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.