Performance anxiety is rooted in fear and it is the fear of sexual failure in the future based on sexual failure in the past. The fear itself is not rational and is not adaptive in any way. Performance anxiety is also rooted in a variety of irrational beliefs, faulty sexual scripts and thinking errors that fuel the cycle of anxiety and impedes natural sexual function.
Thinking errors are also known as cognitive distortions. They are patterns of thought that are exaggerated or irrational and result in an inaccurate perception of reality. In other words, thinking errors are ways in which your brain is lying to you because of faulty connections that were made between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The brain tends to make these faulty or incorrect connections during periods of stress, anxiety or depression.
Men with performance anxiety are more prone to thinking errors along with faulty sexual scripts that promote various myths and misconceptions about male sexuality.
Here are some common performance anxiety related thinking errors that come into play:
1. All or nothing thinking-
This is also known as black and white thinking and seeing things in terms of extremes such as people are great or awful. Men with performance anxiety tend to see themselves as complete failures based on a handful of unsuccessful sexual experiences. An example of all or nothing thinking would be the thought, “I am a complete failure because my erection was not as hard as I want it to be.”
This involves focussing one instance or example and generalizing it to an overall pattern. In performance anxiety, this distortion comes into play in the form of generalized thoughts about future failure based on past failure. An example could be, “ Since I could not get hard the last time we had sex, I won’t be able to get hard the next time we try.”
3. Mind reading-
This distortion is about the irrational belief that we know what others are thinking. Often, it involves jumping to negative conclusions about a person or a situation based on what we believe others might be thinking. Men struggling with performance anxiety often make assumptions about what their partners are feeling and often the assumptions are negative- i.e., “I know she thinks I am not man enough.”
4. Fortune telling-
This distortion is very similar to mind reading because it involves predicting the future without any evidence or facts. The prediction is often negative and not based on any facts. In performance anxiety, this distortion comes into play in the form of predicting future sexual experiences as complete failures. For example, “ I already know how it’s going to go the next time we try to have sex- I won’t be able to get hard.”
5. Assuming the worst-
This is also known as catastrophizing or assuming that the worst will happen. Another variation of catastrophizing is magnifying mistakes and failures. An example of this cognitive distortion in the context of performance anxiety is, “ If I don’t have hard erections, my wife/partner will leave me for someone else.”
6. Disqualifying the positive-
This distortion involves not acknowledging positive experiences or choosing to not internalizing them. When something positive happens, the focus is on trying to reject the positivity by attributing it to chance or other factors. Men struggling with performance anxiety often dismiss any encouragement or compliments that their partner is trying to give them. An example is, “ My wife doesn’t want to hurt my feelings and that is why she said that sex was fun last night.”
7. Emotional reasoning-
This cognitive distortion surfaces in the idea that our feelings are facts. In other words, if someone feels something, it must be true. An example of this thinking error manifesting itself in the context of performance anxiety is, “Because I feel that I am a failure as a man, it must be true” or “ Because I feel that my erection does not satisfy my partner, it must be true.”
8. Using should statements-
This is a very damaging distortion because it gives rise to guilt. By trying to abide by a set of rules based on what we should, must or ought to be doing, we set ourselves up for guilt when we are unable to meet those self-imposed and rigid expectations. Men struggling with performance anxiety often report that their inner dialogue is dominated by should, must and ought. An example is, “ I should get an erection every time I am in the mood for sex” or “ I must have firm erections to satisfy my partner” or “ Real men ought to be ready to have sex anytime.”
If you are struggling with issues related to sexual confidence and were able to identify at least one thinking error that contributes to your performance anxiety, working with a sex therapist can help you work through such faulty mental scripts.
Rosen, R., Leiblum, S., & Spector, I. (1994). Psychologically based treatment for male erectile disorder: A cognitive-interpersonal model. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 20, 67-85.