All the Help I Can Get: Thoughts on Brain Development, Dinner, and Let’s Talk Month


This month, October, is Let’s Talk Month, during which we at Planned Parenthood focus on helping families to make stronger connections and to talk honestly and openly about sexual health and relationships.

by Education and Outreach Department Staff
Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota

“No you can’t wear sandals and that sundress today, honey. It’s not summer anymore. It’s fall now—October. It’s too cold,” I say. “But I like to be cold,” says my daughter during our daily negotiation about what a person can wear outside the house. I take her outside. She says she’s not cold. I see goosebumps on her sleeveless arms. I ask her if she can see our breath when we talk. She says yes. She seems amazed and delighted by this, even as she starts to shiver slightly. I ask her if she feels cold yet. She says yes. “Let’s go put on some warmer clothes,” I say. She’s agreeable, even though it means taking off her favorite dress and well worn sandals and finding something more appropriate but not as familiar to put on. Change is tough when you’re four-and-a-half. And, on some mornings, getting dressed takes a very long time. Let's Talk Logo

As the season turns from summer to fall here in Minneapolis, the rate of change inside my house continues to astonish me. My two young daughters have educated me on the subject of human development unlike any of the latest research I try to keep up with in my professional life in Planned Parenthood’s Education & Outreach Department. Take the human brain, for example. David Walsh, founder of the Minneapolis-based National Institute on Media and the Family, is an expert on adolescent brain development. He says that our brains don’t really become “adult” until the age of about 25. (25?!? Will my daughter finally be able to dress herself appropriately by then?!? Will I be in my early sixties before getting out the door every morning doesn’t feel like a small miracle?) Walsh has helped us understand that the way our brains grow and develop is truly elegant and amazing, and that it takes a long time. And the resulting behavior during childhood and adolescence? Sometimes not so elegant and amazing. (I’m gonna need all the help I can get.)

It really is a great time to be a parent right now. It’s also a great time to be a professional who serves youth and families. Researchers, scientists, physicians, and other impressive people are working hard on expanding our knowledge about what is good for kids and families. Over at the University of Minnesota they’re working on something called Project EAT (Eating Among Teens). Their studies, among others, show that the simple act of regularly sharing a family meal could be one of the most important things we can do to contribute to the health and well-being of children as they grow. Children in families who eat together generally enjoy healthier food, but they are healthier in other ways too. They tend to do better in school, are less likely to smoke, drink or use drugs, less likely to have eating disorders or be overweight, less likely to be depressed, more likely to wait longer to have sex, and more likely to have a positive view of the future. Such a simple thing to do: eat dinner as a family.

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I’m constantly trying to get my intentions to match my behavior as a parent. For example, I intend to breeze home after a rewarding day at work and put an appealing and nutritious meal on the table over which my family can enjoy each other’s company and catch up on the happenings of the day. What actually happens is that I dash home later than I’d like at the end of a busy day, sling a store-bought meatloaf in the microwave while I take my coat off, take the crying baby from my husband, take a moment to explain not so calmly and for the one hundredth time the virtues of asking nicely for something to my 4-year-old (who whines about the meatloaf), feed myself while also feeding my 9-month-old who spreads her mooshy baby food all over her face, hands, hair and ears, and then herd the dishes to the sink. I almost always feel rushed and frazzled. But when we are sitting down together at dinner, things feel a bit more orderly and manageable. And we talk and connect with each other. And it feels good.

I’m fortunate to have a job that enriches my personal life as much as it does. This month, October, is Let’s Talk Month, during which we at Planned Parenthood focus on helping families to make stronger connections and to talk honestly and openly about sexual health and relationships. This year, we are encouraging families to talk more around the table by using the Let’s Talk Tablemat – a conversation-starter tool. Anything to help that family meal live on! I fully intend to take it home and put it on my table, along with the reheated leftover meatloaf.

