Blog

Regulating your nervous system with the window of tolerance

This is a tool I teach all my clients within the first session or two and continue to return to throughout the work.”What zone are you in?” I’ll ask clients if I see them zoning out during a conversation or speeding up while they’re talking. “Which activity feels greenest?” I’ll ask when offering a menu of exercises, or: “Do you feel ready to try something a little yellow?” Paying attention to our body’s cues helps us build safety, whether we’re alone or with a partner. Watch me explain the window of tolerance in more detail here. I created this version of the window of tolerance based on tools from somatic sex educators Caffyn Jesse and Corinne Diachuk.

Typically, we want to be in the green zone about sixty to seventy percent of the time in a session. This is pretty different than where most of us live day-to-day, given that many of us have to spend more time at our jobs than we’d like to, interact with people we don’t get along with, commute in traffic, wash dishes, pay bills, and lots of other activities that don’t bring us joy, so it can take a lot of practice to get the hang of choosing comfort and pleasure.

Once we’ve established a foundation of safety and presence, we consciously choose activities that bring us into the yellow zone — which is where we learn and grow. But we need to be self aware when we’re in the yellow zone, making sure we don’t edge into orange or red. Once we’re activated (orange and red zone), we’re re-training our body to repeat the same old nervous system patterns we’ve learned our whole lives. For most of us, that’s a fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response, and although that pattern has likely served us well in the past, it’s usually the very pattern clients come to me to unlearn.

The window of tolerance is a powerful tool for learning embodied consent. Consent is way more than getting a simple “yes” or “no” — it requires awareness of our body and attunement to our partner’s as well. You can learn more about what embodied consent feels like over on my Instagram.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Tips for finding a therapist who’s surrogate partner-friendly

I typically don’t offer referrals for therapists, as I prioritize working with clients who have already been in therapy for a good chunk of time (more on why here). For folks who don’t have a therapist and want to be sure they’ll find one who’s open to working in the surrogate partner therapy triad, here’s a list of tips to get you started in your search:

  • If you have health insurance, I recommend reaching out to your insurance company to find out their policy on therapy, which can save you a lot of money. If they offer coverage for mental health, ask them how you can find an in-network therapist, or do a search on PsychologyToday or Google for therapists who accept your insurance.
  • Sex therapists and sex coaches tend to be more familiar with surrogate partner therapy than the average practitioner, so doing a search on PsychologyToday or Google for sex therapists or sex coaches in your area is a good direction to start in.
  • Other types of therapists I’ve found tend to be more open to collaborating on surrogate partner therapy include holistic therapists, somatic therapists, and therapists who use alternative medicines and approaches.
  • PsychologyToday has a great search tool that allows you to find a therapist by location, insurance, issue, type of therapy, price, and gender. Just enter your location or zip code and use the toggle buttons at the top of the search results to choose the criteria you want to filter by. Make sure to read through a therapist’s profile to see if they’re accepting new clients at this time, as many therapists have full practices.
  • I don’t recommend asking your therapist about surrogate partner therapy the first time you meet. For therapists who are unfamiliar with the work, it can raise red flags about a client’s intentions. The one exception to this is if you’ve been in therapy before and are looking for a new therapist specifically to collaborate on the surrogate partner therapy process. Here’s a blog post I wrote about how and when to talk to your therapist about surrogate partner therapy.

Why do I need a therapist before I can start working with you?

Surrogate partner therapy involves three people: a client, a surrogate partner, and a therapist. The client practices hands-on physical and emotional intimacy skills with the surrogate partner and then processes the session (and how their new skills are playing out in their daily life) with their therapist. Once in a while, a prospective client pushes me to work with them without a therapist, or to help them find a therapist, and my answer is always “No.” Here’s why:

