Being helpful without sounding preachy

As one who struggled for years with pornography addiction before managing to break free about 2-1/2 years ago, I try to offer support, encouragement guidance to others who struggle with pornography addiction and sometimes other sexual addictions through a few different websites.

One question I wrestle with is how to be helpful without sounding judgmental or preachy. As a Catholic, I look at the problem of pornography from a different perspective than many people. As with all sin, the major problem is that it goes against God’s will; all other consequences are secondary. Pornography and other manifestations of lust take something God intended to be sacred — the union of man and woman toward to the procreation of new human life — into something less than it is supposed to be.

Of course, most people who struggle with lust-related addictions seem to be primarily concerned with earthly consequences, such as the impact of their addiction on their relationships and the general quality of their life. Sometimes they want to “get control” of their problem, but they really have no intention of ordering their lives toward God’s plan for creation. I find it hard to be supportive in such cases, because I really don’t believe the changes they are struggling to make are going to bring them the true joy they were meant to experience through God’s plan. Ultimately, they will still be taking God’s gift of human sexuality and using it for a lower purpose.

Yet, I know that unless we can somehow reach people where they are, we won’t reach them at all. I just haven’t figured out how to do this yet.

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Pride and pornography use

I have often heard that Pride is the most dangerous of the seven capital sins. In terms of habitual pornography use, one might suppose that lust is the driving force, but I have been pondering how much harder pride makes it for one to break such a habit. Here are a few of the lies that pride leads us to tell ourselves:

  • I am good enough just the way I am

We could call this the Mr. Rogers line of self-deception: “I like you just the way you are.” If I’m convinced that I’m already right where I need to be, I never stop to examine my conscience in the first place. Result: I never change

  • My sins aren’t as bad as other people’s

“Okay, so I sinned, but there were extenuating circumstances.” Pride can keep us from looking at our sins objectively, and accurately assessing our sinfulness. We make excuses, whether that means blaming someone else or some factor that was beyond our control. It couldn’t have been my fault — I would never do such a thing

  • My sins are worse than other people’s

While we should always be concerned especially with our own sinfulness — all of the saints whose writings I’ve read have seemed to see themselves as the worst among sinners — an exaggerated sense of our own virtue can cause us to see our sins as worse and less forgivable than others. I might be understanding if a friend of mine admitted to looking on a pornographic website, but somehow I think my doing so is too great a sin for even Jesus to forgive.

Once I delayed Confession because I was worried that I would disappoint the priest. I finally realized how silly this was, imagining that he had ever thought me invulnerable to sin in the first place. And, really, it is Jesus whom I should be worried about disappointing in the first place.

  • This will NEVER happen again!

Pride can lead us to exaggerate the magnitude of our own repentance, such that we think we can count on ourselves to never fall into sin again. We then let down our guard, and when we encounter temptation again, we tell ourselves that we can handle it rather than running away and asking God for the grace to resist it. We allow temptation to repeatedly chip away at our willpower, until we are falling into the same sins all over again. Once that happens, we go back to seeing our sins as unforgivable, because gosh darn it, we were supposed to be above that.

Lust certainly deserves its place among the seven deadly sins, but humility can at least help us to see our weakness and beg for God’s help and mercy, and for the virtue of chastity. If we hang onto pride, however, we may never ask for the help we truly need.

 

 

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‘What is my porn-addicted husband thinking?’

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.

-Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I participate in an online support forum primarily intended for people addicted to sex or pornography (mostly the latter). However, we also get many posts from the wives of pornography addicts trying to decide what to do about their husbands’ addictions. A question these wives frequently ask is, “What is he thinking?”

These wives understandably feel hurt,betrayed and angry, and they wonder if there is any hope for their marriages. They wonder how their husbands could have lied to them for so long when they had expressed their suspicions long ago, and how their husbands could have chosen porn over them.

Sometimes even after a husband has admitted his addiction to his wife and promised to change, he falls back into his old ways, and his wife eventually finds out. The wife feels doubly betrayed she stood by him, and yet he continues to lie to her. Why would he do that? Does he think that little of her?

In my experience, it may be himself of whom he think that little. The above quote from Henry David Thoreau sums it up he is living a life of quiet desperation. He may have promised himself to quit using pornography on many occasions. He knows it is bad for him and bad for his marriage, and yet every time he tries to give it up, the impulse seems to overcome his will to change. He sees his destiny being determined by videos and images made by people who care nothing about him. He has resigned himself to his addiction.

