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.
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.