Dating and Relationship Advice

Let’s talk about sex.

If you’re reading this article and struggle with shyness in the bedroom, that line may have made you uncomfortable. Usually when we are shy or anxious about something, we tend to avoid it. And because we avoid it, we never have the chance to confront our anxiety or shyness. Avoidance and anxiety can make us miss out on great things — especially great sex.

If you’re shy in the bedroom, stop avoiding sex-related stuff. Try these tips instead. Here are three science-backed strategies to overcome shyness in the bedroom.

Dig deep and find the origins of your beliefs

Our past experiences shape our mental frameworks for certain ideas. We call these schemas. Schemas are cognitive categories that help us organize information, and we develop schemas as a result of our life experiences. Each of us has schemas about ourselves, others, social situations, events, or certain patterns of behavior. And, you guessed it, we all have schemas about sex — including expectations around sex, appropriate behaviors around sex, how we express (or repress) our sexuality, and more.

It’s important to understand where our beliefs about sex come from in general, but particularly if you experience shyness around sex. For many of us, schemas about sex are formed through family beliefs, sociocultural gender roles, early peer or romantic experiences, observations of family, peer, or others’ relationships, extracurriculars (i.e. sports), the broader media, pornography, and more.

For example, if your family avoided discussions around sex and inadvertently communicated that sex or expressions of sexuality were “bad” or “undesirable,” you are more likely to associate sex with shame or deviant behavior, even when this behavior is common and normal. You might also be vulnerable to unrealistic expectations perpetuated by the media or pornography because you didn’t learn by talking with trusted people in your life or by trial and error.

Unrealistic expectations can maintain shyness. Only when you understand what these expectations are and where they come from can you start to change them.

Identify if these beliefs and expectations align with your values

According to Steven Mintz, values are “basic and fundamental beliefs that guide or motivate attitudes or actions.” Values help us filter what’s important to us, and allow us to act in ways that are consistent with what we want.

Think about what you value around intimacy, partnership, and sex. You can use this values card sort exercise as a starting point. Some of the values listed include respect, adventure, acceptance, generosity, purpose, tradition, and wealth. Look at the prompts and decide what kind of intimate partner you want to be, and what kind of intimate partner you want, according to your values.

Now, compare these values to the beliefs or expectations you are currently holding around sex. Do you have hyper-masculine expectations around sex, but want to be an intimate partner who is respectful, genuine, and accepting? Do you want an intimate partner who can be playful and isn’t afraid to be adventurous, but you hold yourself back or feel like you always have to be perfectly “on”?

Ask yourself if these expectations are moving you closer to a fulfilling life. If previously held beliefs and expectations are in direct conflict with your values, it’s likely they are not. Instead, make an effort to embody your values in your thoughts and behaviors. When we live in our values, we can live a more fulfilling life — and that includes our sex life.

Focus on the sensation, not the outcome

Thinking about and worrying about climax (or any other outcome) is the quickest way to not experience one. Anxiety, in general, is like quicksand — the more you fight it, the more you get sucked in. We are better off just relaxing into the uncomfortable feelings and going along for the ride.

Sex is similar. When we focus on the outcome — climax, evaluating as “good" — we lose the experience. And this is what causes shyness (read, anxiety), distress, and maintains those unrealistic expectations and subsequent disappointment.

That’s why leading sex therapists utilize a technique called sensate focus. Sensate focus is all about experiencing the moment as it is, without judging or evaluating, like labeling things as good or bad, awkward and uncomfortable vs. good and pleasurable, etc. Rachel Keller, LCSW, describes sensate focus as a “mindfulness of touch,” meaning the focus is on being present in the moment and open to the experience. Sensate focus allows you to get out of your head and just be in your body.

Sensate focus can be done alone or with a partner. Practitioners recommend starting small (10–15 minute sessions) and exploring the body with a sense of curiosity. The first phases are kept low-stakes — individuals are instructed to touch, kiss, or stroke anywhere on the body except for genitals and breasts. Individuals are instructed to avoid touching that leads to orgasm and intercourse in order to focus on the process without expectations. In later phases, the breasts and genitals can be incorporated. Partners are encouraged to repeat the last phases prior to engaging in any interactions that lead to orgasm or intercourse. This article is not a comprehensive guide, and sensate focus is best done with the help of a trained psychotherapist, but understanding these principles can help all of us have more fulfilling sex.

Research on sensate focus confirms that this technique is effective for a variety of things, but particularly anxiety related to sex. You can read more about sensate focus and finding a sex therapist here.

The takeaway

Shyness in the bedroom is challenging, but completely understandable.

Don’t fall prey to expectations perpetuated by the media, gender stereotypes, and antiquated sex education. Understand where your views around sex come from so you can work to change them. And provide yourself with validation for how these beliefs contribute to your thoughts, behaviors, and emotions around sex.

Then it’s time to critically examine expectations side-by-side with your values to determine what to keep and what to toss. Remember the type of intimate partner you want to be, and the type of intimate partner you want. If these expectations don’t match with your values, let your values be your guiding light. It’s not helpful to spend time on beliefs and fears that don’t serve you.

Lastly, be open to the experience of sex, rather than the outcome. By leaning into the quicksand, instead of fighting it, you’re more likely to experience pleasure, joy, fun, and intimacy. Work to be mindful of the process by letting go of your expectations and learning to be in the moment with your own body or your partner’s.

It’s 2021, and it’s time for us to move on from antiquated sex education and gendered beliefs around sex expectations. Use these techniques start your journey to more fulfilling, more enjoyable intimacy.