NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, April 25, 2022

What is Emotional Hijacking?

The psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman introduced the concept of emotional hijacking in the mid-1990s in his book, Working With Emotional Intelligence (see my article: Reacting to the Present Based on Your Traumatic Past).

What is Emotional Hijacking?

As a psychotherapist in New York City who specializes in helping clients to overcome trauma, I see many clients who experience emotional hijacking based on unresolved trauma from the past (see my article: Understanding Why You're Affected By Unresolved Trauma From a Long Time Ago).

What is Emotional Hijacking?
So, let's start by defining this term.

An emotional hijack occurs when the part of the brain called the amygdala, which is an emotional processor, bypasses (or hijacks) your normal reasoning process.  

Although normally your decision making occurs in other parts of the brain, the amygdala takes over during certain circumstances (see my article: Trauma, the Triune Brain and Somatic Experiencing).

This can be a very good thing: If you're being chased by a tiger, you probably wouldn't survive if you had to rely on the logical part of your brain to reason out what you should do.  That would take too long when seconds could mean the difference between life and death.

So, when the amygdala takes over, you react without having to use the logical part of the brain and you run before you even realize that you're doing it.

But there are times when the amygdala reacts when you want the logical part of your brain to help you to pause and process the situation first.

Situations Where People Are Emotionally Hijacked
Here are some examples of people getting emotionally hijacked.  See if you can relate to any of these scenarios, which are based on composites of many different cases with all identifying information removed:
  • Feeling Ignored and Invisible: Joe was trying to tell his wife, Betty, about his stressful day with a difficult colleague.  Normally, Betty is attentive and empathetic, but she was distracted by an email that popped up on her computer at home from her boss that needed an immediate response.  As a result, she was only half listening to Joe, which upset him. Without even thinking about it, Joe lashed out at Betty and said, "You never pay attention to me!" Joe was unaware that emotionally he was brought back to all the times when he was a small child and he tried to get his mother's attention, but she was too distracted by Joe's father, who was drunk.  At the point when Joe got emotionally hijacked in the present, he didn't realize he was reacting to unresolved trauma from the past.  But when he spoke to his therapist about it later on in the week, she explained the concept of emotional hijacking to him, and she helped him to understand the connection between the present situation with his wife and his unresolved trauma from the past.  He realized his reaction to his wife was out of proportion to the current situation, and he apologized to his wife. He also told his therapist he wanted to work on his unresolved trauma so he wouldn't continue to get emotionally hijacked (see my article: Growing Up Feeling Invisible and Emotionally Invalidated).
  • Feeling Left Out and Unlovable: When Sue asked her close friend, Ann, to go to the movies, she felt hurt to hear that Ann already had other plans with her other friend, Tania.  Not only did Sue feel hurt, she also felt left out and unlovable.  As she walked home, she silently berated herself for even asking Ann to go to the movies. She said to herself, "Why did I even ask her? She obviously doesn't care about me or she would've included me in her plans with Tania.  What an idiot I am to believe she's a good friend of mine!"  During her next therapy session, Sue told her therapist about what happened.  Her therapist had heard many stories prior to this of Sue's good friendship with Ann, so she knew that Sue was reacting to the present based on her past experience as a child with an emotionally unavailable mother.  As her therapist reminded Sue about her long, close friendship with Ann and how loving and supportive Ann had been in the past, Sue realized that her thinking was distorted, and this was another situation where she was emotionally hijacked (see my article: Overcoming the Emotional Pain of Feeling Unlovable).
  • Feeling Powerless:  When Bill tried to return a defective laptop he bought the day before, he was turned away at the store by a brusque sales associate who told him that he couldn't, under any circumstances, replace it or give Bill his money back.  The original sales associate, who sold the laptop to Bill had told Bill that he had 90 days to return the laptop for any reason for either a replacement, a refund or store credit.  Bill even had a receipt that confirmed the store's policy.  But the current sales associate was rude and abrupt, and Bill felt powerless.  He didn't know what to say or do, so he left the store feeling confused.  Later that day when Bill spoke to his wife about the incident, she recognized Bill's familiar pattern of getting emotionally hijacked in similar situations.  She helped him to calm down so he could think more clearly about it.  When he was calmer, based on his work in therapy, Bill realized the sales associate's manner was similar to how his father used to berate him when Bill was a child.  He also realized he was reacting to the current situation as if he was living in the past.  The next day, Bill went back to the store and asked to speak with the sales manager, who was very apologetic for how Bill had been treated the day before and he refunded Bill his money (see my article: How Unresolved Trauma Affects How You Feel About Yourself).
The examples above represent only a few of the many situations where people get emotionally hijacked.  You can probably think of many others.

