To Tell the Truth

One of the things I like about this job is that I’m constantly learning new things, and that learning often comes directly from conversations with clients. Recently several clients have been coming to realizations about what maintains their unwanted behavior and I noticed a common thread- they weren’t telling the truth to important people in their lives and also to themselves.

The Importance of Honesty

Taking the easy way out or telling the truth-those are not merely two different choices. They are different pathways through life. They are utterly different ways of existing. -Jordan Peterson

So it works like this- there are some conditions in childhood in which it becomes easier to lie. Perhaps a parent is very strict and domineering and the only way to get a little freedom or escape from consequences is to learn to sneak around or bend the truth. Perhaps a child needs to be the golden child (or a parent needs the child to be the golden child) and so lies prop up this false image. Maybe a parent has a really obvious problem or addiction that can’t be discussed or challenged, or abuse is going on. In all these cases, a person learns that the truth about a situation can’t be named.

If they’re angry, they can’t express it. If they do something shameful, they can’t confess it. If they need something, they can’t ask for it. Fast forward to adulthood and a person finds themselves stuck in some kind of compulsive behavior. I often see it take the form of sexual behavior, but it could really be anything. It’s easy to focus on the present day behavior and think that’s the issue to attack, and there may be aspects of it that need to be addressed, but if the conditions that created the behavior are never acknowledged, especially the lack of truth that a person learned to live with, then that compulsion isn’t going anywhere.

A Different Path

The earlier quote talks about living in truth as a totally different life pathway and way of existing, and I’ve seen that to be true. The habits of lying become deeply ingrained for a person. It’s no wonder they hide small and large things from their spouse or other important people in their life. Often clients will tell me, “I have no idea why I lied about x, y, or z, I wasn’t even embarrassed about it, I just did it.” This is the mode of being from childhood and it won’t be reversed easily, but it absolutely can be reversed.

The reversal comes from a conscious decision to understand the place the lies originated from and a radical new commitment to honesty. And not just honesty to confess when we’ve done something wrong, though that’s part of it. It’s usually honesty about how we’re feeling, what’s going on within us, what we need. It’s understanding at a deep level that we don’t need the lies in order to get through life anymore. Our most shameful behavior is actually speaking more truth to us than our “good” socially approved self, if we will stop and listen. The false self was created to help us survive, but we all reach a point where we realize the game is up and this self isn’t going to work anymore. Edward C Whitmont writes,

It is not until we have truly been shocked into seeing ourselves as we really are, instead of as we wish or hopefully assume we are, that we can take the first step toward individual reality.

This is a very hard thing. Maybe the hardest. And I don’t think many people realize what they’re in for when they start therapy. We’re talking about seeing yourself as you really are, seeing the conditions of your life as they really are, and getting honest about all the ways we’ve tried to distort that in order to survive.

I promise I won’t hit all this in the first session, I know it’s a lot to consider! We’ll ease into it. Maybe you’ll even have the courage to ask yourself some hard questions after reading this, and I hope you’ll listen carefully for the answers that will come and begin speaking truth to yourself and those around you.

The Journey of Sexual Recovery-Where Do I Start?

This is a big moment. Maybe your life has come tumbling down after your spouse discovered behavior you’ve kept secret or you just lost a job because of your search history. Maybe the consequences are only internal, but just as severe. You are in agony and are tired of the guilt, shame, and disappointment you regularly experience after vowing that you’d never go to that place again, only to find yourself right back there, alienated from yourself, those around you, and God. This is hopefully the moment where you’re ready to reach out for help because it’s become clear that you haven’t been able to stop the unwanted behavior on your own. So where do you start?

The Structure of Early Recovery

I intentionally use the word “structure” because it’s vital for starting the process of change. A key thing to understand is that your behavior has likely been conditioned and reinforced since early adolescence. You’ve trained your brain to rely on whatever form your sexual behavior has taken. For example, many people report feeling suddenly triggered and seeking out sexual behavior whenever they have time alone. What’s going on here? It’s conditioning. In early adolescence, the times you probably viewed pornography and masturbated was whenever you could get a second alone. It’s a private behavior, and one we’re often ashamed of, so it follows that we would seek it out in this context and that this connection would be stored in our brains at an unconscious level. I say all this to make it clear that you have trained your brain, and it’s going to take some intentional lifestyle changes and structures to retrain your brain. I’ll briefly go over several of these structures.

