Break Out of the Box of Social and Sexual Expectations
Sometimes it's challenging to live as who you truly are because of intense social pressure to reach certain expectations. Those social and even sexual expectations often revolve around ambition, personality, gender identity, gender roles, sexual orientation, accomplishment—the list goes on.
Living life disconnected from your desires can create internal friction. Such conflict can leave you feeling emotionally dissatisfied socially, professionally and intimately.
Lyndsey Murray, M.S., a licensed professional counselor and an American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT)-certified sex therapist based in Texas, said it can be hard for individuals to be their authentic selves when social expectations stigmatize what that is.
"Expectations—whether [they] be around education, relationships or sex—keep us in a place where we believe happiness comes with self-sacrifice, and with that belief comes a lot of shame," Murray explained.
The first labels and expectations
Children are often given labels early on in life. For example, a child who is quieter than others may be deemed "shy," while a more energetic kid may be labeled "rambunctious." As it turns out, those descriptors given early on in life play a big role in self-perception.
"When we are younger, we look to our parents or caregivers to learn about ourselves and others," said Kylie Sligar, Ph.D., a Dallas-based clinical psychologist who specializes in working with people who have experienced trauma. "If the people close to us describe us in a specific way or place a label on us early on, we can internalize this. When we have an internalized belief about ourselves, this can certainly impact the way we exist in the world and relate to others."
Often, people internalize the labels received early on but eventually lose the connection to them. They then update their self-beliefs.
"When these labels are deeply ingrained in us, they can be harder to let go," Sligar explained.
How individuals feel about themselves can significantly impact the way their identity develops and the decisions they make in life. That's why it's vital to ensure how others view you doesn't determine your view of yourself.
"We take cues from our family and trusted others about what we are good at and aren't, what is and is not acceptable, and what the best options are," Sligar said. "This can influence our education paths, who we decide to date, what jobs we take, where we live and other important life decisions.
"This is a normal and natural process, but it does have the potential to cause problems when people feel pressured to adhere to social expectations they don't identify with," she continued.
Sligar outlined consequences of how others' perceptions can cause problems, inciting feelings such as:
- Feeling like a failure
- Lack of motivation
- Feeling as if you've disappointed others
- Questions about your identity or purpose
- A general lack of happiness
Breaking out of the box in the bedroom
It's important to not let social expectations hold you back from experiencing sexual pleasure, either with an intimate partner or yourself.
It may be difficult for some people to explore their own bodies or express to their intimate partner that they want to spice things up in the bedroom. Perhaps it's because they view themselves, or feel they are viewed by others, as not the type of person who does "those sorts of things." This outlook can be limiting and lead to frustration and dissatisfaction.
"When someone experiences shame, they often create strict life rules as a way to avoid working through that," Murray said. "An example would be someone who was taught that masturbation is a sin but they really enjoy masturbating. 'If I just stop masturbating, I won't feel bad anymore' is a common 'life rule' I hear often with clients, but one that typically doesn't work and eventually leads to more shame when the rule is inevitably broken. Doing the work to accept that you like to masturbate and are still a worthy and valid person because you just are is really tough, but necessary to live authentically."
'Odds are they want to hear your desires, and it can feel really good when our partner hears us and puts forth the effort to meet our needs and validate us.'
If it's particularly difficult to be authentic in communicating your needs and sexual desires in your intimate life, sex therapy can help you learn about yourself, overcome barriers and improve your overall well-being, she added. Getting emotionally vulnerable with your partner is a great first step toward intimate vulnerability.
"Odds are they want to hear your desires, and it can feel really good when our partner hears us and puts forth the effort to meet our needs and validate us," Murray explained.
Brad Nederostek, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and AASECT-certified sex therapist who practices in Texas, said when it comes to breaking down emotional walls in the bedroom, it's worth remembering that for change to take place, something drastically different needs to be done.
"We also know that change is oftentimes both difficult and scary," he said. "Allowing oneself to experience these more uncomfortable or unpleasant emotions—rather than avoiding, escaping or withdrawing from them—would allow for great emotional intimacy to develop."
Tips to move forward authentically
To ensure you aren't holding yourself—or others—back from living with authenticity, it's helpful to ask yourself questions, a method Sligar refers to as "checking the source."
"Where did this information come from? Is this an original thought that came from you and your experience? Or did this message come from society, family, teachers, friends, social media, etcetera? Is the source reliable and trustworthy?" she asked. "If the answer originated outside of you and your experiences, or for whatever reason causes dissonance with your experience, put it to the test. Think about what your experience is with that label or person and see how it impacts you. If you take out the external sources of information, what is left? When we tap into our felt sense, our body will give us cues about what feels true for us."
Self-awareness and patience can be great defenses against projecting restrictive and unrealistic expectations on ourselves and others, Murray said.
"In reality, the deep work has to be done within ourselves, not in trying to control what other people do," she added. "And the same goes for ourselves in our own lives. If we feel happy about something, ask if it's because it will come with a lot of societal approval or is it because you actually want it."