Emotional hijacking occurs when the emotional processor in the brain, the amygdala, reacts and bypasses the logical part of the brain so that you have an immediate response that is usually out of proportion to the current situation.

More times than not, your brain is reacting to memories from the past which are related to unresolved trauma.

People often realize, in hindsight, that they overreacted, but they might not realize why, especially if they're not in therapy.  

By then, they might feel ashamed for their overreaction. 

Over time, there is also the possibility of damaging important relationships if these overreactions keep happening.

My Next Articles
In my next blog article, I'll provide some tips on how to deal with emotional hijacking: Self Help Tips on Emotional Hijacking.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you recognize that you tend to get emotionally hijacked often under certain circumstances, you could benefit from getting help from a trauma therapist (see my article: What is a Trauma Therapist?).

Overcoming unresolved trauma with the help of a licensed mental health professional who has expertise in this area can free you from getting emotionally hijacked.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

As a trauma therapist, I have helped many clients to overcome psychological trauma.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Sexual Wellness: Understanding the Unconscious Meaning of Your Fantasies

In prior articles, I wrote about sexual fantasies as they relate to relationships.  See my articles: 

Understanding the Unconscious Meaning of Your Sexual Fantasies

In this article, I'm focusing on defining sexual fantasies based on the work of Dr. Michael Bader.

What Are Sexual Fantasies?
According to Michael Bader, Ph.D., author of the book, Arousal - The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies, most people think of sexual fantasies as erotic daydreams where there are images, scenes and possibly a plot that gets them sexually excited.  

This often leads some people, who don't have images or scenarios in their head, to say that they don't have sexual fantasies.

But Dr. Bader says that this is a narrow definition of sexual fantasies.

He says sexual fantasies are whatever gets you turned on, which could include things like the type of:
  • Personalities you're drawn to
  • Personal attributes in others that get you turned on
  • Bodies that get you sexually aroused
  • Porn you're most aroused by or erotic books you read (if you watch porn or read erotica)
And so on.

As you can see if you compare the definitions above, Dr. Bader's definition is more inclusive.  

He says when sexual fantasies are defined in this more expansive way, most people would say they do have sexual fantasies (see my articles: What is Your Erotic Blueprint - Part 1 and Part 2).

Different people also have different types of sexual fantasies based on many factors, including cultural or ethnic background, religion, childhood upbringing, and other factors that are unique to each individual.  

Even if two people have similar sexual fantasies, each person is bound to have a particular twist to their fantasy.

What Are Some of the Problems People Have With Their Sexual Fantasies?
According to Dr. Bader, in order for people to allow themselves to get sexually excited by their fantasies, they need to feel safe enough to do it.  If they don't feel safe, their sexual excitement can be inhibited.

For instance, if a man worried that his girlfriend would feel demeaned by his sexual fantasy (even if his fantasy remained imaginary and he didn't want to engage in it in real life) she might be put off or judgmental, and he would feel too guilty to allow himself to have the fantasy. 

Even if his girlfriend didn't object to his fantasy, but he felt like a "bad person" for having the fantasy, this could create an inhibition.

In addition, many people don't understand their fantasies because they're in conflict with their everyday values.  

For instance, a woman who has feminist values might have fantasies of being sexually dominated by a man.  This could occur whether she's heterosexual, bisexual, a lesbian, transgender, nonbinary or considers herself to be sexually fluid.  She might feel guilty and ashamed of this fantasy and try to suppress it because she doesn't understand it.

The Unconscious Logic of Sexual Fantasies
Dr. Bader posits that sexual fantasies are the key to unlocking sexual inhibitions--whether the inhibitions involve guilt, shame or some inhibitory factor.

He says that if fantasies are the key that unlock the inhibition, knowing the inhibition helps to infer the underlying issues that are inhibiting sexual pleasure.

He gives an example of someone who is sexually attracted to unavailable authority figures, like teachers, bosses at work, therapists or other people in authority.  

In this case, based on the person's personal history, one possible underlying meaning is that this person might feel inadequate and fantasies about authority figures might be an unconscious solution to this problem.

Another example would be an executive, who is in charge at a large corporation and has the  responsibility for making major decisions.  He might have fantasies of being sexually dominated where he is in a submissive role, which would be a significant change from his daily experiences at work. 