Structure Number 1- Reconnection

Over the course of your life, you’ve probably become increasingly isolated and secretive about this behavior. Even if you’ve talked with people about it, you’ve tried to keep it vague or you haven’t fully shared details about how frequently you struggle and what form your behavior takes. You’ve also probably stopped praying and spending time with God. So it’s essential that you reconnect. I encourage clients to begin praying morning and evening at the very least, even if it’s brief. It’s essential to start talking to God again, even while struggling. He wants to be invited into the struggle. It’s also vital that you start talking to other human beings about what’s going on. This happens in counseling, and hopefully also starts to happen in a support group, bible study, or intentional conversation with other friends who you invite into your life. I frequently ask people to tell me the nature of their fantasies and sexual behavior and help them search for themes. There’s a variety of reasons I do this, but the first one is to help provide freedom from shame and feeling all alone. Most clients look at me in shock and say something like, “Are you sure you want to hear this?” or “No one has ever asked me anything like that before, I don’t talk about this.” This is wisdom that AA has known about for a long time, as one of their steps involves taking a complete moral inventory and recounting details of our failings to at least one other human being. James 5:16 says, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”

Structure 2- Boundaries and Consequences

This is not a popular one. As scary as it might be to start talking to God and other people about our deepest and darkest secrets, it’s even harder to get serious about the lifestyle changes required to change these patterns. Once we understand your unique triggers and the ways you’ve conditioned yourself sexually, we can start setting boundaries. So in our previous example about being alone, a client would develop a boundary and plan for how they will handle being alone. Maybe the boundary is that they don’t stay alone at work, or if they travel for work they leave their phone in the car instead of bringing it into the hotel room. Some people get rid of their smartphones entirely. You do whatever it takes to set yourself up for success, understanding that you’ve become powerless and will continue the behavior if your life structures don’t change. It’s understood that if this plan isn’t followed, a person has intentionally crossed the line, and will implement a consequence for themselves if they act out.

Let me explain the purpose of consequence because I don’t want it to be misunderstood as legalistic or an attempt to further shame you. I had a negative reaction to the concept at first, until I realized how difficult it would be to get traction in early recovery without it. This comes back to conditioning and a basic understanding of what motivates us. If a behavior is basically pleasurable and consequence free, we have no reason to stop. By giving yourself a consequence, you are intentionally shaping and motivating your behavior. Sexual behavior is WAY too rewarding and enjoyable to find the willpower to stop at first when our brains are still hijacked in early recovery. Willingness to implement a consequence shows how serious you are about changing your behavior and getting beyond nice ideas and promises to change that aren’t paired with action. Common consequences are doing a hated chore or donating money to a cause you despise. Most clients have a hard time thinking of a consequence, but don’t worry, I can help you find one!

Is That It?

The structure I’ve outlined here is only the beginning of the journey, but the journey will have a hard time getting started without it. I originally scoffed at these principles, thinking they were too simplistic. I don’t think of myself as primarily a behavioral therapist. I’m interested in getting to the deep places and really figuring things out. Talk about boundaries and structure was not appealing. I still am interested in understanding your story and your wounds, and the ways you have used sex to try and deal with the context of your life. But we can’t get to this deeper level without first addressing the fact that you are enslaved to this behavior and we need to do something drastic to get you out of it. This is where standard talk therapy misses the mark for people struggling with addictive processes, because you can have a nice conversation about the behavior and get lots of insight, but it’s hard to change without new structure and practices.

Hope is the key currency in early recovery, and having tangible behaviors and structure show us that maybe we are actually getting somewhere. There’s no reason you have to keep suffering with your unwanted sexual behavior. Stopping may be the hardest thing you ever do, but it’s very possible. Let’s talk about it soon.

Being in a Hurry Might Not Actually Work

A common question I’m asked in the first session is, “How many sessions do you think this will take?” And I get it. You want to know what you’re getting yourself into, because counseling does represent a significant investment of time, energy, and resources. The answer to that question is largely determined by your specific situation, but I did want to offer some general thoughts about the counseling process so this isn’t a total mystery.

Slower Than You Wanted

I hope I didn’t lose all of you with that heading because I know telling someone that anything is going to be slow usually means they’ve already moved on and will find someone who can do it faster. But the longer I’ve done this work, the more clear it’s become- change is generally a slow process. Why is this?

