You’re listening to On the Couch with Carly. Carly’s Couch is a safe space to talk. I’m a psychologist. But I’m not your pipe-smoking, tweed wearing stereotype.
Hello, and welcome to another episode of On the Couch with Carly. Today I want to talk to you about taboos. I think it’s a really relevant subject because it feels like since I started my blog in 2013, people have associated me with sex.
I wanted to talk about that, and all the things that are taboo which my clients and I talk about in therapy. I also want to talk a little bit about the notion of taboo and why it’s relevant to therapy, and why we’re so interested in hearing about all things taboo.
So, to start from the beginning, let’s talk about sex baaaaby. When I started the blog initially I used to open it up for people to ask me questions. I had a contact form and you could ask me anything, and I would reply to you usually not sharing any of your details.
It would be an anonymous, agony aunt vibe where I would talk about whatever it was that you wanted me to talk about. I then used the question in a stimulus form of an entire blog post or I would just simply answer the question directly, if it was needing that kind of answer.
One of the things I always said from the beginning is: “I’ll talk about sex. I’ll talk about anything.” And because I mentioned that people thought: “Cool, she wants to talk about sex.”
Okay, look I did a few specific blog posts around sex, and that became something I was known for. I think it really set me apart because although there are amazing sex therapists/sexologists doing incredible work in this country. I can think about Doctor Eve, for example, who’s on the radio and tv,and is very well-known for talking about all things sex. I think that at the time there was something still quite enticing, and appealing about a young person who’s more open about talking about sex.
Still to this day people say to me: “Oh, aren’t you that sex therapist?”, and no I’m not a sex therapist. Sex is not my specialty. I have not studied anything in terms of sex, sexual health. I also don’t deal directly with sexual problems in my work.
So, this is not a podcast about sex therapy, and it’s not a podcast about dealing with sexual concerns. There are other more experienced, and better equipped practioners out there who deal with these sorts of things.
My discussion today is about sex and other taboos, in terms of its energy in therapy. In terms of the feeling you get in a therapy process that manages to cross the threshold of that which we speak about which is taboo, or beyond the normal relm of content. And I wanna say that because I think it’s really important to know when you come to a therapist that you should feel comfortable to talk about absolutely anything.
Where else is there a space for you to go to speak to someone who you can talk about all of your deepest darkest secrets, desires, fantasies? Anything that is really not what you would normally disclose to a friend or a family member. Something that really speaks to you, speaks to your identity, speaks to something about who you are and what you’re about. That maybe isn’t that comfortable or normalised in conventional cultures or in social settings. I think that’s really really important.
One of the benefits of therapy is that you get that space. Your therapist should be comfortable to be able to speak with you and sit with you, while you speak about parts of yourself that you would not speak to with anyone else- that ends up discussing taboo subjects.
And so therapy can involve discussions around taboo subjects. I think people are really interested in that. I think people are always going to be interested in the taboo. It’s just obvious that which we are just not supposed to be interested in becomes interesting to us. We are always on the back foot trying to find ourselves and find our individuality in the context of culture, and in the context of social norms.
I think that’s why it’s really interesting to explore yourself at least conceptually, theoretically, cognitively and psychologically. To explore yourself, to explore aspects of yourself, aspects of your identity, aspects of who you are, in a safe space like a therapy office. But being able to do so by actually going into areas that would not be otherwise explored, so it’s new frontiers of yourself.
I always had this idea of doing a podcast and the title would be: “I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
The reason for this is because when I was little, I heard my parents talking about something that was of an adult nature. I thought that was really interesting because there was something about growing up and being a child, and not being privy to the adult world. Not being privy to a bunch of themes that you only then discover later on in life.
Although, therapy can be done with children and adolescents, the therapy that I do is mostly with adults. And it’s always very important to think about that process of becoming aware of adult themes, and knowing yourself through those adult themes. Discovering yourself through the context of adult themes.
“I’ll tell you when you’re older.” The idea that what you were once inexperienced with, you then later become more experienced with. I think sex is such an obvious example. The people who come to my therapy office and are speaking about these themes in therapy, are adults.
It’s really true to say that just because you are now adult, and are now able to access these worlds. These worlds of taboo, what was taboo when you were a child is no longer taboo.
You’re allowed to drink. You’re allowed to have sex. You’re allowed to decide what kind of an adult you are, what kind of themes speak to you in your life. But yet, we still find that there is so much conflict around that. It’s so difficult for many people to express themselves openly and honestly about who they are, and then specifically around taboo subjects.
So we still find, you’ll recognise this in yourself. You’ll still find it’s very hard for people to talk about what they like sexually or what they fantasize about, or what they desire. It’s still very hard for people to see themselves as sexual beings or as having sexual appetites.
I think there is obviously a gendered element to this, as I said, we have to fight the culture, we have to fight social norms. For women there is a lot more oppression. It takes a lot more for a woman to express herself because of the fact that so much has been done to keep women suppressed, and to not allow women to express themselves sexually. We see that even more so with women.
