Well, the holiday season is in full swing and while all the commercials on TV show perfect holiday parties and the influencer’s feeds show well-curated family portraits, many of us are struggling this holiday season to maintain some semblance of sanity.
My clients know that my first line of defense in any stressful or taxing situation is to practice self-compassion. When we feel overwhelmed, tired, anxious, and fed-up, it’s usually for a reason! We rarely feel things because we want to or are being dramatic. And over and over again I feel like I have been shouting from the rooftops: “The holiday season triggers all of our traumas! Be gentle with yourselves!"
But why is the holiday season so hard? I think understanding they “why” helps us access self-compassion a little bit easier. Here are just a few of the long list of reasons why the holidays can be so challenging.
With all the talk of “togetherness” around this time of year, feelings can get so complicated for those of us who have had experiences of separation and apartness. Whether it is a loss due to death or divorce, losing a job or a house, loss of a dream, or any other experience that causes us to feel grief, it can be disheartening to feel like the only one who isn’t happily connected during the holidays. My mother’s favorite holiday was Christmas, and even 10 years after her death, I still feel the sadness and weight of not having her around. Whether any of these losses are fresh or familiar, it’s ok if you are feeling the extra dose of sadness, anxiety, or anger during the holidays.
SO MUCH PRESSURE! The holidays are probably one of the most stressful times of year simply because of all the pressure and expectations put on everyone. Us sex therapists help people understand that when pressure is present, pleasure does not coexist well. And this can be true for most, if not all, areas of life! I’m imagining at one point or another many of you have heard some version of these following statements/questions. If not verbally from someone else, then in your own head!
We are now finding out through years of research that trauma is not just a point on someone’s life timeline that has a huge impact and then nothing is ever the same. Some trauma is generational, some is relational, and some evolves over time. And our bodies react very similarly to all of the forms of trauma. Most of us have experienced some trauma in our lives.
And if that is true, then most of the people you hang out with during the holiday have experienced trauma. Whether it’s family, friends, or co-workers, you can bet that others are having past traumatic experiences stirred up for them. So then we are expected to get together for multiple social events with all of these people and have our own trauma stirred up too. If you ever wondered why you can’t get through a holiday without the whole family breaking into a fight or everyone being passive-aggressive with each other all day, it’s most likely in part due to the fact that everyone is having their trauma triggered. Ultimately, without the awareness of how we are impacted by these events, it is hard to manage the big feelings around them. And the same is true for most of the other people in the room.
So, when you feel over-tired, overwhelmed, over-stimulated, and over-worked this holiday season, you are not being dramatic. You have full permission to be gentle with yourself and tap into loads of self-compassion to get you through to a less stressful moment in your life.
Anger often has a bad reputation in the spectrum of emotions we experience as humans. First of all, it usually makes people very uncomfortable. Whether you are the one experiencing the anger or on the receiving end, it’s usually not a pleasant experience! But anger is actually an extremely useful emotion to us and is often very misunderstood. Let’s take a look into what makes anger an essential part of our emotional intelligence!
First, anger in itself is not a bad emotion, although it usually gets labeled that way. We must differentiate between the emotion itself and the action attached to the emotion. That is to say that what we DO with anger may not always be the best decision, but the actual emotion separated from its action is not problematic in itself.
For example, if I get angry with someone and I decide to punch them in the stomach, I may have a very good reason for my anger, but how I expressed it (the action) was ill-advised. There are plenty healthy ways to express and tend to anger that don’t involve problematic and painful (physically or emotionally) reactions. We can release anger through physical, emotional, mental and spiritual means that don’t involve problematic behavior. Some ideas include doing some intense exercise, using mindfulness and meditation, talking it out with someone before addressing the issue directly, taking a pause and walking away for a minute, validating your own anger and giving yourself permission to feel it. These are just a few options but it is important to remember that the emotion of anger and the expression of anger are two very different things.
