Reliving the Past: How to Get Rid of Unwanted Fantasies

Tuesday, August 23, 2016 by Meg   •   Filed under Sexuality/Relationships

After the San Francisco earthquake of 1989, child care centers across the country noted the emergence of a game called “earthquake,” where children, without provocation, acted out an earthquake scene over and over again, processing the trauma in such a way as to be powerful at the end1.  This is an example of an automatic, impulsive fantasy reenactment, an obvious response to one event that needed to be dealt with. 

But we are more complicated than that in most other areas. Sexual fantasies can run the gamut from “Hey, Baby,” to, “Oh dear, god, why the fuck am I thinking about that!?” because of their tendency to be representative as opposed to literal. For example, donkey fantasies are usually more about..ahem…size and not having to worry about a parter as opposed to wanting to fuck an actual donkey. As a general rule, fantasies may increase pleasure, or on the flip side represent certain unresolved elements of our pasts, functioning to desensitize us to traumas, or helping us to overcome guilt or shame (discussed more here in Whips Chains and Penises, OH MY! Fantasy and the Feminist Argument for Bondage).

But if you are convinced that the fantasies are literal (and sometimes if you aren’t), they can freak you out and become like intrusive thought patterns, an obsession more than a desire, the fear of the thoughts as well as their link to past pleasure driving them to continue, much like what initially happened to Hazel in the book Beyond the Break and to Jim in Famished.

So what to do if a distressing fantasy keeps coming up?

When to Erase a Fantasy

Fantasies that feel out of control or are intrusive by taking someone places they don’t want to go can lead to frustration and sexual shut down. Some of these fantasies include beastiality (animal lovin’), pedophila (which is very common after childhood molestation), and any visions that are otherwise at odds with personal values. So if my fantasy involves having sex with a donkey, or a cucumber, where the fuck am I supposed to go with that (besides the farmer’s market)? 

In Private Thoughts: Exploring the Power of Women’s Sexual Fantasies, Maltz and Boss suggest asking yourself2:

  1. Does the fantasy lead to risky behavior?
  2. Does it feel out of control? 
  3. Is it disturbing or repulsive to you?
  4. Does the fantasy hinder personal growth?
  5. Does it lower self worth?
  6. Does it distance you from a real life partner?
  7. Is it harmful to you, your partner or others?
  8. Does is cause sexual issues such as shut down? 
  9. Does the fantasy belong to someone else? (This one is common in cases of early sexual activity and molestation, where pornography or the fantasies of others are thrust upon children, leading them to adopt the fantasies of their abusers.)

Okay, got it. Fantasies should enhance lovemaking and sexual pleasure, not detract from it. We should be able to own them and enjoy them. And when we can’t we might need to do something about them.

How to Get Rid of an Unwanted Fantasy

First and foremost, most people are better able to let fantasies go after discussing them with a therapist. In working through the root that caused a disturbing fantasy to emerge, the need for the fantasy itself tends to decrease. But there are a few other things you can try at home to attack the fantasy itself. While not all of the following require sexual activity to practice, these techniques can be explored with a supportive partner or through masturbation first. 

Reducing Fantasy With Cognitive Behavioral Exposure Therapy

If you determine that the fantasy is an issue for you, and you would like to release it, you may benefit from exposure therapy. With sexual fantasy, the big thing is to make it boring and no longer arousing. Some write the fantasy out over and over again until it no longer creates any feelings, amorous or otherwise. Others tape record their voice talking about the fantasy, and play it over and over again. Others use cognitive exposure techniques discussed by Ronald Siegel in The Mindfulness Solution, where he notes that sitting with the thoughts and allowing yourself to ruminate about them without judgment can eventually cause the response to burn itself out, particularly in cases where the thoughts are causing anxiety. If I am worried about cucumbers I might actually sit with one or a photo of one as well, before eventually slicing it up for salad when it gets boring enough. 

