Pop-culture “wellness” often pathologizes desire. We are promised that if we can ignore physical hunger, meet our own needs emotionally, and keep our sexual desire confined, we’ll be okay and we won’t have to suffer the affliction of desire.
This marketing-tactic is so ingrained that most of us (particularly women) have swallowed it whole. However, being a whole, healthy, complex human means allowing desire to exist, honoring it, satisfying it in ways that are accessible and life-giving. It also means holding with care, and without shame, desires that remain unmet.
What is Desire – Really?
Desire is the innate sense deep within your body of “wanting.” It is the feeling of longing for or hoping for something, which drives the impulse to “have” or to attain an object of desire. Sometimes, the object of our desire is a goal we want to reach, a physical need we seek to meet, or an object that would bring pleasure. Often, what we deeply desire is connection with another person.
Desire is normal. It’s a deeply human feeling, and it’s emotion which drives our natural processes: you feel hungry = you desire food = you nourish yourself, or you feel lonely = you desire connection = you text your friend.
What we do with desire varies. For many people, especially female-identifying people, we pathologize our desire as proof that something is “wrong” with us for wanting connection (which gets named “needy”), wanting comfort (which gets named “indulgence”), or wanting rest (which gets named “lazy”). When desire is demonized in this way, we may begin to believe that our desires cannot be trusted and that our desires are not in our best interest.
For some, the simple fact that desire is based in emotion and intuition makes desire feel untrustworthy.
Honoring the Desire for Food
Our society has a complex relationship with food. Food is often seen as the enemy, making those who openly desire food and satiate that desire with satisfaction appear in pop culture as villains or heroes, depending on the context (and the person’s body is represented).
While many researchers, educators, and activists are working to unpack our society’s baggage around food, here’s what we can agree on: we need food to exist. So, the desire for food? It is a good thing!
Research also shows a link between feeding your physical hunger and “feeding” your body: Eating, it appears, allows our bodies to find and enjoy beautiful and important things in life. The process of slowing down, recognizing cues for hunger, and nourishing your body (meeting that desire for food) is not only nourishing to your body, it is replenishing your soul. Research also shows that this mindful approach toward nourishing the body can help overcome complex relationships with food involved in disordered eating patterns.
Giving our bodies permission to desire food and fulfill that desire is important. If we ignore this internal voice for an extended time, the voice may burst through: hunger turns into an uncontrollable urge to binge, pain ignored turns into a breakdown-injury, or our unnoticed fatigue delivers us to the doorstep of burnout or breakdown. However, when our brains know food is available and our bodies (re)learn how to feel and respond to hunger, fullness, and appetite cues we are actually free to make choices that honor desire, nurture our bodies, and care for our mental health.
Honoring the Desire to Be Loved
We all desire to be loved and to be connected. This is the basis for Attachment Theory: the idea that beginning in infancy and throughout our entire lives, we seek connection with others. In fact, we thrive in connection with others and deteriorate in isolation. We all desire to be loved, to be part of something, to feel desired, etc.
Individuals raised in families of origin that shamed or rejected attempts at connection or bids for attention, may feel shame when they notice their desire for connection. Hearing harmful and shaming voices from their past, some people believe wanting to be loved means they are “needy,” or wishing a romantic partner would express more affection makes them “clingy.” In fact, with the exception of extreme examples, these desires are normal expressions of a being attached via relationships to other people.
So, if you feel this desire: you are not alone.
Honoring this desire can look like:
- Cultivating healthy relationships.
- Investing in the relationships around you, and allow those relationships to invest in you (this takes vulnerability!).
- Building trust through emotional consent and tiered trauma disclosure
- Intentionally developing communication skills (through education or therapy)
- Investing effort, time, and practice communication in relationships
- Honoring our desire for relationships in these ways can often result in richer and more emotionally supportive relationships.
Honoring Sexual Desire
For a variety of reasons, conversations on the topic of sex are uncomfortable for many people. Our shame and discomfort discussing sex and sexual health may be rooted in cultural shame around sex, religious beliefs/backgrounds, a lack of open conversation about it in society, or past trauma*. Whatever the case, sexual desire is often the quickest desire to be pathologized. (Again, particularly for women).
Despite this culture of discomfort around the topic, we’re all sexual people who are the product of intimacy between sexual people. Given that, can’t we make space to imagine that sexual desire could be natural, and maybe even good? While there is controversy regarding how desire can be perceived, especially in women, research shows that sexual desire has direct relations to attachment, and can reduce insecurities in relationships, with much more emerging research challenging our cultural sexual shame coming as a new generation of researchers approach these sensitive questions.
One way to honor sexual desire, even for those currently unpartnered, is through a mindfulness practice that includes noticing these feelings, exploring them, and accepting them. It also looks like reflecting on where the message that “sexual desire is not good,” came from, and why that inner voice is still so loud.
Sexual drives are a natural part of human life, when we pathologize sexual desire we deny the goodness of a natural, healthy, full life.
*Note: When past sexual trauma is the root of sexual shame, often recovery of healthy attitudes around sex requires more than just reframing and mindfulness. Many survivors find that a therapy can help. Many abuse survivors find the book The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse by Wendy Maltz to be helpful in recovery.
Desire is good. It is more than good: it is necessary!
Desire guides us toward what we need and allows us to cultivate longing for what we want in life. Pathologizing these innate responses in our minds, emotions, and bodies devalues ourselves and reinforces the idea that we cannot trust ourselves. Our desire, however, is deeply and beautifully human- and when it is held well, it can provide a compass to help navigate us towards a fulfilling life.
Recommended reading on this topic:
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by Emily Nagoski