Parenting is such a challenge. There is a daily-ness to it that doesn’t let up. My life is full. But I do, after all, like a challenge. Monday morning it was the sundress and sandals; this morning it was the snowpants and boots—my daughter’s choice for school, which takes place indoors. “We’ll wear those when we go sledding in the winter,” I say. My daughter starts whining. I keep it upbeat. “Let’s go find your jeans and sparkly shoes.”

We eventually make it out the door. Another small miracle. And tonight, I’m really looking forward to what we’ll talk about over that meatloaf.

Get more info on the Let’s Talk Tablemat on our website or use the buttons below to download the tablemat.

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Advice Sexuality

Get Real! Can I Start Dating When I Have a Mental Illness?

Heather Corinna

Does having a mental illness mean you can't have healthy sexual or romantic relationships, or that someone else can't have them with you? Nope.

Published in partnership with Scarleteen
Steelflower asks:

I’m a seventeen-year-old girl and ten months ago, I was diagnosed with a light form of pseudologica fantasia, usually known as mythomania. The basis of this illness is an addiction to telling lies. I’m seeing a therapist for this and she’s a very kind and competent woman, but she has warned me that this illness is usually hard to cure and there are few known cases where the therapy was actually able to get rid of the problem. I’m doing a better job at keeping it under control than I used to but the urge is still there. I just keep it under wraps and tackle the illness on my own, with the support of my nuclear family. The thing is, one of my friends has recently expressed a romantic interest in me, and I would very much like to get involved in a relationship with him, but this would mean disclosing my problem to him, because of course I’m not going to enter a relationship without telling the other person involved about this first.

I’m deadly frightened to tell him because this is something I am really ashamed of. I trust him and know my secret would be safe with him, but I’m terrified that he’ll suddenly find me disgusting, or frightening, or that he’ll never be able to trust me again – because honestly, who would fully trust someone who’s a compulsive liar? There’s so much stigma attached to lying that I sometimes feel broken. Like a leper, almost. This is getting a bit too dramatic for my taste, but that’s the only way to express how I feel. Do you have any advice about this situation and/or about being in a relationship when suffering from a mental illness? Thanks in advance.

Heather Corinna replies:

You’re right, there certainly is social stigma attached to lying. Really, it’s the usual motives for dishonesty which have the big bad rap, and we can probably agree that’s actually sound, but even though you know you don’t have an intent to deceive or manipulate anyone, and you have an illness that can compel you to lie, rather than lying being something you actively choose to do, I can understand why you feel the weight of all that regardless. Add that to the stigma attached to nearly any mental illness, and it’s unfortunately all too easy to feel very isolated, ashamed, scared about social interactions, and vulnerable. On top of all of that? Starting to date, period, can be mighty daunting too. I’m so sorry that you’re feeling the way that you are right now; it sounds pretty overwhelming.

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If it helps, I don’t think mental illness is something anyone needs to feel ashamed about.

I also think it’s important to try to keep in mind that the fact it’s stigmatized doesn’t mean that stigma is sound or right. Often what stigma demonstrates most is a lack of education, understanding, or compassion on behalf of those applying stigma. Mental illness is not a choice, just like having freckles, autism, or cerebral palsy aren’t choices. It’s something that happened to you entirely outside your control, something that doesn’t make you any less a good or valuable person than anyone without mental illness. It also sounds like you’ve been doing all you can and working hard to manage it well, which is the best anyone can do. No shame in any of that. And if you need an extra little boost right now, this page might be a help too. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think Abe Lincoln, Virginia Woolf, Vincent Van Gogh, John Keats, or Issac Newton—all people who had mental illnesses—were disgusting or frightening. I think that the fact they did the amazing things they did with mental illness makes them more awesome and exceptional, not less.

I also think someone thinking this deeply about these things, as you are, who is considering taking a pretty big emotional risk by disclosing something she’s scared about for the other person’s benefit? That person sounds very trustworthy to me, and like someone very invested in building trust and being very mindful about it—more mindful than most.

