“The awareness of one’s own sexuality, the longing to know, to experience something as good wells up from deep within.”[i] Sadly, our good desire to be known and experienced often becomes connected with, or distorted by, sexually destructive behaviors. This article will help you consider if you have a sexually destructive habit, and what you can do about it.
1. Recognize symptoms and admit to yourself your true position
There is often a struggle to acknowledge a problem to ourselves—especially one that produces shame. When we hide our behaviors and ourselves we can smell the whiff of shame. “People who are involved with [acting-out sexually] may be basking in the sunshine of instant pleasure, but like storm clouds, problems are brewing just over the horizon.”[ii] The dark clouds are visible in these statements below. Do you identify with any of them?
“I’m easily irritated and depressed.”
“I’ve become isolated from other people.”
“I’m sexually objectifying people.”
“I’m neglecting important areas of my life.”
“I’m having problems with sex.”
“I’m making my partner unhappy.”
“I’m feeling bad about myself.”
“I’m engaging in risky dangerous behavior.”
“I’ve become addicted to porn, masturbation or other sexual behaviors.”[iii]
We need to stop and check-in with ourselves to know how we are doing. Are you in the practice of doing this? This can be anxiety producing or feel like a waste of time. Yet I would encourage you to try it, especially if the list above fits your experience.
Our behaviors and strategies have often helped us; in many ways they seem comfortable. “When caught in the spiraling psychological and physiological pull of pornography [or other acting-out], the prospect of escaping it is unpleasant. You want to let it pull you in.”[iv] You have a choice to name your concerns or turn a blind eye. Addictions usually escalate with time, particularly if they are ignored. It is in your best interest to act now.
2. Find Support and Connection
Don't be satisfied with swinging from thoughts of “its not a problem, it doesn’t hurt anyone” to “everyone will think I am a useless pervert”. Neither of those positions is true—rather, they are emotionally provocative and keep you from thriving. Often sharing our struggles helps us combat such “swinging thoughts”.
Laaser (2004) attests: “I have never known a person to heal from sexual addiction alone. All of us need an army of support around us on the healing journey.” [v] You might ask, where is my army? Who can I trust? It is there if you are willing to risk and reach. Key places to connect:
- Church: See if a pastor or elder is safe to talk with—i.e. doesn't reject you and shares an attitude of brokenness and grace
- Accountable friends: These people can know you and challenge you
- Support groups: Such as FirstLight and SA where like-minded people can identify with you and support you
- Counselor: Someone who is trained to help you with this situation
- Family: If you have loving, supportive relationships, now is a good time to engage them
3. If a Spouse or Partner is Involved
If you have a spouse or partner who knows about your struggle, then you know how painful, disorienting and frustrating it can be. Yet know this: “Betrayal trauma shakes the foundations of our beliefs about our safety in our marriages and it dissolves our assumptions about trusting our spouses.”[vi] This is what an affected partner is dealing with and it will impact you. Counseling for both parties is recommended when this occurs. For now, know that spouses and partners will likely show symptoms of PTSD (hyper-arousal, sleeplessness, searching, questioning, fatigue, agitation) because they do not feel safe.[vii] They will need the following to recover:
- Support and connection from others who understand (preferably a suitably trained counselor will be included in this)
- To learn about trauma and sexual recovery (I recommend Barbara Steffen’s book: Your Sexually Addicted Spouse)
- Be allowed time and space to grieve and forgive in their own time
- Be afforded plentiful opportunity for self-care
4. Use your environment rather than fearing it
In recovery people often describe trying to “shut out all the temptation”. What if you were to re-orient your approach to the environment and ask: “How can I engage beautiful things, safe things, protective things, and use the tools talented people have created?”
- Engage what you love: Think about what you enjoy that is healthy and good. Is it golf, woodworking, hiking, canoeing, brewing with your friends? Make room for these pleasures and purposefully delight in them
- Relationships: Find and build friendships where you can be yourself and share what is going on in your life. Extend invitations to others and recognize it is hard work to nurture rewarding relationships
- Meaning: What gives purpose and vitality to living? Think about what you value, what your goals are and who you can share them with
- Protection and Delight: Find quality safeguards for both the Internet and daily activities. Then find new ways to use the Internet and other previously destructive avenues for delightful and nurturing things. (Note: This isn't always possible or advisable) For example: Instead of viewing porn on the Internet, join a website that campaigns for the preservation of the wildlife habitat that you love to fish in (Note: It is often necessary to cut ties with places and opportunities that have led to acting-out for significant periods before delightful behaviors can be safely integrated).
5. Learn How Your Addiction Works
“Dopamine release acts as a signal that teaches us what is important in the environment… and fuels the tension and craving for meeting a need.”[viii] Addictive behavior is compelling because it directly affects our brain. Now if you act-out again you might be thinking, “I am just trying to get my next dopamine hit, maybe I should regulate my needs another way?”
