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Meta Emotions and How You Feel

What to Know About Meta-Emotions, or How You Feel About How You Feel
4 Min Read
Meta Emotions and How You Feel

Learning not only how to name your emotions, but to control them is a crucial skill for both your personal and professional life. When it comes to this level of emotional regulation, we are not telling you anything new. But have you ever considered the impact of your emotions…about your emotions? If that sounds layered to you, you’re entirely right — these types of feelings are known as “meta-emotions.”

What is a Meta-Emotion?

Let’s look at it this way: If you’re initiating a moment of intimacy with your partner, you could feel a lack of desire, which is a primary emotion. However, feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt might start to creep in if you realize that you hoped to feel desire for your partner, and didn’t experience the latter feeling outright. These are meta-emotions, because they are how you feel about how you feel.

Once you recognize meta-emotions, you’ll realize you feel them all the time — and that they can have a big impact on your day-to-day life. One study presented by Emily Nagoski in her book Come as You Are, found that the biggest predictor of quality of life for people with anxiety was not their symptoms, but how they felt about those feelings. Though they are more insidious, your meta-emotions are just as real as your regular emotions, and paying attention to them can help clue you in to truths about yourself (1).

Meta-Emotions and Sex

Sex is emotional. That means, by definition, it can also be meta-emotional.

This is especially true when you have sexual experiences outside of your comfort zone. A woman who is a progressive feminist and has a sexual fantasy about being submissive to her male partner might feel arousal as a primary emotion. However, she might also feel self-disgust and/or guilt about this fantasy — two meta-emotions that detract from her pleasure. This woman might feel that there is a conflict between her values and what she is attracted to. In fact, judgement is a very common meta-emotion when it comes to sex.

How can you combat meta-emotions and learn to simply enjoy what you enjoy? Take the woman in the previous example. She might feel better if she knew that her reasons for being drawn to dominant and submissive roles have more to do with control than traditional gender norms. Here’s an passage on BDSM from our post The Most Common Sexual Fantasies (And What They're Trying to Tell You):

“A desire to engage in power play often stems from an underlying want to either be in control or to relinquish control. The level in which people fantasize about BDSM and S&M can range from being spanked or whipped, to extreme play such as a fascination with needles or blood fetishes. When it comes to an interest in pain, this kind of fantasy often correlates with mental presence. A strong physical sensation such as pain can bring someone into the present moment, and the sharp contrast of pain to pleasure may make the latter feel that much “better.” Lehmiller offers the comparison of drinking hot chocolate after being in the bitter cold: without the initial discomfort of the temperature outside, the warmth may not feel as strong or relaxing.”

Once you trace the source of your negative meta-emotions, you can try to combat them with education and learning. Unfortunately, the lack of sex-positive education in the U.S. means that this journey is often a personal one unless someone has access to a sex therapist or other resource (that’s where we come in!).

Accept Your Primary Emotion

Accepting your primary emotions is key when it comes to combating negative meta-emotions. Say you are feeling anxious about having sex with a new partner, and then you judge yourself for being anxious — this is likely to only deepen your anxiety. In the long run, it’s better to accept that your primary emotions are valid. In other words, it’s okay to want to have sex with someone new! Sex educator Emily Nagowski emphasizes the importance of letting the stress cycle come to completion. In Come As Your Are, she explains,

“Managing stress is not simply relaxing or calming down. It's allowing the stress response cycle to complete. Let your body move all the way from ‘I am at risk’ to ‘I am safe’…[Try to] feel ok about how you feel - even when it’s not what you expected.”

At the end of the day, you can’t really stop yourself from feeling negative meta-emotions entirely. But you can empower yourself to deal with them! Hopefully this information can help guide you to effective tactics and enable you to have a happier, less stressful sex life.


1. Nagoski, Emily. Come as you are: The surprising new science that will transform your sex life. Simon and Schuster, 2015.