  1. It’s impossible to have the professional distance required of a therapist when I’m partnering with a client. In a client’s relationship with their therapist, a certain level of distance creates safety; like a good parent, a therapist doesn’t let their own baggage get in the way of holding their client. (For more on this, listen to Josh Korda discuss “mirroring” and “marking” in “Addressing Insecure Attachment with Mindfulness” – about 15 minutes in.) But partnering is a different story. My role as a surrogate partner isn’t to set my own emotions aside in order to care for my client; it’s to bring them into the room alongside the client’s emotions, so that we can navigate and negotiate together. This means that once in a while my own trauma is gonna get triggered, that sometimes the client and I might get into conflict, and also that one or both of us may fall in love. That’s what the therapist is here for: to support the client when challenging moments in our relationship come up, and also to support me with my feelings, and in noticing what pieces are mine and what pieces are the client’s.
  2. I’m not a trained therapist. My training is in sex education, somatics, and partnership work. Although I’ve learned a lot from the therapists I’ve worked with, I have no formal training in psychology or psychoanalysis. Processing the challenges, memories, and trauma that come up in surrogate partner therapy is a critical piece of integrating your learnings so you can apply them in your life, and the practitioner who can help you do that is your therapist.
  3. Seeing that a client is already committed to their therapy journey is how I know a client is ready for this work. Surrogate partner therapy is intense. Many clients come to me thinking they’re just going to “practice sex” and then they’ll be all set. But that’s not how this process works. When someone has significant blocks to physical intimacy, there is almost always an emotional root to the issue. Building our way up to erotic connection requires building trust, self reflecting, investing in our relationship, and, inevitably, digging up old emotional wounds. When a client comes to me having already started therapy, that shows me they’re ready to take on the deep, hard work that surrogate partner therapy requires. If a client hasn’t started therapy or is only planning to start when they begin working with me, I feel doubtful that they’re really prepared for this journey.
  4. Talking to the therapist is one of the ways I screen my clients. Screening is an essential tool s*x w*rkers use to keep ourselves safe. Talking with a therapist about their relationship with the client assures me that the client is someone who won’t harm or mistreat me. And if I do ever feel unsafe around the client, the therapist is my built-in support for navigating that.

Before you ask a surrogate partner to work with you without a therapist, consider why surrogate partners have these boundaries in the first place. The structures of surrogate partner therapy are not arbitrary; they exist to keep both of us safe. Honoring someone’s boundaries is one of the clearest ways to show them you respect them, and as you’ll learn if you do embark on the surrogate partner therapy journey, boundaries are one of the core building blocks of relationships and physical intimacy.

My favorite meditations: Centering with adrienne maree brown

One of my favorite forms of meditation is “centering,” a practice that comes from Generative Somatics and the Strozzi Institute. Centering is a profoundly simple and wildly powerful embodiment practice; it involves grounding in the three dimensions of length, width, and depth to get a sense of the spaciousness and boundaries of your own body. adrienne maree brown, a spiritual activist whose teachings have guided and inspired me in my own healing journey, has offered a beautiful centering practice on her podcast with her sister, Autumn, How to Survive the End of the World.

This practice incorporates song, gentle movements, and an abundance of sweet self-acceptance. It’s one of my all-time favorite meditations, one I return to frequently and share with many of my clients. I hope you enjoy!

Centering at the end of the world

You don’t need to be attracted to your surrogate partner

A question I encounter from a lot of new clients is: do I need to be attracted to my surrogate partner? The answer may surprise you (or it might have if I didn’t already write it in the headline of this blog post): nope! Attraction isn’t required for surrogate partner therapy at all.

Although being attracted to your surrogate partner can be fun, it can also bring some challenges with it. Sure, if you find your surrogate partner cute, it can be pretty delightful when you first get to kiss or undress together. But it can also make the closure process a lot harder; saying goodbye to a practitioner you’ve grown close to over many months is hard no matter what the circumstances, but saying goodbye to someone you’d actually want to date — perhaps someone you’ve even fallen in love with? That’s a whole other level of difficult.

Surrogate partner therapy is primarily about intimacy skills practice, and that’s not something you need sexual chemistry in order to experience. In fact, being attracted to your surrogate can make the intentionally slow pace of surrogate partner therapy feel frustrating. I’ve had several clients over the years who pushed and pushed to move at a faster pace than felt safe; their desire was getting in the way of the work they came to me to do. What does matter in your search for a surrogate partner is feeling safe and comfortable. This work is deeply vulnerable, and it requires working with a practitioner you can be at ease around.

An added perk of working with a surrogate partner who’s outside your usual preferences is that it can help expand what you find attractive. Almost all my clients find in the process of this work that they are actually attracted to a lot more than the somewhat narrow conception of “hot” that they started with. When we learn to feel with our bodies and sensations, rather than be constricted by our mind’s desires, it turns out a lot of things can be hot. And doing that learning with someone different than your typical dream partner can be surprisingly supportive.

If you’re searching for a surrogate partner based on who you find most attractive, you probably need to reorient the way you’re approaching this work. Talk to your therapist about what you’re seeking from a surrogate partner. Be willing to examine whether your criteria are supportive to your healing journey, or whether they’re an old constraint that’s holding you back.