Changing Fantasies Using Storytelling

Many use fantasy as a jumping off point to rewrite a troubled sexual history, similar to cognitive behavioral storytelling techniques (discussed here). In these cases, individuals may start the fantasy as usual, but alter the ending of the fantasy to be more palatable. Some do this one step at a time, gradually increasing the amount of power they have until they are able to rewrite it entirely, or rewriting only certain elements, changing the focus each time until all the negative elements have been changed. You can also add a new character to the fantasy in a helping role which may assist with trust issues or recovery from disturbing fantasies. For example, if submission or rape fantasies are upsetting you, writing in a character to save you might be helpful if you have trouble seeing yourself in a powerful position initially. Alternatively, you can work up to picturing yourself hitting a fantasy abuser over the head with a cucumber. Because…cucumbers.  

Introduce a Non-Arousing Element

It may help to reduce sexual pull if you picture something like a carton of eggs, Rush Limbaugh or your mother-in-law. Or maybe a cucumber salad. 

Shifting Focus or Thought Replacement

Maltz and Boss also note that mindfully reducing focus on a distressing fantasy can help, for example, envisioning pushing it out of the mind2. Shifting focus onto bodily sensations instead of fantasy elements may also work. (Keep those eyes open, people.) 

But, thought replacement may be especially beneficial. In this cognitive behavioral technique, you consciously replace the disturbing fantasy every time it arises, either with different words, a mantra or by visually substituting pictures in place of the visual fantasy elements, such as envisioning a calm beach instead of a donkey scene. Photos kept near the bed (or taped to the ceiling) can assist when trying to reduce these visual elements. (This technique is discussed more here in CBT: Thought Replacement and Visual Substitution.)

Foster More Satisfying Real Life Experiences

In Private Thoughts, Maltz and Boss note that reducing the need for an arousing fantasy by increasing stimulation or finding better or new sources of stimulation, may improve pleasure, increase novelty and help make the fantasy obsolete2. They also note that taking more time to avoid pressure can help with facilitating orgasm as can altering the time of sexual activity. For instance if you have a history of sexual abuse that happened at night, try having sex earlier. A number of other ways to increase pleasure and decrease strain are detailed in Slow Sex: The Art and Craft of the Female Orgasm by Nicole Daedone and in ESO: How You and Your Lover Can Give Each Other Hours of Extended Sexual Orgasm. Cucumbers optional. 

Most use a combination of different tactics to decrease unwanted fantasies, but they usually include the “satisfaction” one. Because pleasure, people. It helps. (That’s what she said. No, seriously.)

Whichever of these techniques you choose, the goal is to decrease time spent on the fantasy gradually. It is not likely to be perfect, and like other obsessive or scary thoughts, intrusive and unwanted fantasies tend to reemerge during times of stress or frustration. 

Don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself thinking about cucumbers when you know you don’t want to. It’s a process. It takes time. But you can do it. (In more ways than one.)

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Topic-Relevant Resources

Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies
Everything you ever wanted to know about the psychological causes of fantasies. How to use them, when to lose them and what they mean.

Private Thoughts: Exploring the Power of Women's Sexual Fantasies
Detailed descriptions of the rich fantasy lives of women, the underlying meanings behind them and how to decide if they are working for you or hurting your sexual desire.

The PTSD Workbook: Simple, Effective Techniques for Overcoming Traumatic Stress Symptoms
A useful tool in exploring personal trauma, with an emphasis on healing.

The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook
Great resource to keep you on track with exercises for overcoming anxiety, panic and phobias

Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body
Deep breathing and yoga poses designed to assist with healing through the body-mind connections common in PTSD.

Slow Sex: The Art and Craft of the Female Orgasm (Paperback) - Common
Sex and increasing the capacity for orgasm. You know you want to read it.

Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma: The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences
Dr. Peter Levine discusses the evolved processes that make us more susceptible to traumatic experiences and offers paths toward healing.

Beyond the Break
What if the forbidden could heal you?

Famished: An Ash Park Novel
Everyone's hungry for something. Some are more famished than others.