I recently moved back to Pennsylvania from Washington state and as we’ve been getting settled I’ve done some reflecting on the process. It took at least a year and a half just for us to process our life situation and to make the decision to move. Then there was the process of putting a move in motion- preparing a house to sell and then listing it, packing, closing up loose ends at work, saying goodbye. I think I went to Goodwill at least 73 times during this period. Then the actual move, which involved driving across the country (it is about a 40 hour drive), waiting for our stuff to arrive, and unpacking. All of it has felt really slow and tedious! Once I knew I was moving, I wanted to just get there, and once I was here I just wanted to get unpacked and settled. But it’s involved a lot of waiting and a lot of work and there’s been no fast forward button I could hit.

And it’s not just moving that is slow. As I’ve reflected further and talked about life with friends, it’s become clear that we’re all discovering that changing ourselves is an incredibly slow process as well! Whether it’s wanting to become more mature, get in shape, or change that aspect of our personality that always seems to get us snagged as we’re trying to navigate life and relationships, achieving this change is more of a grind than expected. Think about it- by the time you enter counseling you have probably been dealing with a set of issues for years and possibly decades and you finally reached the point that it was intolerable to you or the important people around you. These issues and aspects of ourselves are deep rooted and reinforced over time, and they will not be pulled up easily. Many of these aspects formed as a way to survive painful events and to protect us from a world that can be harsh in large and small ways every day. So, the first reason we find change to be slow is because we’re battling ourselves and our fundamental difficulty overturning our ways of thinking about and interacting with the world. What else contributes to this?

Relationships Are Slow

I’m really bumming you out with these headings, I know. But I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out that counseling is fundamentally the formation of a specific kind of relationship, and all relationships are generally slow. It takes time to become comfortable with a person. You need time with them to see whether they are consistent and reliable. You need to see their reactions to various situations, especially with vulnerable information, to see whether they are trustworthy. You just need time to decide whether you like someone and want to be around them period! This is especially true in counseling where you are often disclosing the most personal and emotionally laden things in your life. I’m always blown away when a client says something like, “You are the only person I’ve ever talked about this with.” That is a real gift and honor when this happens, and I don’t expect to be granted that kind of access on day 1 or even day 65. It needs to be earned, and this takes time.

When they do research about what makes therapy effective, it’s not the things you would initially guess. It’s not the therapist’s ability to have all the answers or to make incredible interpretations. That doesn’t even make the list. This makes sense- if therapy was fast or similar to getting your car fixed, it would just be about the therapist diagnosing you, inputting some information, and you could leave a finished product. But humans are much more complex than this. So what are the main factors? Things like therapist care and compassion, as well as the ability to balance nurture and challenge in the context of the relationship. I’ll never forget what Irv Yalom, a renowed Psychiatrist, said about his years of psychoanalysis- he wrote that the only moment he remembered and that had an impact on him was when he shared a painful story and his therapist leaned forward with compassion. It was the only time she left her neutral stance and stopped making interpretations, and it was the only moment that mattered. Simone Weil writes,

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.

Life is Just Slow

Ok last heading about this, I promise. On our drive from WA to PA, we stopped in Minnesota to visit some friends who are organic farmers. As we asked questions about the farm and learned about the work, I was struck again by how much effort the whole process takes and how slow it is. The field has to be tilled and prepared, the seeds planted, and then they grow secretly and silently for months underground, before emerging and growing slowly above ground. All of this is dependent on weather and happens in season. The Bible is filled with agricultural language and metaphor about sowing and reaping, and about harvest. And it’s always understood that this is going to be a process that involves hard work, waiting, and dealing with uncertainty. It is a process that happens in season, meaning that in our own lives we will have periods of fruitfulness and periods where it seems like nothing much is happening at all. This is the nature of who we are, how relationships work, and of life itself. So why would therapy be any different? I hope this is actually encouraging for you, because it means you’re not expected to be “fixed” after a month of therapy. You can be gracious with yourself as you try to unravel how you got here and can have reasonable expectations for where you will finally arrive. Change is very possible and is deeply rewarding, but it comes in its due season, not with the click of a button. I hope to move slowly with you sometime soon. Call or email today to schedule an appointment.