May 14, 2021 • 15M

Feelings don't exist in a vacuum

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The Overthinker's Guide To Sex is a sex and relationships newsletter written by freelance journalist Franki Cookney. This is the audio version.
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Hello again.

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? When I told you I was taking a little break from the newsletter I thought it was going to be about two weeks. It’s now been well over a month. Turns out I was thoroughly spent, not just from crowdfunding but from a year of trying to be creative in isolation, trying to hustle in a pandemic, trying to draw energy and resources from a dried up well. My feelings – about my work, my sex life, my relationships, myself – have been all over the place. At times I have felt a bit broken. But I knew they weren’t coming at me arbitrarily, but were borne out of the struggle of the last year, and the ongoing struggle to recalibrate after a period of intense suppression.

After a long winter of zooming right in to the here and now, existing moment to moment – from cup of tea, to workout, to life drawing session, to a walk in the park, to hot bath – my brain is out of practice at dealing with real excitement or anticipation. I’ve spent months putting all my energy into just getting to a point of feeling “basically okay” and now suddenly I’m allowed to feel other things again and it’s like I’ve forgotten how to do it. So when I crashed, I really crashed. But I’ve been patient with myself. I’ve engaged with it and tried to work out where the feelings are coming from and why and I’ve spent some time trying to figure out what I need – from myself and other people – to help me navigate it. And as a result, I feel better.

It won’t come as a shock to any of you Overthinkers, I’m sure, but knowing why I feel the way I do is a big part of how I begin to feel better. I actively seek to take responsibility for my emotions so that I can better understand them and thus better navigate them. But I can’t do that on my own. I need people around me who care about how I feel and why, and want to play a part in helping me feel better. And in the same way, I want to do that for the people I love. I care about their feelings and I want to help them understand them and find out what I can do, as a friend, as a sister, as a partner, to help them feel better.

All of which probably sounds very obvious, right? Of course we want to help the people we care about, of course we want to support them when they’re feeling shitty. It would be pretty unkind if we simply sat back and said “not my problem.” Wouldn’t it?

I’ve been reading Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are again recently, as a prelude to starting work on the new podcast series and I came across the part where she talks about managing your emotions as if they were a sleepy hedgehog. The basic gist is that if you go to sit down for a cup of tea and find a sleepy hedgehog in your chair, the best way to deal is to be gentle with it. Getting angry or running away in fear isn’t going to help the hedgehog and it’s not going to get you any closer to your goal of sitting down with a cup of tea. Similarly, if you decide to pick up the hedgehog you’ve got to think about the best way to handle it and where to put it and, chances are, dumping it in your partner’s lap is not going to be the answer.

You with me so far? The hedgehog is your feelings. You have to be gentle with your feelings, not get angry or scared and not dump them on other people and expect them to make them go away.

But then I got to this sentence: Each of you is 100 percent responsible for your own feelings.

The maxim that “you are responsible for your own emotions" is one that comes up a lot in relationship discourse, and particularly around consensual non-monogamy and polyamory. And it has always struck me as a peculiarly cold attitude. While I understand that saying “you are responsible for your own emotions” means that no one else can magically make them go away, I worry about it getting used to mean “I don’t have to engage with your feelings.”

Happily, Nagoski goes on to say that “partners in a healthy relationship choose to help each other with their feelings.” And, of course, I agree with this. But something still doesn’t sit right with me. Feelings don’t exist in a vacuum. They arise out of context. If the context of your relationship is causing negative feelings it seems ridiculous to claim that that has nothing to do with your partner(s).

“It’s not your partner’s fault or obligation [to help you deal with your feelings],” Nagoski writes. “It’s your hedgehog.”

I’ll admit, this got my hackles up. Because yes, the hedgehog is on my chair and yes, I obviously want to relocate the hedgehog in the most humane way possible and sure, I can see how chucking it at my partner is going to cause distress all round, both for the hedgehog and for my partner who I imagine was not really expecting a small spiky mammal to land in their lap. And ultimately it’ll probably cause distress for me too when my partner (rightly) gets angry at me for throwing a ball of prickles at them. But I feel like this analysis is leaving out one crucial possibility which is that maybe my partner put the fucking hedgehog on my fucking chair in the first place.

Furthermore, maybe this isn’t the first time they’ve done it. Maybe they have a habit of putting hedgehogs on my chair despite the fact that I’ve told them repeatedly that I am mortally afraid of hedgehogs. 

I’m aware I’m now beating this metaphor to death (NB do not do this to the hedgehog!) but what I’m trying to say is that, while we might not be responsible for someone’s emotional reactions to our behaviour, we are responsible for our own behaviour. And if we know that certain behaviours make the people we care about feel scared or insecure or sad and we keep doing them anyway, what does that say about us?

When my husband and I first started dating other people, we had a rule that we had to text at some point in the evening, just to say hi, reassure the other person we were OK, and update them on if and when we'd be home. Once, when I was out on a date, I forgot to text and check in. This momentary lapse for me turned into something huge for him. He felt forgotten about and jealous of the fact that I was having "too good a time" with someone else to think about him. It was hugely frustrating to discover that such a minor thing had provoked such a big reaction. But however much we argued over it, however much we unpicked the source of the feeling and examined it's validity, the fact remained that someone I love was in pain.

