Cuffing Season: Five Tips for Anxious Dominants

One of the first times I was dominating a new partner, I set myself on fire. I had curled and sprayed my hair and was holding a wax candle, murmuring the horrible deeds I had planned in my partner’s ear. Suddenly, flames. Having absolutely no plan for this situation, I quickly reached up to snuff out my burning hair with my hand, continuing my monologue in hopes that they wouldn’t notice my head was on fire. I was sure I had lost all credibility as a Domme. Afterward, we were chatting about the scene, and they said, “You know, that part where your hair was on fire and you just put it out… that was terrifying. You were so controlled and dedicated to what you were going to do to me that you barely acknowledged it. I was so impressed.” Sure. I planned that.

While they might not involve actual flames, anxiety-provoking situations are common. Whether it’s public speaking, managing daily tasks, or making that phone call, worries and doubts make it tough to be our best selves. If you can relate, you might also think that you’re not cut out to be the confident, controlled Dominant that your sub really wants. Turns out, you’re probably better than they can imagine. Here are five tips to help you use your anxiety as a tool, connect with your partner, and build your confidence.

Turn fears into strengths

Back when our animal brains developed anxiety, it was a tool for fine tuning our responses and keeping us safe. Unless you’re into very specific kinds of play, it’s unlikely you’ll be facing tigers or bears in your scene. How can you channel that instinct for action and preparation? Reframe and redirect. You might think, “I’m too clumsy to dominate.” Well, sit your ass down and tell your sub exactly how to lavish you with attention! Tongue-tied when it comes to dirty talk? Give your sub earplugs and a blindfold and only communicate with touch. Make a list of all the things you think of as deficits, and brainstorm ways to transform them into kinky talents. In the process, you’ll probably challenge many of the preconceptions you have about Domination, and realize that there are as many ways to dominate as there are to be queer.

Develop your own toolbox

There are plenty of tools, both psychological and physical, that can improve the way you work through a scene. People who seem to have their shit totally together, both in kink and in life, have probably just developed their own tricks and practices, and you can too. For instance, every anxious person has at one time wished they were as calm and collected as someone else. Turns out, pretending you’re somebody different minimizes anxiety, increases creativity, and allows your brain to attend to the task at hand without all that fear getting in the way. Imagine a character or person who embodies the qualities you’re looking for, and use that to guide yourself in unexpected circumstances. My favorite is Maleficent. One time, I was meeting a sub for a scene and he was ten minutes late. I had no plan for this, but I remembered that Maleficent is particularly upset by lapses in decorum. What would she do? Well, she made a whole village wait fifteen years to see their princess again, so I decided he’d have to wait 20 minutes while I called my friend and explained, in front of him, how disappointed I was with his tardiness.

You can also choose toys that are good fits for your strengths and avoid skills that you find challenging. Flogging is hard, especially if your hands are shaking. A fancy whip is not exciting if you accidentally hit yourself in the eye with it, so choose a paddle instead. If you’re going for strap-on play, find a harness that’s easy to slip on and resembles underwear. Use a stimulating balm on nipples or genitals to get your sub’s body sensitive and on edge. Vibrators, clamps, and position enhancers can all help get your sub in the mood in an accessible way that does the work for you. Same goes for your attire. If you’re tottering around in heels and your breathing is restricted by a corset, you’re not doing yourself any favors. If such an outfit really sets the mood, blindfold your sub and take it off once you’ve made your point.

Use your anxiety to plan ahead

The great thing about being an anxious person is that you’ve already imagined every disaster. You are also hyper aware of what it means to not feel safe, and are likely better at recognizing those signals in another person. As a result, you’re more sensitive and more prepared. Negotiating a mutually fulfilling, consensual scene is the core of a great BDSM experience. Still, constantly asking if something is OK might seem incongruent with a dominant demeanor. How to negotiate? How to check in? Yes/No/Maybe lists can be useful tools, but they can also feel like grocery lists. I prefer to issue small tasks beforehand to help me get to know my sub. Often, when people are asked to write out a fantasy, they draw from material that excites them. I sometimes require an “application” that includes a resume of interests, experiences, and clear boundaries. I also ask them questions: how would you feel if I tickled you? If I called you names, would you feel excited or hurt? This also helps your sub articulate their desires, communicate, and reflect on their experiences. You should also be sure to have a safe word system; I prefer a red/yellow/green check in.

I gather this material, and use it to develop a four-point plan based on what scientists call the sexual response cycle. There are four phases: excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. You might also recognize these phases from English class: exposition, rising action, climax, and resolution. It’s a pattern humans are into. I start with a low intensity activity to build excitement, like tying someone up or talking dirty. Then, I follow up with something slightly more intense, like spanking. The third phase is the peak and may include an orgasm for some (but definitely doesn’t have to). Finally, I choose something soothing to guide the sub back to a relaxed state. Think about how you’re going to transition from phase to phase. Is that paddle within reach while you’re fingering their ass, or will you have to run across the room to find it? These activities are different for everyone, and should definitely be pre-negotiated. I also love to tell my sub my plans before they happen and watch their response. If something makes them uneasy, anxious people are in a great position to spot that.