The neuroplasticity of our brains means that we can create mental pathways that we follow more easily. If you do ‘X’ one hundred times and ‘Y’ ten times as a response to ‘Z’, you will more likely do ‘X’ when you next see ‘Z’. Plasticity doesn’t have a negative or positive quality—rather you train your brain in whichever direction you live. Which direction will you train your brain?
Addicts tend to display an “addiction cycle”.[ix] The pain of our past and present can lead us to coping strategies that become entrenched. As we cope with distress we get preoccupied, begin a ritual that soothes or distracts us and leads to acting out behaviors. Usually this behavior is followed with self-loathing, which we want to escape. The escape begins the cycle again. It is crucial to see how the specific steps of this cycle might be contributing to your struggle for integrity.
The effects of dopamine rewards, brain changes and the addictive cycle is powerful. Keep learning, and apply your knowledge to help you! You can start with the resources in the references.
6. Slow Down and Get to Know Your Emotions
“Mindfulness” has become the new mantra for selling magazines and articles promoting stress-free, self-actualization. However, mindfulness is a powerful set of skills that requires practice and intent. You can learn to slow down and pay attention to your emotions. How? This is the short version:[x]
- Observe what is happening in your body physically.
- Describe what those sensations are like. Name them and what emotions correspond if you can.
- Participate in those sensations. If you named a “lump in my throat” and “feeling angry”, then allow yourself to consider what they would have you do. Then act responsibly and thoughtfully according to what you have noticed.
Simply slowing down and spending time with our emotions is a good way to stop them “ruling” our lives, and allows them to be integral to living in the direction we desire.
7. Own Your Behavior and Find Motivation.
It is your decision to act; no matter how compelling the physiological drive. Grit and grind have to be coupled with planning, knowledge and support to help many people out of compulsive behaviors. Whilst strong neurochemicals and emotional pain may drive us, we always have the choice to act—even when this feels simply impossible. It is ok to struggle and fail if you accept you are acting. It isn’t ok to deny your agency. This will only help keep you paralyzed. Practical ways to build motivation to own the behavior and change it are as follows:[xi]
- Honestly list the problems your addiction or actions cause you
- Identify and make a detailed list of what really matters to you in life
- Write down your fears in facing your problem and know you will face them
- Take responsibility—verbally acknowledge your struggle and share it with others
8. Be reminded of the truth over and over
What does God think of you? Scripture reminds us that we image Him (Gen 1), that He delights in us (Ps 149), that He will equip you (Heb 13), and that He sent His son for our sake (Rom 8).
You can see how he treated the woman caught in adultery (John 8)—He told her to go and live! And the prodigal son (Luke 15)—God welcomes him and delights in his being. You too, are one of His precious children.
Shame and depression are powerful experiences that usher in thoughts of self-disgust and despair. What would it be like to remind yourself through scripture, friends and loved ones of your qualities and personal delights? Could you bear it—to be delighted in?
9. Have a plan
Rarely do things change without intentional effort and a plan! Planning can feel boring, or a threat to spontaneity and fun. Conversely, when you are trying to break a pattern of behavior, plans allow you to relax and have freedom within the plan’s bounds. You will afford yourself some much needed “peace of mind” and reduce your need to worry by creating a structure to hold you. Many of us are “planning averse”—if you need to, plan to plan. Set aside just 10 minutes that you will sit down and begin to consider how each of these steps could be implemented for your own integrity and freedom.
“Sexual intimacy is not like every other biological function. It has significant consequences at every level of our existence: neurological, psychological, social and spiritual.” [xii] It is worth every moment, and every effort to make positive changes in this area of your life. Changing will have profound effects, but it won’t always be easy. Find help and support for the journey. It is worth it—indeed, you are worth it.
[i] Struthers, W. (2009). Wired for intimacy: How pornography hijacks the male brain. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books. p. 44
[ii] Maltz, W., & Maltz, L. (2008). The porn trap: The essential guide to overcoming problems caused by pornography. New York: Collins. p. 71
[iii] Maltz, W., & Maltz, L. (2008), p. 72
[iv] Struthers (2009), p. 44
[v] Laaser, M., & Laaser, M. (2004). Healing the wounds of sexual addiction. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan. p. 127
[vi] Steffens, B., & Means, M. (2009). Your sexually addicted spouse: How partners can cope and heal. Far Hills, N.J.: New Horizon Press. p. 107
[vii] Steffens, B., & Means, M. (2009), p. 48?
[viii] Struthers (2009), p. 90
[ix] Laaser, M., & Laaser, M. (2004), p. 59-63
[x] Adapted from Marsha Linehan’s DBT Skills Training Manual (2014).
[xi] Summarized from Maltz, W., & Maltz, L. (2008), p. 142-154
[xii] Struthers (2009), p. 167