This submissive role would compensate for feeling overwhelmed by always being in charge at work (see my articles: What is Sexual Power Play in Relationships? and What You Can Learn From the Kink Community About Consent).

A heterosexual woman, who was neglected as a child and felt invisible and unlovable in her family, might have sexual fantasies of being part of a threesome where two men are focused exclusively on her sexual pleasure.  

Within this fantasy, she is the center of attention so she feels attractive and desirable.  This is the opposite of how she felt when she was growing up and how she probably feels as an adult if she has not worked on this problem in therapy.

How to Unlock the Unconscious Meaning of Your Sexual Fantasies
Some sexual fantasies are easier than others in terms of unlocking their meaning so the meaning might be obvious to these people.

For other people, who might feel too guilty or ashamed to reflect on their fantasies (or where the fantasies are complex), understanding the unconscious meaning could be more elusive.  

A psychotherapist, who knows how to help clients to unlock the unconscious meaning, can help a client to understand why they have particular fantasies so they no longer feel guilty or ashamed of them.  

What Are the Benefits of Understanding Your Sexual Fantasies?
If you feel free to indulge in fantasies and you're not bothered by them, you might not care whether you understand them or not. You can just enjoy them.

Some people who feel free to enjoy their fantasies might even say that deconstructing their fantasies might get in the way of enjoying them, which is understandable.

But you're feeling guilty and ashamed of your fantasies, understanding their meaning could be help you to:
  • Free up sexual energy so your fantasies are more pleasurable to you and your partner.
  • Use your fantasies to enhance your sexual pleasure in real life--assuming they're not harmful to you or anyone else.
  • Compensate for early childhood wounds where you felt unlovable or powerless.
  • Help you to feel more desirable and confident in yourself.
Sexual fantasies can have unconscious meaning that help to free up sexual energy, compensate for earlier unmet needs and provide a balance for the rest of your life (as mentioned above with the executive who is normally in charge at work and wants to be submissive sexually).

Feeling guilty or ashamed of a sexual fantasy inhibits your sexual pleasure.

Having a sexual fantasy is very different from enacting the fantasy in real life, which you might never want to do.  

At the same time, as long as it's not harmful to you or others, using your sexual fantasies for solo pleasure or partnered sex can enhance your sex life.

Getting Help in Therapy
If guilt and shame are inhibiting your ability to enjoy sex, you could benefit from working with a licensed mental health professional who has experience in helping clients to work through these issues.

Rather than struggling on your own, as an individual or a couple, seek help so you can overcome your inhibitions and have a more enjoyable sex life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 or email me.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

What is Your Erotic Blueprint? Part 2

In Part 1 of this topic, I gave a basic description of the erotic blueprint based on Dr. Esther Perel's book, Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence.  In this second article about the erotic blueprint, I'm providing a clinical vignette to help illustrate the dynamics involved  in a particular case and how therapy can help (see my article: The Paradox of Love and Sexual Desire in a Committed Relationship).

Overcoming Sexual Problems in Therapy Related to Your Erotic Blueprint

To recap briefly from the prior article: What gives you sexual pleasure and how you learned to love is derived from the impact of your relationship with your caregivers, including:
  • How did you learn to experience pleasure (or not)?
  • Did you learn to trust others?
  • Did you parents monitor your emotional needs or were you expected to monitor theirs?
  • Were you able to turn to your parents for protection or did you have to flee from them to protect yourself?
  • Were you rejected?
  • Were you humiliated?
  • Were you abandoned?
  • Were you held, rocked and soothed by your parents?
  • Did you learn not to expect too much from your parents?
  • Did you learn to hide when you were upset?
  • Did you learn it's okay to thrive when others might be hurt by your thriving?
  • How did you learn to feel about your body?
  • How did you learn to feel about your sexuality?
  • How did you learn to feel about your gender?
  • What did you learn about opening up (or shutting down) emotionally?
  • What did you learn about being daring or being afraid?
All of these experiences shape your beliefs about yourself and others.  They also affect what you expect from others, including what you expect in romantic relationships.  

Clinical Vignette: 
The following vignette is a composite of many different cases with all identifying information eliminated:

Tom, who was in his early 40s, sought help in therapy because he had a long history of erectile dysfunction.  

As part of the history taking to determine the problem, his therapist asked him if he had problems with erectile dysfunction when he masturbated.  Tom responded that he never had problems while masturbating.  He said his problems occurred in all his sexual relationships with romantic partners.

