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.
Maybe you’ve heard that having boundaries in your relationships is really important. While this is good advice, it doesn’t begin to explain exactly what boundaries are, how you can find yours, or communicate them to the people you’re in relationships with.
In my intimacy coaching work, boundaries are often among the first topics I address with my clients, as so many of us didn’t grow up learning how to feel our boundaries – let alone assert them.
In this post I’ll cover what boundaries are, what they’re not, and how to start finding and communicating yours.
Let’s start with the basics.
What Are Boundaries?
Boundaries are limits that anyone can set for themselves to determine what they are and are not comfortable engaging with. They’re a method that we all can use for establishing our identity, preferences, and personal space – physically, emotionally, and energetically.
In relationships, this can mean lots of different things, which we’ll cover in more detail below.
To begin with, the most important things to know are that boundaries are:
- Personal – only you get to decide where your boundaries are.
- Contextual – you may have different boundaries at different times, or with different people.
- Empowering – they allow you to say yes or no, take responsibility for what’s yours, and filter out what isn’t.
Boundaries, Limits, and Barriers
It’s important to understand what boundaries are not, too.
Limits are the places at the edge of our boundaries. While boundaries are contextual and may shift around depending on who we’re with and what we’re doing, our limits are the lines which show us when we are being assaulted.
For example, you may enjoy play-fighting or wrestling with a lover, in a way that you wouldn’t want to do with, say, a platonic friend – you have different boundaries for these two people. However, being punched in the face might be a limit for you; it’s something that would never be welcome, whoever you’re with or whatever mood you’re in.
Barriers are rigid, and are often a response to being unable to assert boundaries in a healthy way. Instead of being able to feel and establish boundaries and say yes or no depending on the situation, some people will put up barriers to prevent contact at all. While this can be a useful protection in some circumstances, the trade-off is all too often the inability to ever let others in.
Putting up barriers can be seen as an opposite behaviour to people-pleasing; instead of saying yes to everything, you’re saying no to everything. Lots of people may notice that both of these show up for them in different circumstances.
Different Types of Boundaries
There are all kinds of different boundaries that come into play in different situations. As an intimacy coach I take care to maintain professional boundaries; in a relationship with a partner these are not relevant.
Understanding the different kinds of boundaries can be really helpful in identifying which come easily to you, and which could benefit from some more awareness.
In your romantic and sexual relationships, there are six categories which are most relevant: physical, social, emotional, sexual, cognitive, and material:
- Physical: how do you like to be touched? Greeted? How much physical personal space do you need when you’re having a conversation or sharing a bed with someone? How much physical time apart do you need from a partner or lover? How much touch do you need? If you live together, do you need a room for yourself?
- Social: how much do you share about your relationship, or each others’ lives, with friends? How much time do you want or need to talk about yourself with your partner? How involved are you in each others’ social lives? How do you feel about meeting each other’s friends and families?
- Emotional: how much emotional support do you need? How do you want to be supported when you’re struggling? How much tolerance do you have for your partner’s emotional states? Do you have requirements for your partner’s abilities to process and manage their own emotional baggage?
- Sexual: what kind of sexual contact (if any) are you comfortable with outside of your relationship? What sexual activities are hard limits for you? Which activities do you need to experience to feel satisfied? What do you need in order for sex to feel pleasurable? How much sexual contact do you want with your partners?
- Cognitive: are there topics that you don’t feel comfortable discussing? Do you have particular beliefs or world views that are not compatible with certain people or situations? Are there specific situations or decisions people may ask of you that are against your ethics?
- Material: do you prefer to combine your finances with your partners, or keep them separate? How do you feel about giving and receiving material gifts? How do you manage joint expenses?
How To Find Healthy Boundaries For You
Now you have some idea of all the different ways that boundaries can be expressed, how do you decide what’s right for you in your relationships?
This can be a difficult task if you’re used to following the many scripts we’re socialised with. To take one example: in the culture I grew up in, it’s a norm that after being in a relationship for a year or two, my partner and I will move in together.
What if my physical and material boundaries aren’t compatible with that expectation? If I live in an expensive city, and my partner and I can’t afford a home big enough for us to have the personal space we need, should I violate my boundaries in order to do the ‘normal’ thing?