Whether we’re talking about a condition like yours, depression, borderline personality disorder, anxiety, or any other mental illness or mood disorder, the very first thing I’d always recommend is doing all you can to get a good mental healthcare provider to work with—you’ve already got that covered.

That person, I think, should be your lead point person for these questions about intimate relationships.

If you haven’t already talked about all of this with your therapist, that’s the first thing I’d suggest. I think the best first step is a fact-finding mission and an in-depth talk with someone educated about your condition who also knows you and how you have dealt with it so far. That way, you can have plenty of reliable information to consider in making choices with dating and disclosure.

If you’re unsure about what to ask her, I’d suggest questions like:

  • What is your opinion about someone with my illness, in the place I’m at with managing it, and romantic relationships?
  • What challenges do you feel I’ll face when it comes to an intimate relationship? What about a person I’m involved with? What might their challenges be?
  • Do you feel like I’m yet in the place where I can successfully pursue and maintain an intimate relationship? If you don’t think now is the right time for me to be dating, can you give me some things I can work on so I can work toward getting there?
  • What are some things you suggest people with my condition tell potential partners or even just people they’re dating? When do you suggest they tell them?
  • What are some tools you’ve seen other people with my condition use in their intimate relationships to deal with some of the particular challenges it might pose?
  • This (you describe this guy to her, your relationship with him so far, and what he says he’s looking for with you right now) is the opportunity I’m presented with. Does it sound like one you think could be beneficial and manageable for me?
  • What, if anything, do you think I need to accept I can’t do right now in terms of relationships? What do you think I can do?
  • How do you think I need to go about starting to date differently—if you do think I need to do anything differently—than someone without my condition might?
  • What are things you think I’d need someone I’m dating to be able to handle and manage when it comes to me, and vice versa? What kinds of people might not be a great fit? (For example, I’d imagine someone who already has a hard time trusting people would probably be a poor fit.)
  • If you do think it’s OK for me to try dating right now, can we come up with some tools and check-ins together so I can feel more confident, and less fearful, about trying this?

Once you have that information, I’d then take a look at how you feel in general when it comes to feeling up to dating. After all, figuring out if we’re ready to date in general, and then if we’re in the right head space right now, or with a given person, to do that, is something for everyone to do, not just someone with mental illness.

For instance, you voice what sounds like a big fear of rejection. That’s understandable, but if we’re going to start dating, rejection—or even people just taking a pass on being with us at some point—is something that’s always going to be a possibility, something we will always need to be up to dealing with, because it could always happen. I’d also do a self-check on how able you feel to take a pass on someone’s interest or not move things forward when that’s not really what you want. If and when someone feels like someone dating them would be doing them some monumental favor, it can be all too easy to have a hard time setting limits and boundaries. Pursuing intimate relationships likely to be healthy involves the self-esteem of everyone involved being in a good place; we’ve got to think well of and value ourselves as much as we do others, have some measure of resilience, and not be in the spot where we’re so emotionally hungry, we’ll eat anything, if you catch my drift.

Sometimes we’re in the right places in ways like that for dating or more serious relationships, and sometimes we’re just not. Sometimes, too, we’ll meet someone awesome, have great chemistry, and have an interest in exploring things further, but the timing is just off. It might be a bad time because we don’t feel up to possible rejection, because they’re in a last, tough year of school, or because someone is in the thick of a family crisis. And if and when that happens, everything else can be golden, but we might—or they might—take a pass and maybe just try again later when the timing is better.

By all means, I’d also consult your guts. What’s your instinct about all of this? Our intuitive feelings are feelings we can usually trust and do well giving a lot of weight to.

That all said, is this a close friend? It sounds like he is. I wonder if you’ve thought about telling him about your illness regardless?

Like you already voiced, having mental illness can make a person feel isolated, and all the more so if it’s something you’re not sharing with any friends so that you’ve got them as an extra support sometimes, or just feel like your friends really know you. Keeping this a secret from everyone also might be making those feelings of shame feel a lot bigger than they would without the silence.

