Our Psychosexual Story
Our lives hold many stories. We have a family story an educational story, a faith story, and a health story. We have a work story, a crisis story, and a creativity story.
We also have a psychosexual story. This dimension of our personal history involves the mysterious convergence of circumstances, events, experiences, and choices that have brought us to our present stage of integration or woundedness. Our psychosexual story contains all the moments of growth, excitement, discovery, pain, struggle, and questioning in our relational lives.
This is the story of our growing up — our journey toward friendship and human communion. It is the story of our physical and emotional awakenings, our yearnings and our fantasies, our soaring feelings and our broken hearts, our desires and our dependencies, our struggles with shame and our breakthroughs to mutuality. In our formative journey it is important to take stalk of our sexual story in order to affirm the positive experiences that contributes to wholeness and holiness and to integrate past wounds that might potentially be wounding to self and others.
Each of us grows up with a desire to connect: to find safety, nourishment, and protection when we are infants; to discover playmates and friends when we are in school; to choose a way of life, which includes the significant person or persons who will be our companions. These people become a vital part of the way we walk through time. Some, like our families, may be part of our entire journey in one way or another. Others enter our story at certain significant times as classmates, friends, fellow workers, colleagues, or lovers, and then they disappear. Still others — usually only a few — are in some way bonded to us through the most important times of our growing and changing. They are the real life companions, the “significant others” who know our hearts and love us in our weaknesses as well as our gifts.
The Importance of Our Psychosexual Story
What does our psychosexual story have to do with healthy development? Why should we spend time exploring these memories and messages? How will this help us to become more integrated in our relational lives?
The answer to these questions has to do with the importance of self-knowledge and self-acceptance in our journey toward integration. Whether or not we are aware of it, our sexual and relational history exerts a powerful influence on our self-esteem. And our self-worth, in turn, affects our capacity for friendship, our style of interacting with others, and our way of relating to God.
Our psychosexual story is like an emotional “memory bank” that stores all the events and experiences related to our relational development from our earliest moments of life. Its data is stored both in our conscious memory and in our unconscious mind. This vital flow of experience is also traced out in our physical self as “body memories.”
Becoming more comfortable with our psychosexual story marks the difference between responsible awareness and psychic denial, between living in the light or hiding in the dark. When we know our story, we can begin to heal our past, embrace our present, and shape our future.
Approaching Our Psychosexual Story with Reverence
Our sexuality is close to the core of our being. In some mysterious way, it shapes our identity as human persons and conveys something about the way in which each of us is an imago Dei — an image of a loving and creative God. Perhaps this is why we experience our sexual feelings and memories as being so deeply personal and private. Perhaps this is why we carry them in our hearts with such care and protectiveness.
The willingness to spend time reflecting on our psychosexual story is itself an act of courage and openness. Entering into this process of reflection has its risks. Some of our memories will be warm and comforting, exciting and reassuring, perhaps even wrapped in reverie and nostalgia. But there are other memories that will bring back the searing pain of rejection, failure, or betrayal. We will likely have to confront our unfinished growth, our unresolved pain, our unnamed fears, and our lingering feelings of guilt.
Even more important than courage and honesty, therefore, is a stance of reverence, a willingness to be gentle with our past experience and our present selves. When we reflect on our psychosexual story we are journeying into a paradoxical land of hope and hurt, strength and need, generosity and selfishness, love and brokenness. We are walking not only on the intense ground of ecstasy, but also on the fragile soil of unfulfilled dreams and aching memories. Most importantly, we are standing on the “holy ground” where God has laid plans for love. We want to suggest a simple guideline for approaching our psychosexual stories: Listen to your story with openness and honesty. But do not judge your story. Do not put unwarranted negative labels on your past, or you will “bruise” it. If it is subjected to harsh judgments, it will not be able to reveal itself as a journey with God.
Listening to Our Psychosexual Story with Trust
Each of our stories is a graced venture into the unknown, a sometimes painful, sometimes joyful encounter with the energies of love and hatred, acceptance and rejection, trust and betrayal. Our psychosexual story is one of the ways we discover “some of the best stuff God did.”
What does it mean to listen to our psychosexual story? What does this look like in practice? How can we retrieve our memories and begin to see them as part of a journey toward integration?
Listening comes in a variety of intensities. But before it is a focused awareness, it is first an attitude of the heart — a willingness to be receptive to the truth. Listening is a stance of openness toward our lives and our experience. In this case, it is an openness to our sexual memories and the events and relationships that have shaped our search for love.
It is no accident that the Shemah Israel — the great commandment of love, which every Jewish person was to “keep in their hearts” (Dt 6:4—6) — begins with a single, dramatic command: Listen! Love begins and ends with listening. So too does the understanding and healing of our relational memories. Our growth and integration involve our willingness to circle back to that attentive stance.
In addition to the attitude of non-judgemental reverence, which we mentioned above, we also recommend that people begin listening to their psychosexual stories in a stance of prayerfulness. Our lives are mysteries that ultimately evade our attempts to categorize them. We discover that our origin and our destiny is a love beyond our comprehension. In some way, each of us can claim the words of Jesus as our own: “I came from God and have come into the world. Now I am leaving the world and am going to God” (Jn 16:28). Living and loving is what we do between coming from God and returning to God. The most fruitful way to gain access to our story is in the presence of the God who is our beginning and our end.