Chances are, when you read through the list of categories above, some of them resonated with you more than others. Which provoked a biggest reaction in you? Do you have a sense of which types of boundaries come easily to you (if any), and which you didn’t even realise could exist?
Having awareness of these places is the most important first step. Begin to ask yourself questions about what you really want from the people you’re in relationships with – and what you really want to offer them, too. If you journal or meditate, or have a different self-reflective practice, try introducing some of these themes and see what arises for you.
It can also be helpful to learn to pay more attention to your body’s cues. Your body will have a reaction (a gut feeling, perhaps) when one of your boundaries is violated, whether you’re conscious of it or not. Beginning to listen to these reactions, however subtle, can be a really great way to begin noticing when something isn’t right. This information can help to inform your boundary-setting in the future.
Ultimately, healthy boundaries are the places where you can give another person your love and support without compromising yourself and your needs. Boundaries are vital for our mental health: if you’re often feeling drained, tired, or resentful with your partner, then this could mean that you’re violating your own boundaries in your relationship. Noticing if and when these feelings come up can be helpful clues to point you towards where your boundaries are.
Allowing someone to violate your boundaries is also an act of you violating your own boundaries. Whenever someone behaves in a way that isn’t aligned with your wants and needs, you have the responsibility to communicate that with them and ask for something different, or remove yourself from the situation.
Which bring us to…
How To Communicate Personal Boundaries
Communicating boundaries can feel really edgy and vulnerable because it’s a skill many of us haven’t learned. To give a couple of examples, many young children are tickled by their parents despite being asked to stop. Or they are told they must hug or kiss relatives, even if they don’t want to. This teaches children that their boundaries will not be respected, and – worse – their ‘no’ may result in punishment or withdrawal of affection.
So, how do we learn as adults?
First of all, it’s important to get clear not only on what your boundaries are, but also on how you will behave if your boundaries are not respected. This isn’t about punishing the other person – it’s about knowing how you’ll remove yourself from a situation where your boundaries are being violated. Hopefully you won’t need to communicate this, but it’s important that you’re clear on it so that you can if you need to.
When discussing boundary issues, talk only about your own experience and your own needs, and take responsibility for yourself. Be clear in your language. Non-Violent Communication has a helpful structure which we can borrow here:
State a fact that you’ve noticed, using “I” sentences. Avoid accusing the other person of anything, voicing an opinion, or mentioning any emotions at this stage. The aim is to state something as neutrally as possible that the other person can agree with.
“I notice that I initiate most of our plans for seeing each other.”
How does this make you feel? Try to stick only to emotions here, rather than getting caught in stories, and again focus on your own experience only.
“I feel insecure and sad about this.”
State the need you have in this situation. What’s your boundary?
“I have a need for reciprocity and reassurance that you want to see me as much as I want to see you.”
Ask the other person for what you need in this situation. Be as specific as possible; avoid asking them to make you feel a particular emotion, and instead ask them to take specific actions that would have the same effect.
“I’d like to request that you take the lead in organising more of our dates, and ask me more often when we can see each other next.”
5: Check in
Finally, ask how this landed for them. Give them your full attention as they respond to your request.
“How does that sound to you?”
When discussing boundary issues it can also be helpful to focus on the positive result of having your boundaries respected. Hopefully, both you and your partner want the same thing: perhaps it’s a close, intimate relationship built on love and trust. Framing the discussion with this perspective can help to remind you both that you’re on the same side, and avoid the conversation becoming an argument.
In the “need” section of the framework above, you could include this by saying something like,
“An important part of intimacy for me is to feel reciprocity and reassurance. I love the intimacy that we have together, and hearing that you want to see me as much as I want to see you would help me to feel much more secure in our relationship.”
Hopefully this will start a productive conversation with your loved one and result in a change in behaviour that helps you to get your needs met.
It’s important to note that if your needs are opposed to the other person’s boundaries or desires, you may have to consider what this means for your relationship. There may be a compromise you’re willing to make, or it may mean that you need to change the amount or type of intimacy you can enjoy with that person. For example, if I find out that one of my friends can’t keep secrets, I may not necessarily feel I need to end our friendship – but I may decide to no longer talk with them about deeply personal topics.
