I used to think that I was the problem. Now I understand that it was my behavior and how I conducted my life that was the problem. Despite the bad choices of my past, I now understand that I am a man who is worthy of love and a good life, simply because I exist. Understanding this fully has not made day-to-day recovery easier, but it sure helps me get through the rough spots and gives me hope about life, and for myself as being a useful and good man.
– Damien, a former Sexual Recovery Institute client
Active Sex Addicts Violate Themselves
While active in their addiction, sex addicts often nurture fantasies and engage in behaviors that are anathema to their core values and beliefs. Most often, their behaviors start out somewhat in line with their moral center, but as addictive patterns escalate, some progress from “vanilla” interests like soft-core porn and fantasizing about sex with someone met on Facebook to hardcore porn, illegal porn, affairs, voyeurism and/or exhibitionism, buying and/or selling sex, fetish behaviors, coupling illicit drug use with sex, etc.
Each time an addict violates his or her core values, he or she typically experiences an ever-growing sense of guilt, shame, and remorse. And because they are addicts, these individuals often respond to these uncomfortable emotions by “self-medicating” with more of the same addictive escapist fantasies and behaviors, thereby creating even deeper feelings of guilt, shame, and remorse. This defines the addictive cycle. Over time, as the individual spirals downward into his or her addiction, these negative feelings add to previously internalized beliefs like: “I am a bad and unworthy person,” or, “I am incapable of receiving love,” eventually becoming incorporated as an integral part of the addict’s personality and thinking. This negative self-talk is often bolstered over time by the consequences that addicts routinely experience as a direct result of their problem behaviors. For many such individuals, ruined relationships, lost jobs, financial problems, declining emotional and physical health, and even arrest can feel earned, deserved, and even unavoidable.
As my hidden sexual acting out progressed, I found myself getting turned on by more hard-core stuff, materials that I had avoided viewing in the beginning. Eventually I wanted to act these things out in real life, and I started playing out those scenarios with prostitutes. I contracted an STD from one (or several) of them and ended up passing it along to my wife, but even that didn’t stop me. In fact, when she moved out with our only daughter and filed for divorce, I just ended up acting out more often, as I no longer had to be accountable at the end of the day or on weekends. In retrospect, I see that when I first “crossed the line” I felt bad about what I was doing, but I still felt like a decent person. Over time, as the behaviors progressed, my perception of myself changed. The sexual activity still seemed bad, but my feelings about myself became a lot worse. By the time I finally got arrested, I truly hated myself, and I honestly felt like I deserved all the bad things that were happening in my life. Over time I came to believe that I was such an awful person that there literally was no hope for me, which made it easier to keep digging myself into a deeper and deeper hole. After some time in therapy and addiction treatment, I now see that these negative messages were in many ways already there, planted in me during my childhood. In essence, my addictive behaviors merely exacerbated the pre-existing low self-esteem and shame I’ve always felt.
– James, a 47-year-old man, interviewed one year after attending primary sexual addiction treatment
Healthy vs. Toxic Guilt, Shame, and Remorse
In active sexual addiction, sex addicts (most often in secret) act poorly toward themselves and those they love. They engage in sexual fantasies and act out sexual behaviors that violate their own values, their relationship vows, and even the laws of their community. All the while they lie about what they’ve been doing to spouses, families, friends, bosses, and literally everyone else in their lives – all so they can continue to engage in their intensity based, repetitive, problematic patterns of sexual addiction, and, ironically, to avoid feeling more shame. Many sex addicts are actually quite adept at living a “double-life,” heaping one semi-plausible excuse on top of another, seemingly without a second thought, oftentimes convincing even themselves that the lies they tell are actually true. Given a sex addicts’ consistently deceptive behavior, loved ones often find it hard to believe that an addict is even capable of feeling anything like guilt, shame, or remorse. But quite often they do. For most addicts, when the sexual acting out is over, the negative feelings begin. And when an addict attempts to get sexually sober, these emotions hit doubly hard.
These negative feelings are not, per se, a bad thing. In fact, for a sex addict to experience some degree of guilt and shame after violating his/her morals and principles, especially when this has caused harm to the addict and/or others, is actually a good sign. It shows that there is an internal compass the addict can utilize to guide his or her future choices, that the individual does know the difference between right and wrong. In this sense, the “negative” emotions of guilt, shame, and remorse, which are directly tied to problem behaviors, can be catalysts for positive changes in behavior. These feelings can serve to discourage sex addicts from repeating their hidden past behaviors, at the same time encouraging the development of empathy for others and the making of amends to those harmed in the past.