In practice, listening to our psychosexual story means taking the time to be with our memories. Initially, this will probably mean time alone, time to be quiet and to let the silence speak to us, time to let memories begin to surface and play around the edges of our consciousness, time to go for walks or light a candle and just sit, time to spend jotting down memories, journaling our feelings, or, if we are so inclined, sketching images from our past.
We meet many people who report that they have few, if any, recollections of sexual feelings or experiences as children. They are often surprised to discover that once they become receptive and welcoming, the images and memories begin to return to their awareness.
Listening to our psychosexual story also involves taking the risk of asking questions. It means talking to our parents about their relationship and their memories surrounding our birth and infancy. It involves the willingness to explore our family’s attitudes and messages around sexuality. It could mean conversations with our brothers and sisters or our other relatives about our shared past and early life experience.
At some point, we might also find it helpful to write out our psychosexual story for ourselves and share it with a close friend, a spiritual director, or a counsellor. When we facilitate retreats on the topic of human sexuality, we often invite participants to begin sharing their stories, at the level at which they are comfortable, in a small group setting. Listening to our personal story and sharing it with people whom we can trust can be a powerful experience of growth and healing.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND SHARING
1. What do you know about the circumstances of your mother’s pregnancy while she carried you? How was her physical and emotional health? Did she smoke, drink alcohol, or use any drugs while pregnant? How long had it been since she delivered a previous child before she became pregnant with you? What kind of support system did she have?
2. How did your mother spend her days while she was pregnant with you? What was the level of emotional stability in her environment at the time? Who else lived in the house? What would it have been like to be a baby in her womb?
3. What do you know about your mother’s labour and delivery with you? Where were you born? Who attended your birth? Were there any complications? Did you ever hear your birth story?
4. What questions do you have about your own prenatal experience?
5. How do you think you have been affected by your prenatal experiences? Do you recognize any connection between: Your mother’s pregnancy experiences and your current level of self-esteem? Sense of belonging? Degree of interior calmness or anxiety? Right to be here?
1. What “body memories,” stories, or imaginings do you have about how you were held as a baby? Nursed? Tended? What relationship do you recognize between these early experiences and your current level of comfort with body touch? Giving and receiving affection? Feeling physically needy or physically comfortable?
2. What baby pictures have you seen of yourself? What do you think/feel your experience was like as a baby? Or what was it like to be a baby in your family when you were born?
3. What do you recall about your play experiences? Playmates? Favourite toys? Games? How do these relate to your interests in people today? Enjoyments?
4. What memories do you have around self-pleasuring (masturbation)? Childhood sex play? Body exploration?
5. Were there any traumas during your childhood? Sexual abuse? Being “caught” during sex play or body exploration? Any punishments related to sexual behaviour?
6. What do you remember, or what have you been told, about coming to understand your gender identity (maleness or femaleness)? How were boys and girls valued in your family? Treated differently? What were the family rules for “boy behaviour” and “girl behaviour”?
7. What messages did you receive about sex and sexuality as a child from parents? Siblings? Friends? Church? School? What effect did these messages have then? Now? Which ones were helpful? Not helpful?
8. How do you think your childhood experiences of sexuality express themselves today in your:
- level of body comfort and self-esteem?
- feelings of sexual arousal?
- interior “self-talk” about your sexuality?
- ways of attempting to connect with others as a man or a woman?
- degree and type of sexual guilt? Discomfort? Comfort?
1. What are your spontaneous memories of your adolescent years? Take some time to go back to your high school annuals or other memorabilia. What feelings and memories are evoked?
2. How did you obtain your first sexual information as an older child or a young adolescent? What were your parents’ attitudes about sexuality? What messages did you get from them directly? Indirectly?
3. What are your memories around self-pleasuring during this period? What was your level of sexual exploration and experience? What kinds of feelings surrounded these experiences?
4. Were there any experiences of sexual trauma or sexual abuse during your adolescent years? If so, how have these events affected you? What kind of healing or help have you had as part of your recovery?
5. How did you feel about yourself as a young man or a young woman? What were your “self-messages” or “self-talk”? What was happening in your friendships and your relationships? Your dating history?
6. What awareness did you have about the direction of your sexual orientation? If you felt you were same-sex oriented, or wondered about this, how did you respond to this awareness?
7. Who were you able to talk to about sexuality as an adolescent? Who could you confide in? Get information from?
8. What do you recall about the content of your sexual fantasies during this time of your life?
9. What were your experiences of guilt during adolescence? What did you do with those feelings?
1. What have been your sexual experiences and behaviours as an adu1t? What do you feel best about? Worst about?
2. What are your most urgent questions? With whom have you shared them? How are you attempting to answer them?
3. What is the content of your sexual fantasy life at this time in your life? Are there any patterns that you recognize and tend to elicit of violence toward others? Manipulation? Self-.depreciation?
4. How sensitive are you to the needs, moods, and desires of those closest to you? How do you express this sensitivity in words and actions?
5. How do you fee! about your body today? How well do you know it? Care for it? What do you like best about it? What do you wish you could change?
6. How would people who know you best describe you? What adjectives would they use?
7. How faithful are you to your commitments? Can you trust others? Be trusted?
8. What needs to happen to promote greater growth toward wholeness in your relational/psychosexual life? What do you hope for the future?
From FERDER, F. – HEAGLE, J., Your Sexual Self, Indiana 1992.