But even with men who are according to the popular culture given free reign to have sexual needs, sexual desires. The image of a man just roaming around the earth looking for people to have sex with is a common one. It’s unfortunate and it’s fueling rape culture. I highly problematize it.
But what I’m trying to say is that even though this is such a standard narrative, that doesn’t mean that every man feels 100% comfortable with their sexuality. I can tell you for a fact that many men struggle to articulate their sexuality, and within that there is so much nuance that there may be a certain expectation on men to be a certain way sexually.
That then excludes a whole range of possibilities, and that for many people is so tricky. “There is an expectation of how I’m supposed to perform or there’s an expectation of what I’m supposed to like sexually. And if what I actually like feels taboo then it feels like something I’m not allowed to like, or I’m not supposed to be interested in, then I suppress that. I repress that. I push that down. I don’t show that to people. I struggle to even tell myself that I like that. I spend the whole of my life trying to convince myself that I like the thing that I’m supposed to like.” It involves a huge amount of psychological maneuvering in order to do that.
Therapy can often be the space where you can come and disclose the aspects of yourself that you’re not even sure that you’re allowed to be. The parts of yourself that are on the corners and fringes of your identity. I think that’s really exciting because my take on sexuality, and this is my take. I’m not saying this is scientifically proven or there’s research to back this, but this is my take on sexuality. I think sexuality is very deeply connected with one’s sense of vitality. The more connected to your own sexuality you are, the more integrated your sexuality is with who you are, the more you able to be with yourself, all the parts of yourself including how you feel about your sexual needs, how you feel about yourself during sex or in sex, in sexual relationships, has a huge role to play in how you feel about life.
How you feel about your capacity to engage in life and to enjoy life, and to see life as something that you can nourish yourself with. There’s a sense of: “I have these needs and I’m allowed to have these needs met. I know that in meeting these needs I am alive to life.”
The opposite of that is basically cutting yourself off from your desire to such a degree that you actually aren’t even able to enjoy life anymore. You aren’t able to take in life. You feel almost dead to life. You’re living and going through the motions but you cut off from a vitality sense of excitement with one’s life force- that’s how I see sexuality. When a client comes to me and they wanna talk about their sexuality, I see it as them using their sexuality or using sex as medium to describe to me their connection with their life force.
It’s a great way to connect with that person’s sense of themselves , their sense connection to life itself, if that makes sense. That’s how I like to see it and how I like to work with it. But of course in order to do that you have to talk to me about what your thoughts and feelings are in terms of sex. That can be hugely confrontational and difficult. I think there’s a lot of shame connected to sex.
Thanks to religion. Thanks to culture. Thanks to mostly religion, this is then carried on in families, our parents and grandparents, teach us that sex is bad. Somehow along the lines we are taught that sex is bad. That sexual desire is bad and having unpure thoughts, and that interferes a lot with this work.
Sometimes we have to do a lot just to get to a point where we even can just start to talk about it. That’s why I think it’s so important to discuss taboo subjects in therapy because there is an access point, there is this gap that we have to bridge. We have to then reach each other, and the only way we can do that is to manage the fear around: “What if you see me in a different way now? What if I spoil my image of myself by admitting these things?”
There’s lot’s of fantasies of purity. There’s fantasies of seek cleanness. All of these things that we’ve been taught through religion and other cultural practices, that give us the idea that if we connect with our sexual energy and our sexuality, we are sallied. We are dirty. There’s something a miss with us. Often that is a huge part of it, just to break down that barrier to get to a place where you can talk about it openly.
I think people are still shocked when they do speak to me about absolutely anything and everything, and I’m okay with it. They kind of, waiting for me to go: “Ooooh, golly gosh! Ooooh gosh!” I suppose there might be a part of me that says: “ Ooooh, golly gosh!” but ultimately I’m here for all of it.
I’m here for you and all that you bring to the process. The parts that are the most alive, the most exciting are the parts where you are sharing and connecting with elements of yourself that you haven’t connected with before. And that is really the birthplace of growth and transformation. It is when you can actually risk bringing things that’s you would never normally bring to another person, and share those things with me.
I suppose one of the fantasies and one of the fears is that bringing an aspect of yourself out into the open that is only ever been shrouded in shame, might risk losing me. I think that is such a primitive fear, if we show our true selves, we will be abandoned. I think so much of why people only talk to me and wouldn’t tell their partners even, about some of the things they feel, is that they really do fear that they’re going to risk this relationship, which obviously means a lot to them.
If you’re interested, there’s a fabulous podcast by Esther Perel. She’s an absolute game changer. She’s a brilliant psychologist. She’s written a brilliant book. But she really speaks about this a lot, this idea of if your erotic fantasies are not that of your partners, it can create a lot of distance in a relationship. No matter how much emotional intimacy there is.
Because when we connect with our erotic, we are not connecting with the nice parts of ourselves, necessarily. We connecting with the “not so nice” parts of ourselves and that’s really interesting.