Secondly, we frequently refer to anger as a secondary emotion. Primary emotions are what we feel immediately after something happens. Secondary emotions are the feelings that we have about the primary emotion. Confusing? For sure, so let’s break it down a little further.
If someone comes up to me and calls me a name or insults me, I could very well feel hurt, confused, and embarrassed. Those are the primary emotions. But those feelings tend to be leave us in a very vulnerable state, so that’s when I start to feel the secondary emotion. I’m now angry that I feel hurt, confused, embarrassed and vulnerable. Secondary emotions are generally the ones that we make visible to others when the primary emotions are too difficult to express.
For this reason, anger is an emotion that gives us a wealth of information about our emotional well-being!! If we think of anger as the tip of the iceberg, we can understand that below the surface, there is so much more going on. Anger is really good at alerting us when an emotional need is not being met and helps us figure out how to address those needs. Let’s say I’m angry with my partner for leaving dirty socks on the floor. There is a saying in my house that goes, “It’s never about the socks!" I start to feel angry and that alerts me that there are some primary emotions happening. It may be showing me that I am feeling under-valued because I think my partner is not valuing my time by expecting me to pick up after them. It may lead me to understanding that I am feeling tired and resentful of the amount of work I do to keep our house clean. Whatever it tells me, I now have much more information to be able to address it with my partner. I can now say to them “I notice I am needing more help around the house lately because I am getting burnt out. I know you may not mean it this way, but when you leave dirty clothes on the floor, it feels like you don’t value my time.” That can be more impactful and helpful than a shouting match or blame-fest.
In the end, anger is part of our emotional repertoire for a reason. It’s ok to allow yourself to be curious about your anger and let it lead you to the root of the issue. Beating yourself up for feeling angry will only cause more frustration. Self-compassion and curiosity will help you understand your emotional needs more acutely.
Deciding it’s time to start trying to have a baby can be one of the most exciting decisions in life! For many couples, the inner dialogue looks like this:
“OMG it’s here! I can’t wait for all the cute clothes and baby smiles and snuggles. My partner is going to be such a good parent. My family will be so excited for us. Let’s google some names….
Hmmm…wait a minute…
What happens if we can’t get pregnant right away? Where’s that app my friend told me about that tracks ovulation? Cervical mucus, what?! What if I/my partner has a complicated pregnancy? OMG we have a family history of ______. Google says I have to keep track of x, y, and z if I want ANY chance at all of making this happen. Sex every day?! Is that possible? What is the soonest possible date a pregnancy test is accurate? How accurate are pregnancy tests? Is my insurance good enough for all of this? I might as well just go ahead and reach out to an infertility specialist now.”
The excitement can quickly turn to fear. As many parents know, signing up for parenthood is essentially trying to balance the joy and excitement of having a child while not getting caught up in the very scary rabbit holes the mind quickly travels to the moment something (even a minor thing) doesn’t go as planned.
That fear not only affects our mental and emotional health, but also can make things more difficult in the bedroom. Don’t get me wrong, for many people, trying to conceive increases gratification in their sex lives. But for many others, the stress of worry and hope can get in the way of satisfying intimacy. This is because there is a lot of pressure when it comes to conception! Not only the pressure of the desire for a child, but the pressure of unwelcome advice, unrealistic cultural and societal expectations about fertility journeys, and overconsumption of information that we can so easily access in today’s world.
I say it all the time…when pressure is present, pleasure can rarely coexist. So the idea is to take pressure off of the whole process. Let’s work on preserving the satisfying parts of intimacy, paying attention to what feels new about sex while trying to conceive, and relieve the negative messages that put pressure on intimacy during this time of exciting change. Here are a few things to consider if sex is becoming more of a chore than a sensual experience:
1. Take a break…not just from sex, but from all the tracking and tests.
When you google “how to get pregnant” you will find a very long list of tasks, things to track, and things you aren’t allowed to do anymore. And I mean a LONG list. It gets overwhelming very quickly. And the pressure to have sex every day can be overwhelming too! So give yourself and your partner(s) permission to take a break from it all. Even better…give yourself permission to NOT take any ovulation tests or track all your symptoms right from the start. If for some reason you do start to worry about your fertility, consult your doctor and take up the practices they recommend. But you don’t need to do it all right away.
