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Arousal Non-concordance and Self-Compassion

Typically, we know what turns us on. But what happens when what normally works - or what we THINK should work - isn’t turning us on? Or, what happens when something turns us on against our will?

We may panic and think the worst of ourselves. “There must be something wrong with me! See how my body is reacting! It must know me even better than I know myself!”

We might also beat ourselves up for not being aroused enough. “They’ll think I’m not into them. I don’t want to hurt their feelings by saying anything. Real men can stay hard. They’re going to think I’m too old to become wet.”

There are plenty of times when our cognitive and emotional desires do not match physical arousal, and this is completely normal. This is called arousal non-concordance and everyone experiences it.

So what can we do?

  • Engage in self-compassion: Accept that you have a human body. Thank it for all that it does for you. Acknowledge that it is doing something kind of funky right now and that’s okay. It doesn’t say anything about your desires or you as a person.

  • Remind yourself this won’t last forever: This will pass and there will be times when your mind and body are aligned again.

  • Engage your senses: Feeling distressed about your body’s reactions? Try some different grounding techniques, like eating something tart, touching something cold, doing jumping jacks, smelling a bag of coffee beans or counting how many red objects are in the room.

  • Communicate with your partner(s): Consider how you might talk to your partner(s) when you are experiencing arousal non-concordance. When might be the best time to mention it? How can you communicate this when you are being physically intimate? What resources (see below) can you bring into this conversation to alleviate feelings of rejection?

  • Switch it up: Sometimes our minds are turned on, but our bodies aren’t. Sex and intimacy is still possible! Non-penetrative sex, toys, and lube are great tools to facilitate intimacy, even if our bodies are not feeling it.*

  • Reflect: What might your body be trying to tell you about how you feel right now? Sometimes, arousal non-concordance can be triggered by stress or traumatic events in our past. Is this something worth bringing up with your therapist or someone in your support network?

  • You’re in control / Take responsibility: Someone’s body being physically aroused is NOT a green light for consent, and it does not mean they “secretly” want physical intimacy or were “confused.”** Just because someone is aroused does not entitle someone else to sex. Just because someone is aroused doesn’t mean they are going to hurt someone else. Remember that however your body is reacting, you have full control of your actions.

*If your partner(s) is pressuring you to have sex when you are not consenting, this may be something useful to bring up to your therapist and others in your support system. You have a right to when, how, with whom, where, with what and why you engage in physical intimacy.

**When we experience violence, our body’s reactions can be incredibly confusing to us, but these reactions can actually be natural ways we respond to protect ourselves. If you’re curious about this, talk more with your clinician.

Media recommendations:

@Queersextherapist at instagram

unwanted arousal: it happens by Emily Nagoski (tw: discussion of sexual assault)

Boston Area Rape Crisis Center 24/7 Hotline Number 800-841-8371

Pleasure Activism by adrienne marie brown

Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski


Sam Barklow is a second-year Masters in Social Work candidate at Boston College. She is a warm and empathetic counselor who believes that all of her clients have the knowledge and abilities to feel more at peace and balanced in their daily lives. She views counseling as an opportunity for both her and clients to explore different perspectives, talk through emotions and to connect with other people.

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