At that point in time, Tom was in a six month relationship with his girlfriend, Marie, and his erectile dysfunction was an ongoing problem.  Although he knew that Marie was patient and compassionate, Tom wanted to resolve the problem before it led to the demise of this relationship.  

Prior to therapy, his medical doctor had already ruled out any physical problems, so his doctor suggested that Tom seek help in therapy for what appeared to be an  underlying psychological problem.

When Tom and his therapist discussed his early childhood history, Tom said he had a very close relationship with his mother, but his relationship with his father was distant because his father was away on business much of the time.  Even when his father was home, he was emotionally distant.  

As an only child, Tom was often home alone with his mother, who was very depressed.  He explained that he considered her to be a good mother.  But he was very aware, even as a young child, that his mother was unhappy, and he spent a lot of time trying to find ways to make her happy (see my article: Children's Roles in Dysfunctional Families).

As a child, he worked hard to get good grades in school to please his mother.  He also made cards and gifts for her during arts and crafts in elementary school to cheer her up.  But although his good grades and thoughtful gifts pleased her momentarily, his mother would often spend whole days in bed because she was too depressed to get up.  

Whenever his mother stayed in bed, Tom would try to entertain her with jokes and funny characters to cheer her up.  In response, she would compliment him for being a "good boy." But he sensed he had little impact when he tried to change her mood, and this made him sad and frustrated (see my article: Shame and Enmeshed Families).

As he got older and he developed friendships in the neighborhood, Tom felt torn whenever his friends came to get him to play baseball or go to the movies.  On the one hand, he wanted to have fun with his friends but, on the other hand, he felt his mother needed him.  

Although his mother encouraged him to go out, Tom sensed that her encouragement was only halfhearted and she really wanted him to stay with her because she was lonely.  

When Tom turned 40, his mother died suddenly from a heart attack.  Shortly after that, he realized he had foregone a lot of pleasure in his life in order to focus on his mother.  

In hindsight, he also realized that, over time, his mother's disapproval of all his girlfriends throughout his 20s and 30s contributed to the end of those relationships because he felt compelled to please his mother (see my article:  Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families and People Pleasing).

He told his therapist that he began seeing Marie shortly after his mother died, but he couldn't help feeling that his mother probably would've disapproved of Marie as well.

His mother always wanted a traditional, quiet woman for Tom, but Marie was anything but traditional and quiet.  She was unconventional and outspoken, and she was assertive in promoting her business.

Although he loved Marie, he felt conflicted to be with someone he knew his mother wouldn't have approved of for him.  His divided loyalty between his girlfriend and his deceased mother made being present during sex difficult, which contributed to his erectile dysfunction.  

Intellectually, he had enough insight to know he needed to live his life without worrying about being loyal to his deceased mother, but on an emotional level, he felt torn--similar to how he felt as a child when he was in conflict about staying with his mother and going out with his friends.

His therapist suggested that they do Parts Work therapy so he could give voice to each of the parts of himself that were in conflict (see my article: Parts Work Therapy Helps to Empower You).

When his adult self imagined looking at his younger self (the same child self who wanted to please his mother), he felt a deep sense of sadness come over him.
For the first time in his life, Tom realized on an emotional level just how impossible it had been for him to be a child trying to please his mother.

As part of his healing process, Tom experienced grief and self compassion for the first time for the child he had been.  And, also for the first time, he felt anger and resentment towards his father, who was so emotionally absent even when he was at home.  

Looking back on that time, Tom realized on a deeper level than ever that his father was self absorbed to the point where he wasn't emotionally supportive of his wife or of Tom.  When his father was at home, he mostly spent time by himself in the den either reading or watching TV, and he seemed oblivious to his wife's and his son's emotional state (see my article: What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?).

After doing Parts Work to distinguish the different conflicting parts of himself involved in his childhood attempts to emotionally rescue his mother, his therapist recommended EMDR therapy to work through his history of unresolved childhood trauma (see my article: EMDR Therapy Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

Over time, Tom was able to see the parallels between how he sacrificed himself as child with his mother and the self sacrificing he was doing as an adult by not allowing himself to experience pleasure with Marie or any of his prior girlfriends (see my article: What is the Connection Between Childhood Emotional Neglect and Problems Later on in Adult Relationships?).