2. Get off the schedule, if that works for you
For some, scheduling sex works really well! If that is you, great! Keep doing what you are doing. For others, scheduling sex puts undue pressure on one or both parties and eventually can lead to exhaustion (mental and physical) and or resentment. Give yourself room to have sex when it comes naturally to you.
3. Have sex when you are not ovulating or outside when the doctor instructs you to
Many people get caught up in only having sex when one partner is ovulating. I have seen this scenario often lead to the feeling that sex is a chore. Many times one partner starts to feel like they are being used for sex and that the other partner doesn’t value intimacy with them outside of the goal of having a child. Make it a point to include sexuality and intimacy on days where conceiving is less likely.
4. Connect intimately in other ways
Don’t forget to date! Remember to connect intimately through flirting, dating, romance, dancing, cuddling, making out, stimulating conversation, etc. Be intentional about making room for romance in your relationship now so that when the baby comes, you will not completely lose yourselves in the role of parenthood. You will still need to connect with your partner(s). Now is the time for good practice!
5. Tune out the noise
One common experience on the fertility journey and for new parents is the headache of unsolicited advice and unhelpful comments.
“I got pregnant on my first try! It was so easy!”
“You shouldn’t have a glass of wine if you are trying to get pregnant”
“Right before you have sex, eat a lemon, face east during intercourse and then do a headstand for at least 10 minutes afterward.”
I joke, but seriously, the advice and comments will only get more intense during pregnancy and when a child arrives. So be very intentional about who you share information with. Also, take care of yourself when you come in contact with this advice. Turn off the tv, put Dr. Google away, leave a conversation that makes you uncomfortable.
6. Have sex and/or orgasms without penetration once in a while
For many relationships, sex without penetration is what is most satisfying. Many women can only orgasm through clitoral stimulation (and this is completely normal!). So penetrative sex isn’t nearly as gratifying. There are a multitude of activities that fall under the category of sex that do not include intercourse at all. And a lot of people really enjoy those activities! If you don’t want to take a break from sex, then at least take a break from penetrative sex. Enjoy using a vibrator, blow jobs, touching, etc. Again, it also reminds your partner(s) that you value intimacy with them, not just for having a baby.
7. Spend time by yourself
I really cannot stress enough the value of good self-care. You and your partner(s) will need a break from each other. It doesn’t mean you don’t love them. It just means you are human. I’ll say it again, take a break! Yes, even from each other. By the way, self-pleasure is a great way to spend that time!
8. Limit your sources of information
There are an endless amount of books, websites, and people where you can get information from on your fertility journey. So much in fact, that it is overstimulating and overwhelming. Those words don’t usually coincide well with “sexy”. I recommend limiting yourself to 5 sources of information. Three of those being your doctor (please find a doctor that listens to you and takes you seriously!), your partner(s) and yourself. The other two can be from a book or website of your choice. And guess what?! It by no means has to be the same book or website your parents or friends used! Another option may be a close and trusted family member or friend.
Yes, this journey can be stressful. But it doesn’t have to be all-consuming. There is room for joy, excitement, pleasure and intimacy. Sometimes we just have to be intentional about making room for those things. If you ever feel like it is all too much, you are not alone! It is totally ok to be worried. Working with a good sex therapist may be able to help you relieve the pressure and work toward enjoying the process.
By Melissa Coats, LPC
Talking with partners about fantasies tends to be an uncomfortable subject for many people. Even HAVING fantasies can feel uncomfortable. Many times, this is because of the great number of misconceptions about fantasies floating around out there.