Having at least one trusted friend who you can tell about this, and who knows about this, would probably be very good for you. This has got to feel like a pretty big burden to carry around without support outside your family and therapist. It might be that the simplest (which is not to say the easiest, or magically not at all scary for you) answer to all of this is to tell this guy either way. Another option, if you have more than this one friend, might be to first try telling a different—but still deeply trusted—friend about this first, rather than starting with a disclosure to someone where there’s romantic interest too, since that can obviously bump up the pressure and the fears around telling considerably.

If you do decide to share this information with this guy, and, in alignment with some of your fears here, it turns out he either can’t handle that information, or decides he isn’t OK dating you because of your illness, I want to tell you something.

I know, and you know, that this is something you can’t separate from yourself. In other words, it’s part of who you are, it doesn’t live neatly in some box separate from you. But not only is this something that is more of who you are than anything else—you’re a whole, big person made up of lots of things, not just your illness—someone else’s reaction to it, if they feel afraid, intimidated, or even really negative, also isn’t just about you.

Someone who decides that they either feel they can’t or just don’t want to deal with dating you because of your illness, specifically, is a lot like someone deciding they don’t want to or can’t handle being with someone who, for example, has a serious physical illness or has had some big trauma in their past. Sure, that’s about those things, but it’s also about the other person.

Not everyone is always going to be up to extra or specific challenges with a relationship, and that’s at least as much about them as it is about you. I hear and understand that you feel negatively about yourself because of this, but I’d encourage you to try and own those feelings as your own and not assume that someone who didn’t want to date you because of your condition think the things about you and it that you do. Someone who pans on dating you when they know about this, and because of this, may well not think any of those things. Those are your thoughts and feelings, but they may not be theirs.

They might instead be thinking things like, “That sounds like I’m going to have to spend time educating myself about this, and I don’t feel like I have that time,” or “I’m really worried that it’s something I won’t be able to handle, and I might hurt this already vulnerable person,” or “I really wanted something more light, this feels heavy right from the start,” or “If myself and her family and therapist are the only people who know, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to get what I need in terms of support or help I might need with parts of this. I get why she keeps it very private, but I don’t know if that would work for me.” They might pan because of your illness, because they have one of their own to deal with, and someone else’s feels like too much right now, or because they have someone in their family with mental illness and feel like they can only deal with that one right now. The point is, there are so very many reasons this might be an issue for someone, if it is, so many different things they might think, and none of them may be about being disgusted or frightened by you.

It’s tough, I know, to walk into parts of life feeling like a person who is “more work” than other people without illness might be or might seem to be. Let’s be real: It does suck, especially since you probably know (I hope you know) that any relationship with anyone can be challenging, or “more work,” or that something with anyone could seem to be light fare and wind up not being that at all. There’s really no denying that that feeling or perception stinks.

At the same time, someone might take a pass on pursuing a relationship with us for any number of reasons; this is just one. And if you do try to pursue something with this guy and it doesn’t progress or wind up happening after all, it might be because of your mental illness and his feelings about it, but it might be for any other number of reasons, like him realizing maybe he didn’t have the feelings he thought he did (or you realizing that), you two finding out you’re just a better fit as non-romantic friends, one or both of you discovering you don’t have enough time for a dating relationships, radically different politics or ideas about relationships, or one of you finding out that the other absolutely cannot stand your very favorite thing in the world.

By all means, I think taking the time to assess all of this as best you can first is a good move on your part, and I certainly do think it’s a big thing to think about and carefully consider, and not just for the other person’s sake, but for your own. You also need to take care of you. But it also isn’t all of who you are, nor is it the only potential thing that could cause a relationship conflict or someone to take a pass. So in the case that this is something you really want to pursue, your therapist is on board too, and you feel up to dating, period (again, mental illness or no), and with this particular person, I don’t see any reason not to pursue it.