I think that is a great segway for me to talk about the nature of taboo and why I think it’s so important in therapy. In therapy it’s really important that you feel that you can bring all of you into the space, and that includes your “good” parts and your “bad” parts. Your “nice” parts and your “not so nice parts”. I think we’ve got all sorts of fears and associations with the idea that we have to be “all good”, and that we are not lovable when we actually show people the parts of ourselves that aren’t so “nice”, or aren’t so “good”.
Freud actually talked about this as well. Yeah, good old Freud! Freud always said that human beings have these drives and that they’re animalistic. Underneath all of our civilization, all of our culture, all of the “should’s” that society and culture impose on us, there is these animalistic drives. He spoke about the sex drive and the drive for aggression. Strip any human being down and you will find that there are these very raw animalistic drives. To put it bluntly, if we didn’t have civilization, if we didn’t have the rules of society, if we didn’t know there would be consequences for our behavior, we’d all just be fucking and killing eachother-that’s what was Freud’s theory.
What I take from that, which is so useful in this day and age, is the idea that there are taboo elements of humanity. There’s things that we know that are not socially acceptable, things that we know that are not necessarily palatable for everybody, and if we feel that we’ve got something to say that is not quite socially acceptable, not really what other people want us to say or they don’t want us to be like that, then we tend to divorce those parts of ourselves.
We call it disavowal in psychology. If you disavow that part of yourself, you’re literally pushing that part away and not allowing it to be part of who you are. You’re not including it in your self-image.
What’s really important in therapy is to have that space where you can be in a room with someone and bring all those parts out. You can talk about wanting to hurt someone. You can talk about feeling so enraged that you wanted to throw a chair at someone’s face or that you wanted to go have sex with your colleague because she’s so sexy. But you’re not going to do it for whatever reasons, or because society doesn’t approve of it. To just be able to express that, I think that is so important. That it is safe. It is okay to talk about things that you may not do them but just to acknowledge that there’s parts of you that would like to- which I think is so important.
It does provide such a sense of release to be able to have a space where you can offload, and discuss behaviors or fantasies that you may not act upon but are there, in your psyche. I think being able to express those parts, being able to express those taboo parts of yourself in that way is liberating, it also offers a part of integration.
So if you have these thoughts, maybe not even thoughts, but you have feelings. These drives are not even thoughts they’re feelings, they just instinctual bodily experiences like: “I just wanna have sex with this person.”
If you don’t express that maybe somewhere along the line you do something weird or you take it out on someone else. Let’s say you married but you like this person at work, and you’d love to have sex with her but you won’t because you’re married. Then you go home and you have a fight with your wife because you haven’t managed to connect to that drive, so you taking it out in some other way.
What might be more helpful is to come therapy and say: “I’m having these feelings.” Then together me and you explore it and make sense of it, and understand it in terms of nature of drives. But also in terms of yourself and what it means, and why you need to feel this way right now, what is it connected to. To really understand it and make sense of it, and incorporate it into who you are. You might not then have to take it out on your wife because you’ve worked through it, and you not so tortured by it, in a way.
I think that’s really the key here, that those things are taboo, that are not discussed or not brought out into the open, we torture ourselves about them. We don’t have to, but we can become twisted up about it, especially if there are obsessions, especially if they’re recurring, especially if you’re feeling incredibly shameful about them. Therapy is so often about speaking about that shameful, abject stuff. What I’m trying to say is that if you connect with those parts of yourself, if you can make peace with who you are and what you’re about, and understand that there’s always the potential for grotesque or abject. There’s always the potential for that which we consider taboo and that is okay. It doesn’t make you bad. It doesn’t make you unworthy. It doesn’t make you unacceptable.
I think that really is such an important gift. It is to look that shame in the eye and really try to reckon with it so that you go on living your life. One thing I can tell you for sure is that those fringe elements of our psyche, those taboo qualities, they’re not the whole of you. They’re not the only things that make you who you are.
I mean okay look, if Freddy Kruger came to therapy, maybe we’d have a different story. But we’re not talking about that, we talking about every day people and taboo. I think that’s the problem, if we hide something away it becomes this big monster. Right? The monster under the bed, as soon as we shed light on it, as soon as we switch the light on and we look under the bed, and it’s not there anymore. By opening the cupboard, by checking to see the monsters in the cupboard- they disappear.
I think that’s really the aim of therapy, is to have a look just have a look, and that’s what I’m about. I’m curious about you. I’m wanting to know all about you. I’m wanting you to open all the cupboards and look through all the information, including the monsters. Very often once we’ve chatted about the monsters, once we’ve talked it through, once we’ve discussed the taboo subject, they don’t hold as much power anymore. They don’t have as much sway in terms of creating that anxiety, and then having all those compensatory behaviors that come out because of that anxiety.
Bottom line is: I’m all for taboo subjects. I love talking about taboo subjects. I do believe that talking about taboo subjects is liberating, talking about sex is liberating. Getting in touch and connecting with your sexuality is an incredible route to understanding yourself and connecting with life, and vitality in general.
Cool. Thanks for listening and I’ll speak to you soon. Bye
This podcast is recorded @edibleaudio, in Cape Town, South Africa. Edited by edible audio. Original music by: Alex Smiley