If this seemed like a lot, I’d encourage you to take everything slowly. Learning how to be better with your boundaries can be a lifelong journey, and it’ll likely feel easier in some situations than in others. It’s an extremely useful enquiry to make though, and very worth it – when you get clearer on your wants and needs, and better at communicating them, all of your relationships will benefit.
Psychosexual Somatics Therapy (PST) is a gentle, trauma-aware method of moving through intimacy challenges – sexual, relational, or emotional. It emphasises nervous system regulation while addressing childhood attachment issues, by combining a cognitive understanding of the emotional root causes underneath the presenting issue, alongside embodied practices and somatic awareness.
So many of us are in our heads most of the time. Our minds are useful for thinking about the future or the past, but they’re not so great at being present. Being present in the here and now requires us to bring our awareness more into our whole body, but this can often feel scary, impossible, or frustrating.
If you can’t access how you’re feeling right now in your body, then it becomes hard to know where your boundaries are, what you want, and what you need. This is often a trauma response, based on ways of surviving that many of us developed in our earliest years. PST works to gradually bring awareness to the feelings and emotions you might be avoiding, why you’re avoiding them, and how.
What does a PST coaching session look like?
PST is influenced by psychotherapy, counselling, neuroscience, clinical sexology, and body-based modalities such as Somatic Experiencing. As such, sessions can be a combination of different approaches depending on what may serve the client best.
The journey will always start with an assessment session, which will mainly involve talking through your challenges, goals, and patterns. We’ll explore the strategies you’ve developed to keep yourself safe, including where they may have originated from, to understand how they may be keeping you in disconnection now.
Subsequent sessions are informed by the assessment, and the pace you want to work at. They may include:
- Body tracking and somatic awareness: guiding you through noticing sensation in the body, and giving time and space to feel it
- Embodiment exercises: using posture, movement, and sound to allow expressions that may be habitually suppressed
- Cognitive understanding: keeping the mind happy with an intellectual context and framework for the work we’re doing
- Movement exercises: using gentle movement as an effective way to down-regulate the nervous system
- Guided meditations: slowing everything right down, and giving you space to allow whatever is in your experience
- Playing with space and proximity in the room to explore your relationship with different parts of yourself, and with others
Whichever specific exercises we use, the emphasis is always on going slowly, and introducing plenty of tools and resources to help you down-regulate your nervous system. This means that we can come up against edges and explore them carefully, gently challenging them in a way that allows for integration afterwards.
What can PST coaching help with?
Because the PST approach involves going all the way back to our earliest experiences of attachment, embodiment, and relational dynamics, it’s a modality which can be used to help with all sorts of challenges with intimacy.
These may include:
- Feeling stuck in destructive or unhelpful relationship patterns
- Challenges with identifying wants or needs in relationship
- Sexual challenges with libido, discomfort, pain, or orgasm
- Difficulty managing and expressing emotional responses
- Not knowing where your boundaries are or how to express them
- Feeling unable to identify what you want, or ask for it
The way we show up everywhere – in therapy, coaching, relationships, or sex – is a reflection of the strategies we learned as we were growing up. In a safe container, these strategies can be explored to teach you more about yourself. Bringing awareness to your patterns, and involving the whole body, is the fastest and gentlest way to integrate the parts of yourself that are getting in the way of having the relationships you want.
Arguing with someone I care about is one of my clearest triggers. I’ll start out fine: I’ll stay rational and reasonably calm. I’ll be able to remember to have compassion for their alternative view. If the argument continues and I feel unheard, I may start to raise my voice and feel myself getting frustrated.
But there’s always a very obvious point at which some little switch flicks in my brain, and I totally lose the capacity to engage with the other person. I’ll feel myself quite literally freeze; sometimes I’ll notice that I’m opening my mouth but I have no idea what to say. I won’t be able to follow what they are saying anymore, or even if I can I certainly can’t form my own sentences. Sometimes I know that I need us to stop talking and hug, but I can’t ask for this, let alone move my body to initiate it.
I get caught in a freeze (unable to move or speak) or sometimes in a dissociate (becoming fuzzy and as though I don’t know where I am anymore).