Meanwhile, his biggest fear may well be that of disappointing his wife. She may be one of the few things in his life that brings him any joy at all, but he believes he will lose her if she sees him for what he truly is. He would love to give up the pornography, but he doesn’t believe he can. His only hope, in his mind, is to do everything he can to convince her that he is not really that person.

I can’t speak for every husband out there who uses pornography or has a porn addiction, of course. There are some men who seem to see nothing wrong with using pornography and who seem to think that the problem is the petty jealousy of their wives. But, from my own experience and from my conversations with other addicts, I know that many hate their addictions but have simply lost hope.

I don’t know if this really helps the wives who are struggling with a husband who has a pornography addiction. I hope it at least sheds some light on where the husband may be coming from.

Thankfully, more and more men are now learning that there are ways to break the addictive cycle. I know of several sites that offer practical steps for recovery, and I’ve shared with dozens of men who’ve made real changes in their lives. Those who are successful seem to undergo a process parallel to something else Thoreau describes in Walden:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

It is when they overcome their addictions that these men truly come alive, pursuing forgotten passions, discovering hidden talents, and experiencing all the joy that life has to offer. They become better husbands, better fathers and better at their chose occupations. They are more confident and more hopeful. They begin to “suck out all the marrow of life.” They “live deliberately.”

My hope is that every husband with a pornography addiction will rise up against his desperation and find the man hidden within. This will be the greatest gift he can give his wife and everyone else he loves, and himself.

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Guilt, regret and the porn addict

Phil Sandoval, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who has a show on Immaculate Heart Radio, recently discussed an article from Psychology Today on the 6 Mental Health Habits That Kill Your Confidence. I think the article is especially relevant to those who struggle with pornography addiction — who try again and again to get better but repeatedly find themselves falling back into the same habits.

Sometimes our thoughts can sabotage our recovery. Perhaps putting a name to some of these thoughts can help us recognize them when they occur and be ready to refute them. Here are the six thoughts outlined in the article and how I think they can be applied to pornography addiction.

1. Feeling guilty.

I love that this article doesn’t dismiss guilt entirely, but differentiates between healthy and unhealthy guilt. The only kind of healthy guilt is guilt about something harmful that you did. Certainly, pornography is harmful to ourselves and our relationships with others and God. But even healthy guilt is pointless unless we use it to motivate us to change. Healthy guilt motivates us to climb out of the mud, not stay there. It says, “You are meant for better than this. Come, let’s change directions.”

Guilt is meant to remind us of the need to change as hunger is meant to remind us of the need to eat. If we ignore hunger and don’t get the food we need, eventually we die. If we ignore healthy guilt and don’t keep trying to make amends and improve, we gradually die inside.

2. Thinking you’re a failure.

The article states, “If you look at your life through the lens of failure, you will fail to pay attention to or minimize your positive achievements.  A mindset of failure also doesn’t take into account the difficult circumstances you may have faced or how hard you tried.”

You may not have reached your goal yet in your struggle against pornography addiction, but that doesn’t make you a failure. Pornography addiction doesn’t negate everything good you have accomplished in life. Besides, beating pornography addiction is a learning process, and there may be some things you have yet to learn, like how to handle a stressful situation without turning to your addiction, or how to deal with trigger situations. If you’ve slipped up, use that mistake to help you identify what you may need to work on. Every successful person has made mistakes on their journey.

3. Being a Perfectionist

This is a tricky one, because as pornography addicts know, it is all too easy to allow for one mistake, and then another, and then another, until we wind up exactly where we started. We know it won’t work to get pornography mostly out of our lives; we know that we need to get rid of it completely. Addicts will sometimes adopt an “all or nothing” mentality that can be self defeating. They’ll go six weeks without pornography, slip up, and say, “Six weeks down the drain!” Ideally, they should say, “I now have six weeks of experience living chastely to build on.”

It is also important to know the difference between a little mistake and a big one. At one point during my recovery, I was beating myself up over every wayward glance. I remember one when I was sitting on a bench on a windy day, and a woman in a short, lightweight skirt walked by. The wind lifted up her skirt a bit, and I may or may not have seen something I shouldn’t have — I’m not really sure. Stunned, I watched for a little bit longer to see if it would happen again. It didn’t, but I spent hours beating myself up over the incident.