I wish you the very best, and will leave you with some extra links that might help you out:

Advice Sexuality

Get Real! Why Can’t I Stop Being So Scared of Pregnancy?

Heather Corinna

Working with young people and sexuality daily, we frequently see users who have pervasive fears about becoming pregnant, even when they aren't taking risks to begin with.

Published in partnership with Scarleteen

lucyinthesky asks:

I have a problem, and I’m ready to crack with the stress of it. I’ve been on birth control (Yaz) for a year, to help with my acne, though I don’t always take it at the same time every day. Sometimes I’ve missed pills or taken them over 12 hours late. That shouldn’t really matter, though, because I’m not sexually active. My boyfriend and I have decided to wait until we get married to have sex. We only ever make out. Still, I find myself worrying about pregnancy risks even though there are no apparent ways to get pregnant from what we do. Some small part of my mind will whisper things like, “What if he has pre-ejaculate that seeps through his clothes onto you? What if he had a nocturnal emission that night he stayed over?” Nobody else I know seems to have this constant paranoia. I don’t understand why I spend half my time worrying about a pregnancy that most people understand is impossible. I’m not sure what I’m asking here, other than, have you ever seen this before—a girl terrified of something happening when it isn’t even likely? Is there any way I can help myself and get peace of mind? Thanks.

Heather Corinna replies:

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Not only have we seen this before, it’s something we see often. At our message boards, at least once or twice a week a user comes to us feeling exactly like you are. I promise, it’s not just you. Over the years, I’ve looked and looked for some kind of study on pervasive pregnancy worries when there’s not a likely risk, or when it’s been made clear someone is not pregnant, and when someone also really knows they’re not pregnant, but I’ve yet to find anything, beyond information on false or “hysterical pregnancy,” which isn’t what this is. So, I’m afraid I can’t offer you much of anything clinical, but I can certainly offer you my observations from seeing this over the years.

Some people do have a phobia specifically about pregnancy, birth, or parenting: tocophobia (sometimes spelled tokophobia or parturiphobia). In other words, just like some people have pervasive or seemingly illogical fears about heights or small spaces, some phobias are pregnancy-based, about becoming pregnant, being pregnant, and/or giving birth. This is more common than people think, especially in people who can actually become pregnant. Given what a huge deal and big life-changers pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting are, that’s not that surprising. This phobia, like any, is best addressed with a qualified therapist who treats phobias. If you feel this may be the case with you, it is something you’ll want to seek treatment for to feel better. That’s going to be particularly important if you ever do want to become pregnant, because even wanted pregnancy can be very emotionally difficult for someone with a pregnancy phobia.

Sometimes people may also have anxieties like this because they have an underlying general anxiety disorder that presents with sex, other intimacy, and/or pregnancy. The teens and 20s already tend to be full of big worries and heavy pressures, and sex and/or pregnancy certainly gives us some reasonable things to have big concerns about, but your generation is also often reported as having higher rates of anxiety than previous generations, particularly for young people who have come of age in the suburbs and/or in higher income brackets. I certainly feel we see more young people reporting anxiety of all types over the last few years than we have in years previous. As well, many people of your generation have been exposed to a lot of intentional fear-factoring about sex and pregnancy in your sex education, in the media, and through other cultural messaging, which can really play on a person’s existing anxieties.

My best advice for someone who thinks or knows they may have an anxiety disorder or phobia is to start at a general or psychological health-care provider‘s office. It never hurts to go, have a chat, and just see what a doctor says. In the case this is about anxiety as a whole, or a specific phobia, you probably won’t feel better without treatment, whether that’s talk therapy, a support group, medication, or another way of managing anxiety as well as qualified care to help you learn how to manage anxiety triggers and stress. For someone with anxiety or phobias, just taking away a given thing triggering them can help some, but often they’ll just wind up being triggered by other things that replace that one.