It’s not always this obvious or dramatic. Sometimes the pressure I feel while trying to socialise in unfamiliar groups of people leads to a freeze response. I notice that I’d love to be mingling and chatting, feeling easy about coming and going as I please, but I’ll feel rooted to one place because it feels ‘safe’.
Or sometimes if someone I love is expressing anger over something totally unrelated to me, my brain will respond as though it is directed at me. Again I’ll feel myself lose the ability to follow what they’re saying, much less ask them to slow down or stop.
The problem is that our brain doesn’t really distinguish between real or perceived threat. Each of us have our own unique cocktail of developmental trauma (unmet needs from our earliest years) and also possibly event trauma (specific overwhelming events throughout life). These traumas felt overwhelming at the time, and when we get triggered as adults we behave as though these traumas are playing out again – even when we’re not in situations that pose any real threat to our existence.
Understanding what’s actually going on in my brain when this happens has been really helpful in finding more compassion for myself, and beginning to work with my triggers to give myself more choice when I can feel myself starting to lose capacity.
Which brings me to…
The Basic Neurology of Triggers
When we feel ourselves unable to behave in rational, measured ways, and we notice that we’re getting carried away by a strong emotional response (whether that looks like rage, freezing up, or dissociating), what we are feeling is parts of our brain temporarily shutting down. This means our capacity to choose how to respond becomes impaired.
The first part of our brain that goes offline is our neocortex. This is the newest and most advanced part, in evolutionary terms. We use it for social engagement, language, and complex problem solving. It’s the part of us that allows us to make rational judgements about situations.
When the neocortex stops calling the shots, control shifts to the limbic system, our mammal brain. This area is a little older and governs a lot of our emotional responses. When we go into a fight or flight response, or a rigid freeze where we’re unable to move or speak, this is likely because control has passed from our neocortex to our limbic system.
Finally, if our mammal brain’s response hasn’t resolved the situation and we find ourselves still feeling unsafe, then our brain tries one more strategy: to act from the brain stem. This is the oldest part, the lizard brain. If we go into a limp, collapsed state, or a dissociation where we start to lose sense of where we are, then this may mean that we are now responding from our lizard brain.
The fascinating thing about all of this is that it allows us to track exactly what’s going on when we find ourselves in situations where we’re not behaving the way we’d like to be. When that switch goes inside my brain and I’m not able to follow what my partner is saying anymore, I understand why – and understanding why is the first step in doing something about it, which I’ve written more about here.
This is a big topic for me. Not because I have an awful lot to say about it, but because the resistance I feel to changing my mind is colossal.
For a whole bunch of reasons, some known and some unknown, I have reached adulthood with the belief that to change my mind is to be flakey, inconsistent, and unreliable. Sticking to my word, on the other hand, means I am deserving of trust and love, and so being dependable is something I often strive for – at the expense of taking care of my own needs.
Naturally, this comes up most acutely in relationship. Open relationships in particular require me to check in with myself often about my comfort levels – perhaps things that felt fine a month ago no longer do. Polyamory means putting myself in potentially challenging, triggering situations often, more so than when operating within the relative security of monogamous commitments. It’s crucial to be able to acknowledge that, for whatever reason, I am feeling particularly tender and would prefer a little more care than I needed before.
If this sounds familiar to you too, then know that being able to express this to those you love and have it heard and honoured is the best way to learn that changing your mind is actually ok. That it won’t necessarily lead to abandonment or rejection.
This can be done slowly and gently, too, as with learning how to be vulnerable. Try noticing the little things that don’t quite feel right: have you changed your mind about where you want to eat after your partner has made a reservation? Or have you changed your mind about the film your date has just started playing, and you’d rather watch something different? How does it feel to acknowledge this to yourself, and to speak it out loud?
The final piece is to realise that just because you have changed your mind, it doesn’t mean that the other person has to go along with your request. You can trust them to hold their own boundaries and say no if they need to. And maybe it doesn’t matter so much anyway – often, the act of noticing and voicing your change of preference goes a long way to you feeling heard and complete.