Stay in the moment

Anxiety is imagination with too much weight on outcomes. Find ways to meet yourself in the present, and build grounding techniques into your scene. Do your hands get sweaty or shaky? PVC gloves can mask that and provide a silky, sensual texture to your touch. Do your pulse and breathing quicken more than you’d like? Select some slow songs with distinct beats, and take a moment to inhale and exhale for at least four beats each. Doing this while in contact with your submissive can also be surprisingly calming and intimate. Find textures, patterns, smells, or tastes that you can focus on when you feel yourself drifting toward imagined disasters. This technique is useful for helping you stay calm and maintain a slow, sexy pace to your play.

Connect with your sub

Research has found that people who seek connection with others in tough times are less likely to experience negative physical consequences of stress. Think of your anxiety as a motivation to connect with your sub, instead of something getting in your way. Additionally, creating a successful scene and confronting your fears is a great way to reclaim your sense of power. If you’re a worrier, you already know how to create tension; use it to your advantage to keep your sub on edge! To your body, coming down from an exciting scene can feel very similar to recovering from panic. If you’ve got any coping mechanisms (warm blankets! tea! cuddly cats!), you’re already a pro at aftercare.

Remember, anxiety is a tool. With these strategies, you can use it to create a deeply satisfying experience for you and for your submissive.

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Sheila Rouse

Sheila Rouse is a sex educator, performer, and developmental scientist. The rest is up for debate.

Sheila has written 1 article for us.


  1. “I gather this material, and use it to develop a four-point plan based on what scientists call the sexual response cycle. There are four phases: excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. You might also recognize these phases from English class: exposition, rising action, climax, and resolution”

    This is the nerdiest shit and I am SO INTO IT. 🙌🏻

  2. How are you so perfect for me Autostraddle?!

    First, the article this morning on custom binders, and now this.

    It’s like you’re reading my mind or something :D

    • But for real, this was great thank you! It is definitely something that I connect to and struggle with, and it’s nice to know that it is possible for me to be an effective top/dom again even though I’m pretty much a constant state of anxiety.

      • It’s not just possible for you to be effective, it ACTUALLY MAKES YOU BETTER! I’m thinking about writing another one about how BDSM helped me practice speaking up for myself in other contexts. Does that resonate too?

        • Hmm I know that I have had similar feelings when I took control of situations in life (work meetings, etc) and when I’ve entered a strong top headspace during play, so yeah I can definitely see that being helpful! Being able to be more confident and own my presence in real life will always be a good thing. :)

  3. Zero experience in this area at all. But I might start imagining my career as my sub. Or something? (I don’t even know what fingering my career’s ass would mean, I think this metaphor is breaking down quickly.) These ideas are good beyond this context, is where I’m going. Thanks, Sheila.

    • That’s absolutely true! They were all adapted from published research on other anxiety provoking experiences, so they should work in lots of contexts.

  4. These are some great tips n tricks! Thank you for sharing! Looking forward to more articles from you!!

  5. I don’t know many queers without anxiety- in fact a lot of my top practices come from a desire to control and manage that anxiety. This was an excellent piece- thanks for writing it!

    • You make a great point here that I didn’t get to cover and I’m so glad to see it. Lots of people have reported that BDSM can be a context for re-learning responses related to anxiety and trauma in a controlled, planned way. Let me know if you think that would be cool to read more about!

  6. This is really good advice.

    I’m also in favour of “fake it until you make it”. That is to say, don’t adopt a false bravado or overreach your capabilities – keep it simple, but make your demeanour as confident as you can manage. Like a presentation at work – practice the skills you need over and over until you feel that you can do them in your sleep. Just a few – don’t go beserk with over-elaborate stuff – maybe just learn a good single-column tie if you want to do bondage. Practice dialogue, even. Then you can be super nervous underneath it all, but still deliver your presentation well because you know the material and project confidence.

    The thing for subs is trust – it goes both ways – not necessarily a big emotional TRUST thing, but certainly in terms of trusting your abilities to get them going on a journey. And many many many subs have a “competency kink”. That doesn’t mean you can’t goof occasionally, but being able to handle the goof in a cool way can make them swoon even more sometimes. I have to say that setting one’s hair on fire and yet *dealing* with it would be very, er, powerful for some people to witness.

    I strongly second the recommendation for blindfolds, particularly the kind that use snaps or velcro – scarves used as blindfolds have an annoying habit of falling off (if you do, and it slips, it’s better to just assertively take it off and make them look at the floor or something). A drawstring cloth bag is also excellent (with a loose tie around the neck). I’m not terribly creative at domming – I’m soooo lucky I have a knack with a flogger – but get a sub in an exposed position with a blindfold on and they can generally entertain themselves for a very long time while you make some threatening remarks or random touches and come up with the next move.

    For more physically-orientated bottoms, anticipation is not terribly effective and it’s best to simply come up with an effective tool to use on them and start whacking. However, a blindfold is *still* good if you might feel put off by them eyeballing you while you’re trying to find the fucking paddle and aim it in the right direction.