Even though none of his girlfriends were depressed or needed to be emotionally rescued, Tom unconsciously responded to them in the same way as he did with his mother by not paying attention to his own needs.  He realized he was so focused on their pleasure that he didn't feel entitled to experience his own, which also contributed to his problem with erectile dysfunction.

This realization was like a revelation to Tom.  In addition, the Parts Work helped him to distinguish the different aspects of himself that felt conflicted so he felt less emotionally enmeshed with the memory of his mother.  

At that point in his healing process, he needed to learn to focus on his own sexual pleasure at the same time that he focused on Marie's pleasure (see my article: Sexual Wellness: Savoring Pleasure).

Since Tom had no problems with erectile dysfunction when he masturbated, his therapist suggested that he incorporate masturbation when he and Marie were having sex.

At first, Tom worried that he was being selfish and uncaring by doing this, but Marie encouraged him. 

Gradually, Tom became comfortable with feeling he was entitled to experience his own pleasure at the same time that he was being attentive to Marie's sexual needs.  

As he continued to get comfortable experiencing his own sexual pleasure with Marie, he no longer had problems with erectile dysfunction.

Your erotic blueprint includes your early personal history in terms of how you relate sexually as well as what gives you pleasure.

The vignette above is one example of many as to how patterns of relating from early childhood often continue into adult relationships.

When there are unresolved traumatic issues, as there were for Tom, a trauma therapist can help you to work through these issues (see my article: What is a Trauma Therapist?).

New ways of relating sexually also need to be found to break old patterns that are creating sexual problems, as in Tom's case.

Getting Help in Therapy
Shame often keeps people from seeking help in therapy, especially when it involves sex.  

Often people feel they're the only ones who are experiencing their problem.  They don't realize that many other people experience the same problem.  

If you have been unable to resolve your problems, you could benefit from working with an experienced mental health professional.

Rather than suffering on your own, seek help from a skilled psychotherapist so you can lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

What is Your Erotic Blueprint? Part 1

In her book, Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, relationship expert and sex therapist, Dr. Esther Perel discusses erotic blueprints, which is the focus of this article (see my articles: What Does Sex Positive Mean? and The Paradox of Love and Desire in a Committed Relationship).

Erotic Blueprints

What is an Erotic Blueprint?
Chapter 7 of Dr. Perel's book is called "Erotic Blueprints - Tell Me How You Were Loved, and I'll Tell You How You Make Love" (see my article: Sexual Pleasure and the Erotic Self).

According to Dr. Perel, the psychology of your sexual desire is based on your childhood relationships with your caregivers.  

Often, what gives you sexual pleasure and how you learned to love is derived from the impact of your relationship with your caregivers, including:
  • How did you learn to experience pleasure (or not)?
  • Did you learn to trust others?
  • Did you parents monitor your emotional needs or were you expected to monitor theirs?
  • Were you able to turn to your parents for protection or did you have to flee from them to protect yourself?
  • Were you rejected?
  • Were you humiliated?
  • Were you abandoned?
  • Were you held, rocked and soothed by your parents?
  • Did you learn not to expect too much from your parents?
  • Did you learn to hide when you were upset?
  • Did you learn it's okay to thrive when others might be hurt by your thriving?
  • How did you learn to feel about your body?
  • How did you learn to feel about your sexuality?
  • How did you learn to feel about your gender?
  • What did you learn about opening up (or shutting down) emotionally?
  • What did you learn about being daring or being afraid?
All of these experiences shape your beliefs about yourself and others.  They also affect what you expect from others, including what you expect in romantic relationships.  

You might already be aware of some of the experiences that shaped you.  For instance, if you're aware that your parents discouraged physical touch and didn't like to give hugs, you might know this is what makes it difficult for you to be physically affectionate with your partner. 

Another example is that if your father abandoned your family when you were young, you might see the connection to the problems you have getting into romantic relationships or, if you do get into one, you might have problems trusting your partner.

But what about all the childhood experiences you might not be connecting to the relationship difficulties you're having now?  These connections are often made in therapy with a therapist who is knowledgeable about erotic blueprints.

To illustrate how early experiences affect adult sexual relationships, Dr. Perel gives many clinical examples from her 20+ years of experience of working with couples in couples therapy.  

In one example, a client named Dylan, who is in his 20s, has a lot of difficulty with feeling emotionally secure with people--with or without sexual excitement (see my article: Are You Afraid to Show Your Emotional Vulnerability in Your Relationship?).

Dylan's childhood history includes the death of his mother, who was the "emotional lynchpin of the family," when he was 12.  During the mother's funeral, Dylan's father felt so uncomfortable with Dylan's tears that he warned Dylan not to fall apart emotionally.  