Short term thinking is a trap. The long term approach to healing and growth identifies that change happens slowly over a period of months, years, decades… A sensible mindset that doesn’t dwell on failure and instead acknowledges that the process often isn’t linear.
In these terms, short term thinking is unhelpful because it focuses on the everyday fluctuations that are inevitable, even when over a longer period you might be making huge progress. Zooming out, in this context, provides motivation in the form of comparing yourself to, say, two years ago: perhaps you’ve had a difficult week, but unless you’re only thinking short-term then this isn’t a reason to worry.
But thinking short-term can have its place, sometimes. There’s space to celebrate the small victories. Visualising where you want to be in a year or two, while a helpful practice to create focus and intention, can also feel overwhelming. It’s here that bringing things back to the everyday can help with motivation, whatever that looks like for you: maybe today you meditated for ten minutes in the morning, or you had a weekend without alcohol, or you were able to ask for something you need.
On the one hand, our big visions for the future help to keep us on track, but on the other it’s the everyday decisions and achievements that get us there at all. In this context, we can even celebrate the failures as a necessary part of the journey too. And above all of this, it’s valid to rest for a while too.
Lifting weights at the gym makes you strong. Focussed effort a few times a week, over time, is rewarded with stronger muscles and increased mobility. But while these benefits are initiated in the gym, you won’t see them until you rest: it’s on the days off, when your body can relax, that your muscles can repair, rebuild, and grow.
Realising that we want to feel more pleasure might begin a journey which involves attending workshops, reading books, sitting in meditation, maintaining daily practices… these are all ways that we might focus our attention and put work into what it is that we want.
But the actual benefits of this effort are reaped when we relax and allow our bodies to do what they know how to do. The work is needed to train ourselves, give ourselves new ways to think, and expand our idea of what is possible, and when we stop and give ourselves the space to pause we can really embody everything we’ve learned.
This means that pleasure comes when we relax and stop trying, when breathing is deep and easy and we’re not focussed on any particular goal. This can feel counterintuitive when we want to get somewhere in particular; the key is in trusting the process.
Different parts of our brains are responsible for the four responses we often default to when in a situation we perceive as threatening: people-pleasing (hyper-socialisation), fight, flight, and freeze. Because these responses don’t distinguish between real and perceived threat, it doesn’t matter whether we are actually in danger or not: most often we’ll go into one of these responses in everyday situations when in fact we’re perfectly safe, such as when we’re socialising in a large group or in a disagreement with someone we love.
What Is The Fight or Flight Response?
We’re actually talking about four different survival responses. In brief: hyper-socialisation appears as trying to keep everyone happy. This could involve telling lots of jokes, giving lots of compliments, or smiling and laughing much more than you might otherwise. The fight response can manifest as outright aggression, or as trying to exert control over a situation. Flight causes us to want to disengage, run away, and hide, while freeze involves a level of dissociation where we literally freeze up, often becoming unable to move or act.
These are emotional responses which may have been caused by unresolved trauma at some point in our history, and triggered by a current event. The more evolved part of our brain, our neocortex, would allow us to rationalise and notice that we are not in any real danger and that we don’t need to fight or dissociate. But this part of our brain doesn’t respond as quickly as the older limbic system, and instead our survival instincts kick in much faster and prevent us from behaving the way we would like to.
If this happens often and prevents you from the intimacy and anxiety-free social life you want, there are things you can do. Of course therapy may be useful, but there are also ways of helping yourself to move through these responses so they have less power over your behaviour.
1. Notice Your Fight or Flight Symptoms
The first thing to do is to become acquainted with the behaviour your stress response triggers. For people with social anxiety, socialising in groups could go one of several ways: perhaps a hyper-socialising response where they go into people-pleasing mode, desperately trying to impress everyone in the room, or a shut-down frozen response where they feel completely unable to form sentences.
Whatever the situation you struggle with, and the response it elicits, notice what happens in your body. Do you start biting your fingernails or feeling your face going red? Do you feel tingling in your limbs or squirming in your belly? Becoming more connected to your body helps to identify when your limbic system is kicking in, which is the first step to taking away its control.
This isn’t an overnight process, but with practice you can learn the patterns that signify you’re becoming stressed before it spirals too far.
