re telling yourself. It’s a story. It’s not the truth. Changing your mind is something you always have the right to do, and the fears that come up in response are not rational ones – they are old trauma responses with roots that likely go all the way back to childhood.
You can also ask for reassurance that your fears are not true, if that’s helpful:
“This feels quite vulnerable to say because I have a story that you’ll think I’m too much… but I’ve changed my mind and I’d like to do something else. Can you reassure me that’s ok?”
When you speak your fear out loud in this way, while acknowledging that it’s a story and not the truth, you take away so much of its power. You also help to create more intimacy with the other person by sharing a little of your vulnerability with them.
And this is the most amazing thing of all: learning how to take a situation that feels scary, and turn it into an opportunity to overcome some of your own fear – while deepening your connection with the other person too.