To stay close to his father, Dylan learned at an early age to suppress his emotions because emotions were a sign of weakness to his father (see my article: Common Myths About Psychotherapy: Going to Therapy Means You're "Weak").

As an adult, whenever Dylan has feelings for anyone, he is filled with self loathing and tries to control his emotional vulnerability.  

To deal with these uncomfortable feelings, Dylan goes to clubs and picks up men for anonymous sex where he can have emotionless sex.

During these emotionless encounters, he feels protected from repeating the humiliation he felt as a child when his father shamed him for having emotions.  At the same time, Dylan also experiences the thrill of being desired by many people.

According to Dr. Perel, these early experiences also affect what becomes sexually exciting to you as an adult.  More about this in my next article: What is Your Erotic Blueprint? Part 2.

Getting Help in Therapy
Sexual problems are often related to unresolved traumatic childhood experiences.

A skilled psychotherapist who is knowledgeable about trauma and erotic blueprints can help you to understand and overcome these problems (see my articles: What is a Trauma Therapist? and What is Sex Therapy?).

Rather than struggling on your own, seek help in therapy.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT Somatic Experiencing therapist and Sex Therapy.

I work with individuals and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Sexual Wellness: Is a Negative Body Image Ruining Your Sex Life?

A poor body image, which causes you to feel anxious and insecure in bed, can ruin your sex life.  This is a common problem which people often find hard to overcome on their own.  

Specifically, many women worry about their weight, shape or specific parts of their body being too big or too small (e.g., stomach too big, breasts too small, vulva the wrong shape, etc).  Many men also worry whether their penis is too small or their stomach isn't flat enough, and so on, but it usually doesn't interfere with men's sexual arousal, so this article will focus on women (see my article: Women's Sexuality: Tips of Sexual Self Discovery).

Is Your Body Image Ruining Your Sex Life?

How Does a Poor Body Image Interfere With Sex?
Women who feel ashamed of their body often don't initiate sex.  Even if they go along with a partner who initiates sex, they don't get aroused or enjoy sex.  

They're often preoccupied with how they feel about their body or how they imagine their partner feels about their body, which can lead to their becoming more of an observer of their sexual activities than a participant. This form of observing during sex is called spectatoring, a term that was coined by the famous sex researchers Masters and Johnson.

Many women have also been conditioned to worry about whether their vulva or vagina smells.  There are so many "feminine hygiene" products on the market that prey on this insecurity.  In reality, these products sometimes cause physical problems that women didn't have before.

If a woman is worried that she smells, she might be reluctant to allow her partner to perform oral sex or to have sex at all.  Many gynecologists refer to the vagina as a "self cleaning oven" that doesn't need extra cleaning with special products marketed to women.

Sexual intimacy with someone you love involves sharing yourself on the deepest level physically and emotionally.  If you're worried and distracted about how you look or smell, you're not going to be fully present to your own sexual experience or the sexual pleasure of your partner (see my article: Sexual Wellness: Savoring Pleasure).

Problems with body image and body shaming often occur at a young age.  Even well-meaning parents can create problems by being overly concerned about a young girl's weight, what she eats or how she looks in clothes.  This creates the insecurity with body image that continues into adulthood.

Aside from early experiences at home, magazines, TV, movies and social media also contribute to the problem of body image by presenting girls and women with idealized images of what a woman "should" look like. Since these images are unrealistic (or even photoshopped), this leaves many women comparing themselves to the image and feeling inadequate (see my article: How to Stop Comparing Yourself to Others).

For women with body image problems, aging makes matters worse. These women often become even more dissatisfied with the way they look when younger women's bodies are idealized in the media or they experience their spouse or significant other admiring a younger woman's body.

