How Thought Distortions Impede Our Sensual and Sexual Selves

Woman leaning on wall and man standing in backgroundThought distortions are common thinking “crutches,” or thinking habits, we fall into despite the lack of reality and truth in the thought. There are 10 common thought distortions we can all be victim to, according to Dr. David Burns, author of the self-help book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. This article will address how common thought distortions can impede our sensual and sexual selves.

It is my belief that we are sensual and sexual beings throughout our life span; however, thinking patterns develop that can impede this essential part of the human experience. Falling into a pattern of thought distortions without being aware of them can prevent us from fully embracing our health and relationships.

The aforementioned 10 common thought distortions, as outlined by Burns, are as follows:

  1. All-or-nothing thinking impedes sensuality and sexuality when, for example, we believe we must have “fireworks” sex in order for a sexual encounter to be worthwhile. According to Metz and McCarthy, only 40% to 60% of “well-functioning, satisfied married couples” surveyed report good-quality sex, and sometimes for only one partner. So if you are waiting for the perfect timing—when you aren’t tired or stressed, or when your  to-do list is minimal—to engage in intimacy, start breaking this thinking habit and get reconnected.
  2. Over-generalizations come in the form of “always” and “never” thinking. When this distortion is applied to sensuality and sexuality, it may create unrealistic expectations. You may think or hear phrases such as, “You always want to have sex, that’s all you want from me,” or, “You are never romantic.” Over-generalizations create undo resentment and distance between intimate figures.
  3. The “mental filter” gets us stuck dwelling on the negative details and filters out the positive of a situation or experience. This thought distortion promotes selectively abstracting facts, which makes for a challenge to emotional intimacy, sensuality, and sexuality. An example of a mental filter is when a person fails to see gestures of attention and romance. Sure, shoveling the walk for you or ensuring the dog is walked isn’t what fairy tales and romance movies are made of, but if we didn’t filter these gestures, could they be acts of attention and romance or other wants and needs? Another example of a mental filter that can impede our sensual and sexual selves is not engaging in a bid for sexual engagement because the last time you wanted sex, your partner wasn’t interested. Don’t allow your mental filter the power to filter out the other times your bids for sexual engagement were responded to.
  4. Disqualifying the positive is a thought distortion that converts compliments or positive gestures into “flukes” or merely an anomaly, whereas any negative feedback or gesture is proof of one’s negative attributes. This is a good example of why it is important to do our own work as individuals and ensure we are showing up in a relationship with an understanding of ourselves. If we rely only on relationships, intimate partners, or sexual experiences to fortify our positive self-image, we may be more susceptible to this thought distortion.
  5. Jumping to conclusions. This thought distortion is evident when we think we know what someone is thinking—“mind reading”—and then we interpret the person’s (assumed) thoughts as what someone is feeling. Take this example: A man jumps to a conclusion about his partner’s thoughts regarding love: “I know I’m not as exciting in bed as I used to be, so you aren’t in love with me as much as you used to be.” How impactful to be operating in a relationship with such a serious false conclusion. What about this set-up allows for emotional or physical intimacy?
  6. Magnification and minimization. Commonly described as the “binocular trick,” in which we exaggerate our errors, mistakes, and imperfections while we see our strengths as small, unimportant, and insignificant. The common result of this thinking habit is to feel inferior or inadequate. How much do thoughts of being “not a good enough (fill-in-the-blank)” keep us from fully embracing our sensual and sexual selves?
  7. Emotional reasoning is the thought distortion we engage in when our emotions are the truth, reality, and facts of a situation. When we engage in emotional reasoning, we do not challenge our emotions and we allow them to guide us as if they are facts. Consider this: A single parent feels lonely and isolated. Emotional reasoning enters the picture when the experience of loneliness and isolation is “proof” that this person is undateable, unattractive to anyone, and certainly not a sexual and sensual god/goddess. See how the cycle feeds itself? Emotions are not always related to the facts.
  8. “Should” statements are fiercely common. “Should” statements are used as motivators; the cause that pressures us to act, which often results in resentment. In addition to resentment, “should” statements can result in apathy, reduced motivation, frustration, self-loathing, shame, and guilt. When we apply “should” to others, we can be left feeling bitter, self-righteous, and perhaps let down. As a sex therapist, I am often asked, “How often should my partner and I have sex?” or, “Should do stuff I don’t really want to do to make him/her happy?” “Should” statements are pressure and energy-draining. Talking in “wants/needs/desires” is far more holistic in and outside the sensuality and sexuality realm.
  9. Labeling and mislabeling is another common thought distortion that can be considered extreme over-generalization (see No. 2). “I am a (fill-in-the-blank): messy person, bad person, liar, good person, perfect person, loser, better person than her, worse person than him …” How are the labels you give yourself and others, or your relationship, impeding your sensuality and sexuality?
  10. Personalization creates guilt and forces us into a role of taking responsibility for the negative. When we engage in personalization, we think what happens reflects on our own inadequacy. This is a high sense of responsibility for something we may have influence over but are not in control of. Whether we are in a relationship or not, as with all of these thought distortions, we are susceptible to personalization. Personalization is a small wound we inflict on ourselves through our own thinking. By forcing ourselves into a role of taking responsibility for the negative, we are not basking in the positivity and light of our sensuality and sexuality.