Unfortunately, as mentioned in the opening paragraphs, for some, the internalized feelings of self-hatred, shame, unworthiness, guilt, and remorse are tied more to their sense of self than to any specific activities or behaviors. These individuals (most often with early life histories rooted in family dysfunction, abuse, neglect, and attachment deficits) begin to think that they themselves are the problem – that they are bad, unlovable people – and that their addictive sexual acting out serves as proof of this fact. When this occurs, a phenomenon generally referred to either as a “shame spiral” or as “narcissistic withdrawal” can leave the addict unable to see beyond his or her own shame, pulling the individual further into depression and isolation, both of which are serious obstacles to healing. The internalization of these negative feelings may also lead sex addicts to believe they are not worth the effort of recovery, that they have no control over their behaviors, and they do not deserve to be healthy, happy, and free from their addiction. When this occurs, guilt, shame, and remorse have become toxic barriers to recovery rather than a reminder that it is time for behavioral correction, apology, or both.
Flipping the Script
All addicts in early recovery are vulnerable to the “stinking thinking” caused by toxic emotions. Oftentimes they are facing for the first time the full extent of their addictive behavior and the destruction it has caused. For many addicts this can be somewhat overwhelming, and some may feel the only way to “turn off” the fear, anger, self-loathing, and sadness is to “numb out” with more of the same destructive behavior or, in extreme cases, via self-harm (cutting, burning, suicide, etc.)
As such, it is often a primary job of clinicians treating sex addicts, particularly early on, to help them understand that living in the past – a past that can’t be changed – helps no one. Instead, recovering addicts should focus on the present, on behaving differently one moment at a time. Wallowing in the wreckage of the past (or fear of the future) can and usually does keep addicts from doing the necessary work of recovery. Guiding such individuals into certain life affirming, esteem-building therapeutic tasks can be incredibly helpful. These tasks include:
- Attending 12-step sexual recovery meetings, finding a sponsor, and working the 12 steps. This encourages interaction with other recovering addicts, which is absolutely essential to sexual addiction recovery. It also helps the addict to become honest about what he/she has done and to eventually make amends, which usually goes a long way toward alleviating toxic feelings.
- Being better today than yesterday. This helps the addict to better understand that recovery is a journey, not a destination. Aiming for perfection is not realistic. A more reasonable goal for the recovering addict is to not repeat the mistakes of the past and to become, over time, a better person.
- Building a support network of peers in recovery, beyond just a therapist and 12-step sponsor. Remember, sexual addiction is a disease of isolation. As the recovering addict builds his/her support network and learns to trust these caring individuals, he/she is able to more easily reach for help when triggered to act out.
- Trying new and enjoyable activities with family, friends, and the addict’s support network. This helps the addict understand that even though he or she has made mistakes, he/she is worthy of a second chance and deserves a better life. It also provides the addict with new hobbies and interests he or she can engage in instead of acting out.
- Volunteering or being of service. This helps sex addicts see that in addition to harming themselves and others, they can also make the world a better place – and making the world a better place feels good. The better addicts feel about themselves and their place in the world, the less likely they are to act out.
- Gaining insight into the origins of the addict’s sense of shame and unworthiness. This helps the sex addict understand that his or her problem behaviors are a maladaptive attempt to self-sooth and make healthy connections, no matter how far off the mark. It also reinforces the idea that those behaviors are not a sign that he or she is inherently bad, unworthy, or unlovable.
- Integrating a history of past trauma, abuse, or neglect. Insight into past trauma, abuse, or neglect can serve as a vital source of shame reduction and self-forgiveness, both of which are necessary to healing and the development of a healthy life.
For most addicts, early feelings of guilt, shame, and remorse are partly healthy, partly toxic. It is the therapist’s job to observe and reflect on these feelings, noting that healthy shame and guilt do serve as motivation for behavior change, while self-hatred is an unproductive foundation for healing. When these feelings are toxic, the therapist needs to assist the addict in flipping the script, helping the addict understand that feeling like a bad person doesn’t mean he or she actually is a bad person.