Custody of the eyes is important, but there is a big difference between having less than pure thoughts about an attractive woman passing by and bingeing on pornography. There is also a difference between making a single mistake and giving up entirely.

4. Living with regret

Like guilt, regret can be healthy if it motivates us to fix what we can and do better in the future. But ultimately, all we can act on is the present moment. Ruminating about what we wish we hadn’t done or what we wish we’d done sooner doesn’t bring us any closer to recovery.

5. Comparing Yourself Negatively With Others

As widespread as pornography addiction seems to be, the addicts themselves often feel like they are the only ones. We wonder why we are freaks who can’t control ourselves the way everyone does. But the truth is, we don’t know what demons other people are fighting. We don’t know what others do in the shadows when we can’t see them.

At the same time, we must also avoid comparing ourselves favorably to others whose addictions may be even worse. Maybe we’ve never actually committed adultery, but is it because we are better than that, or because we were never put to that test? I’ve never been addicted to cocaine, but I’ve also never been offered cocaine or even seen anyone using it. We can be grateful that our addictions aren’t even more harmful, but we still need to address that addiction just the same.

6. People-Pleasing

I’ve always been pulled down by a feeling that I’m not good enough for anyone else, so I would try to pretend to be someone I thought others would like better. Yet, even if I initially made friends this way, those friends would eventually see through my facade, realize that I wasn’t the person they thought I was and move on. Their rejection would leave me feeling even more unlikable, and so I would try harder to hide myself. I substituted imaginary relationships with porn actresses for the real love I couldn’t seem to find.

In recovery, I’ve learned that people can only love me if I let them know me, and they can’t know me if I’m pretending to be someone else. There are some who won’t like the real me, but their opinions do not determine my value. The reward is that, when you are authentic with people and they do accept you, you know that it is really you whom they are accepting.

Ultimately, real friendships bring far more emotional satisfaction than pornography ever could, and make pornography much easier to let go of.

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Learning to connect with people

So, I understand that one of the primary reasons I became addicted to porn in the first place was my inability to connect with others, which I believe is both a symptom and a contributing factor in my long-term depression. In my young, single days, on the occasions when I would feel connected to others, I would be so enthralled by the feeling that I would become clingy, almost forming an addiction to that person. I would become jealous and insecure, feeling that this new person was my only shot at a human relationship.

As one might expect, this quickly scared most women away. The fact that it didn’t scare my wife away is a bit surprising. Maybe at some level she liked feeling needed.

Anyway, fast-forward to me, now, post porn-addiction and trying to learn to make healthy human connections. I had two situations happen this week that were very similar to each other, from which I think I have now gained some insight.

In both situations, I happened to be talking to friendly, extremely attractive women. Not flirting, not discussing anything inappropriate, just talking about specific things we were mutually involved in. In both cases, these women were very “touchy” people — they would put their hands on my arm as they were talking to me and things like that. Aside from my wife, women don’t usually do while talking to me. I had always figured it was because women found me awkward and unattractive and didn’t want to get too close. I have always refrained from initiating touch because I don’t want to intrude on anyone’s space, and because I didn’t want to send any inappropriate signals.

But in this last week, two gorgeous women have engaged in conversations with me and initiated touch. One of the women also had a tendency to get very close to me while talking to me — several inches closer than most people do in conversation, in my experience. It didn’t feel like an invasion of space; I have to admit, I was comfortable with it. Or I liked it, anyway. Putting aside for a moment the question of whether it’s okay for women to put their hands on my arm or stand close to me while talking to me, or for me to let them (I’m still trying to figure this out), why are women doing this all of a sudden?

The only thing I can come up with is that I am able to make eye contact far more easily than I could a couple of years ago. I was listening to what these women had to say and offering my own thoughts. I was connecting.

On the other hand, I had trouble moving on mentally from these conversations afterward. Was I acting inappropriately by allowing this to happen? Is it okay to enjoy a beautiful woman’s hand on my arm or her looking directly in my eyes while talking to me? It is not my intention to be unfaithful to my wife in any way. I’ve also found it much easier to talk to men lately than it used to be, but in that case, there is no danger of romantic thoughts emerging. (Yes, I’m sure.)

I guess this is one of the challenges that comes with being able to interact with the human race for the first time in my life — I have to learn boundaries as well.

By the way, comments are more than welcome. I’m curious what others think about whether I should have handled these situations differently.