Fantasies live in our minds. They usually provide some sort of pleasure, and since they live in our minds, they are usually perfect! Nothing goes wrong in a fantasy, there is no awkwardness, no one's feelings get hurt, etc. But just because we have a fantasy, does not always mean we want it in real life. Sometimes fantasies are attractive because they exist in that perfect realm!
We had to make a TON of adjustments in 2020. The totality of every day life changed and as a collective, we experienced the mental and emotional tax of a global pandemic. As we went through the year, we continually had to adjust to the fact that it wasn’t going to be over in a month.
Now we are adjusting again. And while many are excited to get back to “normal”, there are many that are experiencing the anxiety and stress that come with even more adjustments. I have heard so many people lately expressing how overwhelmed they feel with the mounting expectations from work, social groups, family, and media now that our world is changing again with the vaccine.
“What if my partner won’t go to therapy with me?”
It’s a question couples and relationship therapists get quite often. There are problems in the relationship,, and one partner is more comfortable with the idea of therapy than the other. You can see things getting worse and get increasingly frustrated and confused when your partner says no to therapy.
There are many reasons why someone may be uncomfortable going to therapy, even if they have been to therapy before. The therapeutic process often can elicit a flurry of uncomfortable emotions, confrontation of our deepest fears and flaws, and a flood of painful memories. When I put it like that, sometimes I wonder why anyone would sign up for therapy?! Even those of us who have had plenty of counseling can feel intimidated by starting the process again. We humans are very good at staying in what is familiar, even if it is uncomfortable.
By Melissa Coats
Generations of women have been assured by the church that if they follow the purity rules and saved their sexualities for their husbands, they would be rewarded with a fulfilling marriage and a satisfying sex life. Promise rings leading to promises of the picture perfect marriage! Yet an overwhelming number of these women get to their wedding night full of hope, only to be disappointed, confused, stressed and in pain.
If this describes your experience, let me be perfectly clear…
You. Are. Not. Alone.
There. Is. Nothing. Wrong. With. You.
By Melissa Coats - True Connection Tuesday
I’ve been noticing a theme in my posts recently on TCT…they've been about the relationship with oneself! I promise I will discuss other topics. But this being the holiday season, in a pandemic, I feel it is critical to tend to our own needs as we continue to navigate this challenging year.
So…here it goes! My question for you is, what is your responsibility to yourself? Many of us have been wired to constantly think of others first. We put family, partners, friends, traditions, plans we agreed to but didn’t want to, children, work, and just about everything else under the sun before us. That is a lot of energy that is spent outward! What would happen if we turned some of that energy inward?
By Melissa Coats - True Connection Tuesday
Allow me to set a scene for you. I’m standing looking at my partner, who has known me for YEARS, and I have a distinct look of awe on my face as we go for the third round in an argument that has moved from one floor of the house and back again twice. “He doesn’t care or understand at all!” is the thought. The hurt and disbelief are so powerful that I can literally not understand how this person who has known me forever doesn’t comprehend my perspective and why I am upset.
I think it is fair to say that you are not alone. Recently, as we enter the holiday season, still trying to manage challenges from the pandemic, I have heard more and more couples struggling with feeling misunderstood by their partner. First of all, in a “normal” year, the holidays stir up plenty of disagreements on family, boundaries, how to spend your time, money, stress…you name it. This year, we have feelings about politics and pandemics to contend with, among so many other things.
By Melissa Coats
True Connection Tuesday
One of the most important aspects of a healthy and fulfilling relationship is boundaries. And boundaries are challenging at any time of the year, but they are incredibly challenging during the holiday season. Many times, the “shoulds” take over, and we start to feel guilty for saying no to our loving families who, of course, only have the best of intentions in mind. Well, sometimes.
Boundaries help protect our mental and emotional health. Many people were raised to put other’s needs before their own. However, when you continually move your needs to the back burner, you suffer, and you don’t get to connect with others in a fulfilling and energy-boosting way. Instead, it can feel like a chore. The holidays are no exception!