2. Move Away from the Fight or Flight Response
Once you’re able to notice when you start to move into one of these responses you can work with it to move into a less anxious place. Because the fight or flight response comes from the oldest part of our brain in evolutionary terms, the trick is to stop functioning from this place and instead re-engage our neocortex so that more rational behaviour can take over again.
Grounding exercises are a good way to achieve this: asking the brain to notice the body, the environment, and acknowledge who, what, and where we are. Reminding yourself of the actual safe situation you are in rather than the perceived threat. When you first begin practicing this it may help, if possible, to take yourself into a quiet place for a few moments.
You can begin by noticing all the places your body is currently in contact with the earth, maybe your feet on the floor and your buttocks on a chair. Feel the contact, your weight, and the support of the surface. Then move your attention through the rest of your body, noticing each part in turn.
Next, take in your environment, noticing details: perhaps counting how many things of a certain colour you can see. This further helps to bring you back into the part of your brain that can analyse your current situation in a more measured way.
Finally, the breath can be helpful too. Breathing usually becomes shallow and high up in the chest when we’re stressed; by slowing the breath down and bringing it deeper into the belly you can help to move yourself out of anxiety.
3. Practice, Patience, and Compassion
This is a process that takes patience: you’re trying to change potentially deeply ingrained patterns of behaviour, which could take a lot of conscious effort. These stress responses can feel familiar and comfortable, even if we regret our behaviour later. Finding a healthier version of comfortable takes time.
Finding compassion for yourself, both for the stress responses you live with and the time and effort it may take to overcome them, is important too. We all live with patterns that hinder our expression in some way because they’re not an easy thing to recognise or change, and recognising this can help to ease the journey.
Setting an intention is a simple practice, for me mainly associated with a meditation or yoga session. It’s a conscious decision to gently direct my energy towards something specific, without holding too tightly onto reaching a particular goal: making an intention conscious and then letting go of it allows it to still be present, ideally without introducing attachment to an outcome.
It changes the flavour of whatever it is I’m about to do, into an activity that I am doing with a clear idea of why I want to do it, and what its benefits could be.
Something I am learning to do more often is to use intention in other areas of my life. Setting an intention for a day, a relationship, or a conversation perhaps. Considering what’s important to me about whatever I’m about to engage in doesn’t have to be limited to sitting on a cushion or yoga mat.
Removing this limitation is helpful for a few reasons. Firstly, it encourages the habit of asking myself why I do what I do; what is it that I want? What does my body need? As someone who has, historically, found identifying what I want hard, this is good practice.
It also helps to make the implicit explicit, at least to ourselves. If we go into a potentially challenging situation without first taking a minute to find clarity on where our focus is, we leave ourselves susceptible to playing out unhelpful scripts. When we can’t identify and own what we want, we allow our unconscious to run the show.
Entering into a conversation on a sensitive topic with someone we care about could easily turn nasty. Bringing an intention, if only kept to ourselves, to find compassion or to deepen our connection can help to keep us present with what’s most important.
Finally, using intentions in day to day life is a step towards more conscious action. While the point of setting an intention is to direct ourselves in a helpful way, rather than become attached to achieving anything in particular, it’s a practice that can help to steer us towards the life we want for ourselves.
Intimacy is often closely associated with sex – to the extent that the words are sometimes interchangeable. But sex and intimacy don’t quite mean the same thing, and one is not a requirement in enjoying the other.
Sex is an easy default when trying to create connection and intimacy. Enjoying sex with a new person is no bad thing, but it can be unhelpful if we’re using it as a way to cover up a need for intimacy which we are unwilling to address.
Why do we rely so easily on sex when we want to feel close to someone new? Do we find it so difficult to connect in other ways, to show our vulnerable selves without assuming sex is what we need to feel close to someone? Are our difficulties in connecting so hidden from us in our shadow that we don’t know how else to find intimacy?
It can be interesting to look into what our real needs are, and question whether we might be covering them up by defaulting to sex as our default way to generate a connection. Perhaps slowing down and feeling more feels good, or sharing play, touch, humour, and wisdom.
Then we have more options open to us: instead of trying to find intimacy through sex, we can create satisfying intimacy first and then use sex as a way to express and deepen that intimacy.