One of my secret pleasures is reading reddit.com/r/relationships, because it’s a darkly fascinating reminder of how our relationships have the power to make or break so much in our lives.
And not infrequently, there are posts by users (usually men, not always) who can’t get over their partners’ sexual pasts (usually women, not always), and who torture themselves with feelings of inadequacy as they imagine their beloveds with someone(s) far sexually superior. And the contrary, the posts asking: how do I stop feeling bad about my sexual past? For having had more partners? For having threesomes? For the one-night stands? For the camming? For the abortion? For losing my virginity so early? Do I need to tell him about what I’ve done? How do I stop feeling bad about my past?
Feeling this way is normal.
What a unique sexual ecosystem we swim in, here in the 21st century: more porn, dating apps, sex toys and sexual possibility than ever before, and yet still, for so many of us, the deeply held experience of inadequacy–and feeling burdened by our sexual pasts.
Of course inside our heads we feel like we are the only ones. But I have yet to meet anyone who has navigated the waters of adolescent sexuality and crossed into adulthood without picking up some sexual shame and trauma along the way. The confusion and struggles with the body; sexual violation; the pain of being rejected and judged; being so alone with it all…
Feeling burdened by our sexual past is a natural response to growing up in a culture that mostly deprives people of the information they need to have healthy and sexual lives, and that holds prescriptive standards about who we should be as sexual people.
I have had the privilege of hearing hundreds of people’s true sexual stories, enough to know that underneath the mask of having it all together, everyone has their own story of sexual struggle. Everyone has their own sexual past.
But we don’t live in a culture in which these things get witnessed, so we hide them away in ourselves, exiling them to the past, consigned to the realm of Things We Don’t Talk About, believing we’ll be fine as long as the past stays behind us.
The real problem isn’t the past; is the way it affects you in the present
We think the issue is the past and the things we did when we were younger. But the real problem isn’t what happened in the past, it’s the way we carry it forward into the present, with behaviors such as:
- people-pleasing because we are afraid of rejection
- minimizing our true desires and asking for what we think seems more reasonable
- playing small because we don’t want to be rejected
- withdrawing and creating distance in relationships because we feel like there’s something to hide
- self-sabotaging because we feel like there’s something wrong with us
- always being who we think we “should” be in relationships instead of who we ACTUALLY are.
This is what happens when we exile parts of ourselves–we become foreign to ourselves and the people who want to love us. And this is not only a problem of our sexuality, it is a problem of the soul.
So how do you stop feeling guilty about your sexual past?
- Be honest with yourself about the way you feel. So often we minimize our own struggles, tell ourselves it wasn’t really that bad, or compare our experiences to others, but actually, that isn’t helpful and only reinforces the inner disconnection. Give yourself permission to be exactly where you are right now, messy emotions and all. (This is the “it might get worse before it gets better” part.)
- Try writing out a story about something from your past, reading it back to yourself, and asking “How would I respond to this if a friend told me this story?”
- Try out lovingkindness meditation.
- Find non-judgmental allies with whom you can share your story and be witnessed without the fear of rejection or judgment.
The work of shifting these attitudes is not easy or instant, but it is worth it. Why? Because when you beat up on yourself as a continual habit, you open the door to other people beating up on you.
And that means when you no longer feel that you need to apologize for who you are sexually, and you show up from a place of genuine self-acceptance, then other people will follow your lead.
And that is a “make it or break it” kind of issue when it comes to our relationships and the way they effect our health, happiness and well being.