Yes, I theoretically could wash my hands of it and tell him his feelings were his responsibility but that would only have made him feel worse. So I acknowledged his feelings, apologised for reneging on something I'd expressly agreed to, and discussed how we could manage the situation better in future.

We actually don’t bother with this rule any more and I’m sure that’s partly down to how we’ve managed it in situations like this. Secure relationships don’t grow out of detachment from or disregard for each other’s feelings.

As we come out of lockdown, engaging with someone else’s feelings might feel like the last thing we’re capable of. But we need to continue to try. We need to stay curious and empathetic about the people we purport to care about. It’s easy to become solipsistic when we’ve been through trauma and of course we need to be gentle with ourselves. But we also need to be gentle with each other. And – of course – with those hedgehogs.

What do you think? Hit reply on this email or comment below on the post to share your views.

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I’ve started work on BAD SEX and I want to hear *YOUR* stories.

  • Have you had a sexual experience where the reality did not live up to the expectation?

  • Have you ever struggled to experience pleasure during sex? 

  • Have you ever struggled to orgasm during partnered sex?

  • Have you ever experienced pain during sex?

  • Have you ever struggled with low desire?

  • Do you find it hard to talk about sex with partners?

  • Have you ever felt insecure about your body during sex?

  • Have you ever found it hard to “let go” during sex?

  • Were you taught sex was supposed to be a certain way and have found that not to be the case?

Would you be up for speaking to me anonymously for the podcast? Get in touch. Either hit reply on this email or send me a voice note HERE.

I’m also really open to hearing other stories so get in touch if you have an idea for something you think I should address.

What’s on my mind this month (and a half)…

Behind-the-scenes of BAD SEX

After a month of sponsorship admin, I’ve finally started work on my podcast and I've set up a newsletter for supporters. This is where I'll be facilitating the “early access” to episodes before they go out into the wider world so if you want to hear the podcast before anyone else, you’ll need to make sure you’re signed up.

I’ll also be sharing behind-the-scenes updates, thoughts on the podcast-making process and various other bits of bonus content made exclusively for the lovely people who pledged to my crowdfunder (which I know includes a lot of you). If you gave me your email address when you donated, don’t worry, you’re already on the mailing list. I’ll be sending out the first newsletter this week so check your inboxes and promotions folders for “bad sex”. If you’re not sure whether you gave me your email (loads of people didn’t!) or if it gets to the end of the week and you haven’t had a BAD SEX newsletter, drop me a line and I’ll get it sorted. 

And if you didn’t donate to the crowdfunder but you quite fancy getting in on the action now, you still can. There are various subscription options available so go and take a look.

The Overthinker’s Guide To Sex will be published every other week

At the start of the new year I began putting out newsletters every week, as opposed to every fortnight, but I wanted to let you know I’m going back to doing them every two weeks. This is for two reasons. Firstly, I can’t commit to writing a newsletter every week while also making a podcast and juggling my regular work. Secondly, I actually noticed that the weekly newsletters got fewer readers. Now, I’m sure there’s some Substack psychology in that but I don’t have time to engage with it right now. I have lots of ideas for this newsletter and things I’d like to do with it and I’d like to work towards making it a weekly thing but I have to remind myself to focus on One. Project. At. A. Time. So this newsletter will be winging its way to you every other Friday. Don’t forget to add it to your safe list so it doesn’t go to spam, and check your Promotions tab on gmail if you don’t see it in your inbox.

People think polyamory is all sex but tbh it’s mostly talking

I had a great time chatting to Jacob Hawley for his podcast On Love last month. We talked about dating, parenting and communicating as a consensually non-monogamous person.

Vanilla sex and my mother-in-law

You know that feeling when your mother-in-law texts your husband to say she’s reading something you wrote on vanilla sex? Well, neither did I until a few weeks ago! Anyway, I contributed to this piece on post-pandemic dating in the Sunday Times Style which you can read here. 

The subhead is a bit dubious. Vanilla sex is back? I’m pretty sure it never went anywhere. But I do think we are seeing a shift in the discourse away from "spicing things up" and feeling under pressure to try everything and towards tapping into the kind of sex and intimacy you really want. Needless to say I am very kink-positive and the destigmatisation of BDSM is a good thing for everyone but you'll also always hear me defending vanilla because ultimately the best sex is the sex you *enjoy*.

The sextech industry *really* wants you to know that sex is good for you

I wrote about it for WIRED. Check it out here.

A couple more things to (over)think about…

  • Men are also pretty gutted about losing a year of dating to the pandemic

  • I am extremely here for hearing more stories of people doing consensual non-monogamy in ways that don’t centre marriage and coupledom so I liked this piece a lot (even though people have rightly pointed out her definition of “committed” is a bit off)

  • The Telegraph spoke to some people in their 20s about what they wish they’d learnt from sex education growing up

  • This feature looks at why the pandemic did a number on so many people’s sex drives. It only scratches the surface imo but good to see people examining that side of it

  • Esther Perel klaxon!! She did an interview ahead of her new podcast series

  • This study found that women report regret of one night stands slightly more than men (but that doesn’t stop them having them)

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The Overthinker’s Guide To Sex is written by freelance journalist Franki Cookney.
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