Overcoming a Poor Body Image
Changing how you feel about your body isn't easy, especially if the problem has been ingrained since childhood, but there are some things you can try on your own to improve your body image:
  • Become Aware of Your Negative Self Talk: Change starts with awareness.  Start paying attention to the negative thoughts and feelings you have about your body and challenge yourself.  Instead of believing your negative self talk, tell yourself that you're entitled to experience pleasure--whether it's with a partner or it's solo sex (see my article: Overcoming the Internal Critic).
  • Ask Yourself Whose Eyes You're Looking Through: Young girls who were given negative messages about their body image often grow up to be women who see themselves through the eyes of others who criticized them, including family members or social media.  They internalize this criticism at such a deep level that they believe it without questioning it.  So, it's important to ask yourself if you're looking at yourself objectively or if you're looking through the eyes of those who were critical.  
  • Spend Less Time on Social Media: Spending too much time on social media contributes to anxiety and depression. When you see images of women with idealized bodies, you're likely to compare yourself unfavorably to those images, which might be photoshopped or photographed from certain angles that are more flattering.  Also, seeing images and reading social media posts of people's "wonderful lives," which might not be so wonderful in reality, can make you feel envious and frustrated about your own life. 
  • Practice Self Compassion: Many women who have compassion for others don't practice self compassion (see my article:  Developing Self Compassion).
Getting Help in Therapy
If a poor body image has become an obstacle to your sexual enjoyment and you're unable to change this on your own, you could benefit from seeking help from a licensed mental health professional who has experience in this area.

Rather than depriving yourself and your partner of pleasure, you could work with a skilled psychotherapist who can help you to overcome a poor body image.

Once you're free of your negative self image, you can feel good about yourself and enjoy the sexual pleasure you deserve.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Psychotherapy Blog: A Search For Comfort and Safety With Alcohol or Drugs

Many people who drink alcohol excessively or abuse drugs are actually seeking comfort and safety, but they might not even realize it.

A Search For Comfort and Safety With Alcohol and Drugs

A Non-Pathologizing Perspective
As a psychotherapist in New York City, I've worked with many clients who are struggling to overcome substance abuse problems.  Many of them say that the alcohol or the drug is like a friend they don't want to give up, which is understandable.

If alcohol and drugs didn't provide a certain extent of comfort or feeling of safety, people wouldn't abuse these substances.  For many people, it's might be the only comfort and sense of safety they have ever experienced.

So, asking people, who experience this comfort to give it up can feel like a very daunting process to them, especially if they haven't ever experienced comfort with another person.

A Search For Comfort and Safety With Alcohol or Drugs

From this perspective, these substances can feel like a reliable source of comfort.  Not only does it provide temporary relief, but it is usually available, especially if the substance is alcohol.  It's legal.  It can be consumed alone or with other people.  And it usually accomplishes the goal of bringing temporary relief.

Of course, the problem is that, over time, substances create other problems, including serious health problems, impaired cognitive functioning, family problems, and work-related problems, just to name a few.

Over time, it can also result in death, so that even though there is a temporary relief, there can be serious long term damage.

People often seek help when one or more of these problems develop.  By then, it can seem like a very frightening prospect to give up what works temporarily--even when people know that will ultimately do serous damage.

At that point, some people will bargain with themselves and their loved ones:  They tell themselves and their loved ones that they can control their use or that they can stop at any time.  But, often, they're the only ones who actually believe this. And if they try to stop on their own, they might discover that they can't.

It can be a long, arduous process to give up abusing substances, and many people pay the ultimate price of ruining their health beyond repair before they accept that they can't control it.

But if people, who abuse substances and their loved ones have this non-pathologizing perspective that    the substance brings a sense of comfort, it can create more self understanding and empathy for oneself as well as for others.

Learning Healthy Ways to Seek Safety and Comfort 
One of the goals of therapy or substance abuse treatment is that people who are abusing substances learn how to seek comfort and safety in other ways.

This might mean that, instead of abusing substances, they learn to self soothe by:
  • learning to meditate
  • learning new breathing techniques to calm themselves
  • learning new grounding techniques
  • developing resilience
  • developing new coping skills
  • learning to make better choices
  • learning to choose healthier relationships
  • developing a stable and manageable life step by step
Even being able to consider learning new ways involves a certain amount of trust in a psychotherapist or a substance abuse counselor, which can be challenging for someone who has never had a trustworthy relationship.

Some people will persist in abusing substances because they don't want to give up what brings temporary relief.

Building that rapport and trusting relationship can take time.  In the meantime, before people can trust enough to allow a relationship to develop, they might need to ask themselves if they are willing to try it because being willing is often half the battle.

But once people trust enough to try other ways of seeking safety and comfort, they usually discover that this is a skill the they can continue to develop and that it works.

Getting Help in Therapy
Asking for help often induces shame in people.

Most people like to think that they can control their lives and that they don't need help.  But when it becomes obvious that your life is falling apart, it takes a lot courage to ask for help.

Often, people come into therapy externally motivated because either a spouse or a boss has given them an ultimatum:  Either get help or leave.

