As with any addiction, stressful events or a stressful environment in both the past and present can cause a person to begin a certain behavior or ingest a certain substance as a coping mechanism.
Addiction starts with a faulty belief system. For a sex addict, sex becomes their most important need. For an addict, his/her sexual behaviors or acting out, reveal how they think about life and themselves. This belief system is sometimes referred to as “impaired thinking.” Impaired thinking causes a person to distort reality. An addict will want something so badly (like intimacy without any risk) that he/she believes things that are not really true. In other words, addicts can think in a way that makes something that is really harmful and damaging appear acceptable.
Another aspect of an addict’s faulty belief system is referred to as “personal exceptionalism.” This includes thoughts such as, “under ordinary circumstances and for most people behavior X is undesirable or irrational.” This is followed by “but my circumstances are not ordinary and I am different from most people.” This often leads to: “Therefore, behavior X is not undesirable or irrational in my case or not as undesirable or irrational as it would be in other cases.” This happens every day with texting while driving or driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. People say to themselves, “I know texting while driving is bad and dangerous but I can handle it” or “it isn’t dangerous for me. I am the exception.” Same goes with drinking or drugging and driving.
All addicts develop rituals. The ritual always begins with an obsessive preoccupation. Rituals then move to those things people use to prepare for acting out. For a sex addict that means any thought or behavior that he/she uses to get from fantasy to acting out is part of their ritual. A ritual sets the stage for altering a person’s mood through some sexual compulsion.
A “trigger” is a term sometimes used to describe any type of stimulus that brings up old unwanted feelings or wounds. Our deepest desires are usually connected to our deepest wounds. A person’s fantasy life is often the window into what he/she desires most deeply.
Eventually an addict reaches the point where their life has become unmanageable. This may mean they aren’t getting their work done at their job. They may forget to pick up the kids from school. The unmanageability is fueled by negative core beliefs such as, “I am undesirable and/or not worthy of a healthy relationship.”
The actual acting out follows some set pattern. If the acting out involves pornography, then the person will go to the same sites first, second, etc. In the case of pornography, the type of pornography has a deeper meaning because it is tied to a significant underlying wound.
The interesting thing is that the steps leading out of addiction are very similar to the ones that are practiced within the addiction. It starts with developing good core beliefs to replace the faulty ones. These beliefs lead an addict to develop a vision for doing good and align with their true values. The next step is taking something bad and turning it into something good rather than making something bad look good. A focus on goals and the vision for personal and relational health replace the preoccupation with the addiction. This involves keeping their mind on things that really matter in their lives. The next step is replacing the acting out rituals with healthy rituals. These are referred to as “Top Line Behaviors.” “Bottom Line Behaviors” are the ones that need to be removed. “Top Line Behaviors” are good ones that need to be added to a person’s life.
Addicts in recovery develop a list of the main things that they cannot do. There are behaviors to be avoided. Once an addict has this list they then need to develop appropriate boundaries to prevent those behaviors. The boundaries involve a list of situations that are likely to lead to acting out. Lastly, the addict develops a plan for healthy sexuality and relationship.
If you or someone you know is struggling with sexual issues or addiction, feel free to reach out to us at New Leaf Counseling. You can find contact information or individual therapists on our website. Here are some additional resources for help: Sexual Wholeness Faithful & True Bethesda Workshops