For those who don’t have anxiety in any area but this one, and who aren’t thought to have a phobia that is situational, there can be a few different things that may be going on, and a few different routes to feel better.

Do you feel well-informed about how pregnancy realistically happens? Paranoia is about illogical fear, but if a person doesn’t know what is and isn’t real, they may not be paranoid, but validly afraid of something they just don’t know they don’t need to be afraid of.

The idea that a pregnancy could happen by pre-ejaculate seeping through clothing is not sound. For a pregnancy to happen, a lot of factors need to be in play. You need to have an available ovum (egg) to fertilize, for one, which very rarely happens when someone is using a combined birth control pill properly. (However, you would probably feel at least a little better if you started taking your pills properly.) There also needs to be enough sperm and semen to create a pregnancy. While the typical idea is that it only takes one sperm, that’s not actually true. It only takes one to fertilize an ovum, but it takes a few hundred “helper” sperm for that one to do so. Seminal fluid is also important: it balances out the acidic nature of the vagina, keeps sperm viable and aids in their motility. Just like you’d have a hard time taking a long swim in a tiny rain puddle, sperm have a hard time swimming without enough fluid, too. Additionally, pre-ejaculate often does not contain any sperm at all, and when it does pull trace sperm from the urethra, it’s not usually enough to create a pregnancy.

But for all of that to even matter, there would have to be direct contact between your vulva or vagina and semen. If you two are wearing clothes, that can’t happen. Even with minimal clothing, it’s still unlikely with a full ejaculation, and I feel comfortable saying it’s not possible when we’re only talking about pre-ejaculate. Pre-ejaculate is a very small amount of fluid, certainly not enough to seep through two sets of clothing and then still get into your vagina. The same goes with wet dreams. Someone sleeping over who has one in the same bed won’t create a risk of pregnancy unless they happened to have that emission while their penis was inside your vagina.

Not knowing what your sex education has been, I can’t know what you do and don’t know about pregnancy, so let’s be sure you have those bases covered. Even if it doesn’t help with how you’re feeling, it is something you’ll want to know. Here are a couple links to get started with:

Did you already know all of that already, but find that you still feel really scared about becoming pregnant? Do you also feel like you’re pretty sure you don’t have any kind of anxiety disorder or phobia, something you’ve verified with a qualified healthcare provider?

One common denominator I often discover with feelings like yours, when I can really talk to someone about them deeply, is that they can often be traced back to sexual guilt or shame. I once counseled a young woman who was absolutely convinced, despite many negative pregnancy tests, menstrual periods, and even an ultrasound that confirmed she wasn’t pregnant that she was pregnant. At a certain point, she knew it wasn’t reasonable, but she also just could not seem to let those feelings go. In talking with her, she eventually voiced that because her family and culture was so strongly unaccepting of someone unmarried having sex, she felt she deserved to be punished, to pay some kind of price for choosing to have sex. So she had convinced herself she must be pregnant because that’s the kind of “punishment” women who have sex that isn’t socially sanctioned get, and she wasn’t worthy of being spared. This is one common thread I’ve seen in women having these kinds of pervasive and unfounded fears, especially for women who have grown up with very socially or religiously conservative communities or views or with sexual shaming.

I don’t know what your background has been like or how you feel about whatever kinds of sex you are engaging in. But if you feel that in some way it’s very much not okay for you to be having whatever kinds of sex you are having, or moving towards other kinds of sex, or people you care about or are strongly influenced by feel that way, this could be part of the issue.

You voice that you and your boyfriend are saving sex for marriage and that you are not sexually active, but if you are having some kinds of sex—like the dry humping or oral sex—some of these feelings may be coming up because those things are kinds of sex. That’s a lot more obvious once people have had intercourse and know it’s only so different, but it’s still something people can intuitively feel because you know when you or a partner are having sexual feelings and desires and know when you’re putting them into action. If your personal values are such that you feel sex needs to be saved for marriage, it’d be understandable that having some kinds of sex may not be making you feel good because it may be outside your values and only be something you’re rationalizing as being within them. Sometimes when we rationalize things in a way that isn’t sound, while our brains may accept those rationalizations, our deeper feelings don’t fall for it.