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Fighting addiction without conversion

I get a little frustrated sometimes when I try to reach out to others through various online forums for pornography addicts. For me, a big part of the journey toward giving up pornography was coming to better understand God’s plan for human sexuality and, hopefully, follow His plan more faithfully. I have come to appreciate more fully that the act of sexual intercourse is not supposed to just be about people experiencing physical pleasure. Rather, they fill a more sacred purpose of uniting a couple and reinforcing their unity throughout their life together in an act that is the vehicle for human creation. Just as God’s creation of mankind was an act of love, so is the creation of every person meant to be.

Pornography prevented me from seeing this, or at least from seeing it clearly. Yet, as I read some of the things others share about their personal experiences in giving up pornography, I realize that many have no interest in embracing sexual activity as the sacred gift that God meant for it to be. They still want sex on their own terms; they’ve just come to realize that pornography gets in the way of what they want for themselves.

This is a problem that is bigger than pornography. It’s why contraception exists. It’s why fornication and adultery happen. It’s why there is such widespread acceptance of so-called same-sex marriage. It’s why abortion happens. Once people decide that sex is their own thing to use any way they want, God’s plan gets left behind.

In fact, it’s worse than that — God’s plan is viewed as hostile. People are punished for saying, “No, I don’t want to buy contraception for people,” “No, I don’t want to fund abortion,” or “No, I don’t want to recognize same-sex marriages.” Anything that might suggest disapproval of someone else’s sexual activity is viewed as discriminatory, because the world only sees sex for its worldly value.

Breaking free of pornography addiction was difficult enough when I saw it as the biggest obstacle in my personal relationship with God at the time. I don’t know how people find the motivation when what they want instead is no more in keeping with His plan than what they are giving up.

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Laying blame won’t win the game

I was just in a conversation about pornography addiction and the tendency of addicts to look outside themselves for people to blame.

• “If only my dad hadn’t left his Playboys where I could find them.”

• “If only those other kids hadn’t talked about it so much when I was young and curious.”

• “If only my religion teachers had better articulated why it was wrong.”

• “If only the ISPs would do more to block porn.”

• “If only the porn industry weren’t so aggressive in its marketing.”

• “If only the government would do more to restrict the porn industry.”

• “If only my job weren’t so stressful.”

• “If only women would notice me more.”

• “If only my wife were more loving.”

For me, I think part of the reason I wanted to blame others was that it seemed to be the only alternative to blaming myself. My thinking was as follows:

Whereas I am using pornography and can’t seem to stop even though I believe it is wrong and unhealthy, either I must be a bad person or someone else must be responsible.

No one wants to believe himself to be a bad person, so naturally the alternative seemed more appealing. And to some extent, the actions of others do play a role in making pornography addiction more likely. But even if that’s true, knowing that one’s addiction may be partly someone else’s fault does absolutely nothing to make it better.

Another problem is the assumption that if I am addicted to using pornography, I must be a bad person. Perhaps only those who have struggled with addiction get how hard it is to fight and can understand the inner conflicts that emerge during withdrawal. An addict can sincerely want to change but still be overwhelmed with urges, and even worse, a fear that those urges will never go away unless satisfied. It’s like having two voices in your head, one saying, “No, don’t!” and another saying “Oh, just once more!” or, worse, “You can’t change. Just give up already.” Sometimes it’s not so much that the addict doesn’t want to change; it’s that he doesn’t know how.

A pornography addict is not necessarily a hedonist whose only interest is carnal pleasure. Sometimes, pornography is a distraction from pain. My addiction started when I was a boy struggling with depression. Pornography wasn’t my first addiction; I was addicted to TV shows, computer games, action figures (playing with them and buying them), junk food and I don’t remember what else. A boy doesn’t know that what he has is depression; he knows that he feels miserable and that certain thing seem to relieve it, if only temporarily.

As an adult who recognized he had a problem, there were things I could do to address it. (I’ve discussed that elsewhere on this blog.) While I’ve been out of the cycle of pornography addiction for more than a year, I’ve come to the realization that my next step is learning to address the depression that’s always been lurking with in. I don’t know whether I will ever be totally free from that, but I am learning about the ways others cope with and manage it, and that’s what I’m now looking into.

My point is, my addiction was not made better by blaming myself or anyone else, nor will my depression be. What I need to look at is:

Where am I?
Where do I want to be?
What can I do to get there?

Once I figure that out, I can also ask, “How do I keep from ending up there again?” But there is no benefit in asking, “Whose fault is it that I was there in the first place?”

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