So what is a person to do? The first step toward any change is awareness, so I advise you to read the preceding list a number of times. Next, start observing your own thought processes and challenge yourself to alter your thinking in order to positively impact your intimacy and your relationships with others—as well as your sensual and sexual self.

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Denise C. Onofrey, MA, NCC, Sexuality / Sex Therapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • matt

    December 21st, 2012 at 5:09 PM

    Man, if you get bogged down in all of those 10 things, well heck even one of those things would be likely to be a real downer for the sex!

  • Denise Onofrey

    January 13th, 2013 at 10:50 AM

    Exactly Matt! Likely, we use 2 to 3 of these more readily than the others. It’s important to tease out which one drains your sexual energy the most. From there start working on combatting that one and notice the positive impact on thoughts, feelings and desire.


  • Caludia

    December 22nd, 2012 at 8:10 AM

    I have this really bad habit of only thinking about the bad things that I see about myself while my boyfriend sees none of that or at least he says he doesn’t. And then he gets mad and this causes so many arguments!

  • Denise Onofrey

    January 13th, 2013 at 10:46 AM

    Hello Claudia – I’m so glad you got the opportunity to read my article. I hope some of this awareness will help you appreciate yourself more, as your boyfriend does. Why argue about about fantastic you are? :) I challenge you to talk back to your inner critic and start accessing your inner cheerleader, your inner best friend, your inner tenderness. Think good thoughts, and feel good feelings. It’s not always that simple, but start practicing.


  • Morgan

    December 23rd, 2012 at 5:21 AM

    Sex is such a primal thing. . . why let overthinking get in the way of the one thing in life that should always feel good and transcend the pattiness of our thoughts about ourselves? I know that it’s hard, but I try to block all of the bad things that I sometimes feel about myself out of my mind because this just gets in the way of establishing a good relationship and is a downer for both parties!

  • Drake

    December 23rd, 2012 at 1:38 PM

    It’s easy for these thoughts to enter our mind. Only a concerted effort can ward them off and keep our relationships safe. Just like everything else needs maintenance, a relationship does too. Without maintenance or work being out in destructive thoughts can seep in and gradually lead to much bigger problems.

    And that is when most people wake up. More often than not, the relationship would have soured to a certain extent and it then becomes a major task to bring it back on track.

    Hence if we practice and keep such distorted thoughts away all that can be prevented an the relationship can retain its freshness too.

  • Denise Onofrey

    January 13th, 2013 at 10:43 AM

    hello Drake – I couldn’t agree with you more. Relationships (and often sexual intimacy) are the first “to go” when we are bogged down with work, kids, a broken dishwasher, tax season, deadlines, bills…need I go on?

    Like I tell my clients – don’t let the relationship and intimacy go because when you are old and grey – it’s your partner you will need to help you find your teeth! So maintain what is most important. Hint: this is rarely our jobs!


  • aaron

    December 24th, 2012 at 9:00 AM

    never underestimate the power of negative thoughts! they can show us a problem where there is none and force us to follow through.its a situation of shooting yourself in the foot.beware!

  • Denise Onofrey

    January 13th, 2013 at 10:40 AM

    Aaron- hello, I really like that thought distortions “show us problems where there is none”. Thanks for that – I am sure it will become part of my work with clients.

  • Andrew

    January 20th, 2013 at 9:46 PM

    Thanks for this Denise!

    I’ve recognized several of these tendencies and thought patterns but struggle with moving forward and abandoning negativity in the past. Any tips on resetting the brain to not recall previous events or think everything I do is wrong? I can’t seem to find the button. Thanks again!

  • Linda

    November 14th, 2014 at 4:20 PM

    Excellent article. My husband has been telling me I build all these expectations and when one touch or one move is out of place in my “mind plan” then the whole thing is ruined. I argued against that, but after reading this, he is RIGHT (don’t tell him lol). Reminds me of a saying I learned: expectations, without negotiation and agreement first, are premeditated resentments. How true. I set my hubby up for failure by my unspoken expectations. Then, when he doesn’t deliver the secret goods, I get to be the victim/martyr/wounded one. I plan that resentment ahead of time. I have to remember: there are no victims only volunteers- in this area anyway. My husband is military and if I complain about drama/overwhelm/chaos I created he says “show me your draft card.” lol.

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