I don’t personally share those kinds of ideas about sex and marriage, so please be sure that I’m not making judgments here or suggesting you’ve done something wrong or bad. But if you have different values than I do in this regard, which you clearly may given what you’ve said, you may need to check in with yourself to be sure what you’re doing does fit with what your own values and sexual ideals are. This might also be something to talk with your boyfriend about, because even if you’re feeling OK about this, if he isn’t, his conflict might be something you’re reacting to. If you feel like those values aren’t really yours, but the values of others, then you may want to spend some time trying to clarify what your own values are and some time letting go of values you may have grown up with but don’t share as you’re coming into your own.

Something else that often comes up in discussions with other women feeling like you have been are problems with the interpersonal context it’s happening in. In other words, these feelings can be emotional cues that a relationship isn’t a good one, or isn’t the right one for a given person at a given time in his or her life. How supportive and responsive is your boyfriend being to these fears you’re having? Has he suggested you two spend time talking them through, maybe step back with any kind of sex, and made clear that there’s no pressure on you to do anything sexual, even just making out, if you don’t feel OK about it yet? If he hasn’t, some of your feelings may be about feeling pressured or unsupported or worrying that soon enough, you will have valid reasons to be afraid of an unwanted pregnancy.

The very best advice I feel I can ever give someone feeling like you are if this isn’t about overall anxiety or a phobia is to suggest you think deeply about if any kind of sex or intimate contact is truly right for you right now. It may not be, and your feelings here may be intuitive cues about that. If one isn’t trying to create a pregnancy, the primary reason for having any kind of sex tends to be about feeling good, physically and emotionally, for yourself and also in relationship to the person you’re having sex of any kind with. If how you wind up feeling before, during, and/or after is mostly not good, but instead worried, terrified and freaked out, and/or isolated in your concerns, then it really doesn’t make much sense to have any kind of sex or making out that’s eliciting those feelings because you’re getting very little, if any, of the good parts.

It might help to sit down and make a list of pros and cons—of the ways physical intimacy makes you feel good and the ways it doesn’t, with positive feelings on one side and negative feelings on the other. I’d also include what you have experienced as good outcomes and as bad ones, or what could be good ones and could be bad ones. Then you can look at all of those things on paper and perhaps better assess if this is right for you right now or not. There’s so often a lot swimming around in our heads about sex and relationships that being able to see it on paper, in black and white, can be very helpful.

A lot of young people have the idea that when it comes to any kind of sex, once a person starts having that kind of sex, in general or in a specific relationship, he or she is tacitly agreeing to have that kind of sex ever after. But in the reality of many people’s lives, and certainly in healthy relationships and self-care, that’s not how it goes. Instead, there will be times in our lives, in certain relationships, even just from day-to-day, where we’ll want to be sexual and feel good about it, and times when we won’t. We’ll have times we choose to be sexual and times we choose not to. Those choices tend to be made not just around what our own sexual or interpersonal desires are and those of someone else, but also around what we think we and others can handle based on the whole context of our lives. For instance, sometimes we can’t afford birth control or just don’t want to deal with it, sometimes we’re so tired from other demanding areas of our lives we just don’t feel we can be fully present with sex, and sometimes we’re grappling with challenging feelings from something else going on that the various risks, positive and negative, sex of any kind can pose just feel like too much for us.

There’s never anything wrong with determining that any given time in our lives isn’t a right one for physical intimacy with others. It doesn’t mean we’re immature, that we don’t really love someone, or that we’re somehow deficient; it just means we’re recognizing—usually because of maturity, wisdom, and love—that sex or intimacy isn’t something that’s always right at every time, but which instead tends to require a unique set of circumstances that we’re just not always in, or which isn’t always available to us.

