One of the most valuable experiences I had in my 20’s was working in a sex shop. To be fair, this wasn’t your ordinary sex shop. It was a clean, brightly lit shop in San Francisco that was originally a co-op, female owned, and sex-positive store dedicated to sex education. When I had gotten hired, I had recently graduated with my Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Human Sexuality. On top of my education, I had grown up in a relatively inclusive, liberal bubble so I assumed I would be the most open-minded, unassuming employee ever. Oh, how surprised I was.
Nothing brings up hidden personal biases and assumptions like working in a place centered on sex. You think that buttoned up woman walking through the doors timidly wants a few condoms? Wrong. You think the guy wearing all leather wants a ball gag? Wrong. You think that couple talking quietly and with frustration wants the cheapest, smallest vibrator? Probably still wrong. (Also, don’t get me started about the wrongness of each of those stereotypes in and of themselves).
You’re Gonna Be Wrong
What I learned pretty immediately is that you cannot assume anything about anyone. I mean, go ahead, you can, but what you will be is wrong. Incorrect AND disconnected. I’ve already talked about my thoughts on assumptions, but this is broader than that. Leading with bias or judgement is extremely limiting when actually getting to know someone in any context. Outside of my work experience, I realized how much I was still leading with undercover prejudices. The more my assumptions were blasted to smithereens while working at the sex shop, the more I realized that curiosity was the best way to connect with people.
Checking In and Checking It Out
I know they say curiosity killed the cat, but what if curiosity connected the cat? The best way to break down barriers is to ask questions. To lead with curiosity and continue with compassion. It’s also easy to learn information about someone once and then to believe that information will stay true forever. People are constantly evolving, complex beings. Don’t believe that something once true is always true, or that you even knew what was true about it in the first place. To continue to know someone more deeply, it’s best to check in and check it out.
For example, someone might tell me they are feeling “really sad” and I’ll go, yeah okay, sure, I know what that means. Clearly, what I’m referencing is my own experience, not theirs. And that shuts down intimacy. It stops me from asking and understanding more clearly about what that means to them. Maybe feeling “sad” means they’ve had a rough day and are feeling a little down, but they can shake it off quickly. Maybe it means something awful has happened in their life and they’re devastated. Maybe it means they have struggled to get out of bed for the last week. There are so many different versions of what feeling “sad” could mean, as well as how they are able or willing to express it.
Mind the Gap
That’s just one example, but the minute I believe I know someone’s full experience without asking, is when I’ve created a gap in connection. To be fair, we don’t always have the time or desire or interest to check these things out, so don’t feel obligated to. Also, it’s helpful to recognize that asking someone a question is also asking for them to be vulnerable with you, and not everyone is going to want to do that. It’s important to pay attention to context and timing. Yet in the general case of wanting to create deeper and more intimate connections with people, curiosity sure helps.
This is critical in my work as a therapist. Therapy is an act of engaging in a continued process of getting to know someone. It’s such a unique and incredible experience to do that; to have dedicated time to remain curious about someone and their experiences. I remember back in the sex shop days a couple was doing a workshop together talking about various tantric practices. What I remember one of them saying is that she was never bored with her partner because she was constantly getting to know him, and was endlessly curious about him. That bowled me over. What a beautiful way to be in relationship.
Where in your life have you stopped being curious? Where have you started to assume what you know “to be true” about someone else? What are you taking for granted? When was the last time you checked in with someone and checked out something you were curious about? When was the last time you did that for yourself? Stay curious folks, and you might stay more connected.