But people who are open to the process of recovering from substance abuse often discover their own internal motivation, especially if they develop a rapport with their therapist.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you're struggling with substance abuse or you're watching someone you love abuse substances, you're not alone.

Even if you can't afford therapy or you don't have access to treatment, there are 12 Step meetings in most cities and online.

Life is short.  Getting help sooner rather than later can make all the difference in how you live the rest of your life and the quality of your relationships.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Monday, April 11, 2022

Are You Holding Back Emotionally in Your Relationship?

After experiencing heartbreak, disappointment or betrayal, many people are afraid or ambivalent about making a commitment in a new relationship.  Instead. they hold back emotionally so they don't allow themselves to be fully in the relationship.  Emotional vulnerability is scary for them.  This can cause problems if the partner is ready to make a commitment (see my articles: Are You Dating Someone Who Has Problems Making a Commitment? and An Emotional Dilemma: Wanting and Dreading Love).

Are You Holding Back Emotionally in Your Relationship

People Who Are in Denial About Holding Back Often Make Excuses to Themselves and Others
People who hold back emotionally often don't realize what they're doing.  They're often in denial because they don't want to see themselves as being emotionally withholding with their partner, so they make up "reasons" for their behavior, including:
  • They "Don't Like Labels:" The idea of "no labels" between two people allows each person a lot of latitude, especially if both people agree that they won't put a label on who they are to each other.  But it can also cause confusion and misunderstandings: Are you dating? In a relationship? Friends with benefits? Polyamorous?  Even if both people agree to "no labels," one or both people often have unspoken expectations that don't match up.  Unless it's a short term affair, it's unusual for two people to sustain "no labels" indefinitely.
  • They Want to Keep Their Options Open: Some people don't want to commit because they're afraid of missing out on being with someone new, someone better looking or "better" in some other way.  They're not done playing the field--they want to hold onto the main person they're seeing and continue to keep their options open for other people.  Or, they have one primary person and then several other people "on the side."
  • They're Too Busy People Pleasing in a Superficial Way: They're not sure how they feel because they tend to put the other person's feelings first. Rather than focus on what they want, they focus on what the other person wants or, at least, give lip service to it.  Often, they will tell the other person what s/he wants to hear, but there's no substance to it.  
  • They Prefer Shallow Relationships: People who prefer shallow relationships hold back their emotions because they don't want anything that's emotionally intimate.  Making an emotional commitment or even having a deep conversation is frightening to them.  Instead of "making love," they're "having sex" so it's mostly physical for them.
  • They Have One Foot Out the Door At All Times and They Know All the Escape Routes: Instead of making a commitment, they already have one foot out the door, which is why they never get emotionally invested.  They never introduce the person they're seeing to their family or close friends.  They might be reluctant to move in together, and there's no talk of deepening the relationship.  They might initiate an argument or try to provoke the other person into leaving them so they don't feel guilty about the relationship ending.
  • People Who Are Aware They're Holding Back Were Often Hurt in Prior Relationships: After several experiences of getting hurt in prior relationships. these people are often too afraid to take an emotional risk again. They're often ambivalent about making a commitment.  On the one hand, they want to love and feel loved, but they dread getting hurt.  They might vacillate back and forth trying to deal with their ambivalence. At times, it might appear that they'll make a commitment and then it's like a switch gets turned off and then they're unwilling to make the commitment.  This is usually painful for both people involved.

The Person Who Holds Back is Often With the Person Who is a "Fixer"
Whether you're the person who is having a problem making a commitment or you're in a relationship with someone who can't make a commitment, you're in a painful place.

Over time, to a greater or lesser degree, most people want a stable relationship.  For people who are holding back, their fears keep them stuck.  

People, who want a committed "forever" relationship and who remain with someone who is unable to make a commitment, focus on trying to "fix" or manipulate the other person to get what they want.  They don't want to see that the other person can't or won't give them what they want, so they continue to try to manipulate the situation to try to get what they want.  If and when they realize that they were wasting their time, they feel a lot of anger and resentment.

Getting Help in Therapy
Whether you're the person holding back or the person who is trying to "fix" the person who is holding back, you're in a painful place.

In either case, you could benefit from working with a licensed psychotherapist to help you understand and overcome the underlying issues that keep you stuck.

Rather than continuing to engage in patterns that keep you stuck, get help so you can overcome the obstacles that keep you stuck and you can live a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

I am providing online therapy while I'm out of my office.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 724-2624 during business hours or email me.