Often when we give the suggestion that taking any kind of sex off the table for a bit might be best, one common reaction we hear is that someone feels they just can’t do that because they may lose or jeopardize a relationship in which some kind of sex either feels like it’s required or is tacitly required.

If you feel that way, this fear may be really useful in learning something about healthy relationships. Having any kind of sex or physical contact—even just something like making out—because you feel you have to to keep someone around isn’t a recipe for a healthy, happy relationship or a healthy sexuality and sense of self, for either person. It certainly isn’t for the person engaging in any kind of physical contact he or she either doesn’t really want or doesn’t feel ready to handle, but it also isn’t for the other person either. Healthy people who want sex with other people to actually be about both people are not going to tend to want a sexual partner who doesn’t fully want to be doing what they are with them, or who is only doing so out of feelings of obligation or fear.

I can’t know what you want in a romantic or sexual relationship. But I’m willing to bet that you’d probably like those relationships to have a dynamic where you and any partner are only doing things that matter and can have deep impact—that you and they really want to do and that you and they feel good about—since that’s what most of us want.

By all means, everyone doesn’t have the same level of maturity or the same level of really seeing past their own wants, and not everyone is emotionally healthy or really ready for intimacy with other people. Some people we might pair up with may not be respectful and fair if we voice we don’t want to do something sexual or physical. What I’d advise in that case is that you do yourself a good turn and only choose partners who don’t behave like that. If you feel like those are the only partners available to you, something I’ve also heard some young women voice, then I’d say your best bet is to wait until you have better choices, because you will. However hungry I may be, if all that’s available to me is food that’s rotten or poisoned, it’d be better for me to just go without eating, and I’d say the same is true here.

As well, we all get to decide what kind of relationships we want, so even if someone really wants a sexual relationship, you may still voice that one isn’t what you want and need at a given time. They get to do that, but if and when they do, the answer isn’t to make yourself do things you don’t want or feel you can handle. Rather, it’s to acknowledge your different needs or readiness, part ways amicably, and both seek out relationships that are a better fit for each of you.

Pema Chodron wrote about stress and anxiety that “everything that occurs is not only usable and workable but it is actually the path itself. We can use everything that happens to us as the means for waking up.” What she means by that is that often, pervasive worries like this are valuable cues for us to potentially recognize ways we need to grow or change how we’re living our lives we might not have recognized otherwise. Maybe in your case this just is not the right time of life, relationship, or overall situation for you to be sexual. Maybe this specific relationship has something in it that isn’t quite right, needs to be talked out, or just doesn’t suit you. Maybe it’s about taking a look at feelings of guilt and either clarifying or adjusting your values so they fit you better or, if you feel your values now are authentic to you, living in greater alignment with those values. Maybe it’s a cue that you’re carrying too much stress in your whole life in general and need to find some ways to manage it better or a cue that you have an anxiety disorder or phobia you need qualified help to manage.

I’m sorry I can’t give you an easy answer here, because I hate for anyone to suffer this way. But I just can’t know which of any of the possibilities here is the case for you or if this is about something I haven’t identified here at all. Sometimes getting to the root of fears is really challenging and takes some time and introspection. I’d encourage you to invest time and energy in thinking about all of this, ideally giving yourself that time without doing anything that triggers those fears at the same time. Ask for any help and perspective you need—again, maybe that’s asking a counselor, maybe talking to your boyfriend or friends, or maybe talking to a parent, doctor, religious leader, or community member. You’re going to be the expert in finding your best sources of counsel and support. I’d also encourage you to try and consult your own instincts and to put trust in them: they really can tell us an awful lot, and so often we’re taught to give those feelings less weight than they deserve.

I’m going to leave you a few extra links that might help, along with my very best wishes. If you want to talk more about this, you’re more than welcome to come over to our message boards, and I’d be glad to talk more with you.