    A blindfold is great after brandishing around a bunch of knives and nasty-looking sharp metal things, and then using the back of a knife or even a steel knitting needle to actually start “inscribing” on their body. An excellent way to practice handling potentially-sharp things around someone’s body with very little risk and also learning the potential range of someone’s responses. I had one play partner who would literally jump every time I touched her with cold steel, which made actual knife play out of the question for her. Not that I ever let on, actually – it was convincing enough with a butter knife. If we’d spent more time together, we could have tried training out that reflex to “earn” a real knife on her body.

    (A blindfold is also handy for maintaining some degree of cred if you have a big-ass knife that you’ve only just got and are not used to in terms of balance (I definitely should have practiced with it more, but it arrived late and very close to a big event where I’d promised the knife scene), and you drop it less than a centimetre from your big toe…. If you were brandishing the knife around first to put them in the mood and then blindfolded them for the main event, it’s a lot less mood-killing for them if they don’t actually witness you nearly dropping the knife on your own foot. At least I was wearing steel-toed boots, and my play partner was standing up so as to significantly reduce the risk that I would drop an unfamiliar knife on HER. It’s definitely mood-killing if you injure yourself or your partner in an unintended way. However, I don’t recommend this method of covering up your cockups as a general rule – don’t play with big-ass knives you’ve only owned for a few hours is the moral.)

    • I like how this is a qualified “fake it til you make it,” sort of a “fake it til you make it with your persona but maybe not knives? definitely learn the knives and be sure there…”

      • That is indeed a very very good distinction I didn’t call out enough. “Fake it till you make it” with attitude.

        Do NOT fake PRACTICAL skills that you actually need for safety!!

  7. Thank you Autostraddle for consistently reading my mind and knowing what I’m interested in: I’ve been lusting for custom fitted shapeshifter binder FOR AGES (I wish I had the money for it, they are affordable for most, but not for me right now unfortunately) and on Sunday I attended a (pay as you can) queer workshop on BDSM, abandonment and anger because I’m an anxious queer Domme ahahah *nervous laugh*

    Thanks Sheila for the EXCELLENT article, definitely interested in reading more about BDSM being “a context for re-learning responses related to anxiety and trauma in a controlled, planned way” since it’s what I’ve been doing and I didn’t realise it was so common!

    • So glad to hear your feedback! Those workshops are definitely helpful, especially for realizing that SO MANY people feel just like you do. I teach a workshop version of this article and it’s consistently full. I’m convinced that anxiety is caring in overdrive, and that it can be channeled somewhat to make us better partners and people.

  8. This was so completely awesome and went right to my core. Thank you and I definitely look forward to more articles from you.

    And your name, WOW ! It delivers on its promise.

  9. Ok but what if your problem is not so much anxiety, per se, as the fact that you find everything funny and laugh all the time at your own jokes and there is NO WAY you’d be able to get through saying anything remotely domineering without cracking yourself up and losing all decorum? How do you get past that?

    • Oh Mari! There are so many ways to be dominant! It sounds like humiliation would be a good fit for you. Making your sub the object of your derision and joking around can be super fun in a kink scenario. Or, you could tell them they’re not allowed to laugh, and then make them do a striptease to Baby Shark until you’re laughing so hard that watersports become part of the scene. These scenes should be primarily enjoyable and that can take all forms- the essence is play with power dynamics, so you can be endlessly creative.

    • Cosign with being about to top/dom while chortling a lot of the time. I don’t have the knack of being poker-faced during play – I’m normally smiling – and I certainly wouldn’t attract/be good someone who requires that kind of hard demeanour to feel sufficiently in sub-mode.

      But I can deal out pretty full-on punishment while genuinely laughing, and I have had many people tell me they find my chortles genuinely scary sometimes (because they know I’m going to be dealing out some hard stuff).

      I think the important thing is to be fully in control of your actions while you’re laughing. If someone might be genuinely getting triggered by it, you should be paying attention and pausing the scene to check in. You shouldn’t be trying to throw a flogger or brandishing sharp knives while you’re laughing so hard you can’t be accurate. If someone doesn’t like humiliation, you shouldn’t be laughing so much that it seems disrespectful or inappropriate. Or if you might be seen to be giggling out of nervousness.

      To be honest, I never consciously thought of laughter in terms of being able to feed a humiliation kink, but now I know, I think I might put that in my toolbox for people I know who get off on that. It certainly explains what I do with one of my play partners where we very much have a “fuck you, take THAT” kind of thing with plenty of laughter, and my challenge is to make her shut up. And then laugh at her silence. She does like humiliation in the right circs, and now I realise that kind of scene we do would be playing right into it to a reasonable degree.

  10. This is content I didn’t know I needed but is so very welcome ❤️

    Beautifully written as well, thank you.

  11. Love your name, love the article, MOAR PLS!
    Signed, an anxious top who can’t take myself seriously enough to come off as intimidating because I deal with my insecurity by making fun of myself

    • You don’t have to take yourself seriously! I certainly don’t. I know of a Domme who plays through her teddy bear- her subs have to charm the teddy bear and buy it presents before it “lets” them talk to her. Get ridiculous!

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