Snow LionThis Section presents valuable insights and guided tours through different components of sex addiction recovery as written from the perspectives of those in recovery. Unlike some articles written about recovery, we believe that recounting grim details of acting out behaviors can be harmful and unnecessary. The stories here are meant primarily for a philosophical understanding of this addiction.

“The definition of character is doing the right thing when no one is watching”

One Man's Map of Sexual Addiction Recovery

by Scott Allen (recovering from sex addiction since 2010)

What is Sex Addiction?

Sex addiction can develop from the unsuccessful attempt to quell unexamined anxiety. It can function as both a maladaptive, self-regulating tool to alleviate nervous tension and can also become a dysfunctional solution to mask intimacy and relational disorders. These often-unconscious anxieties may stem from long-forgotten or barely-remembered trauma-related experiences.  Although minimized, denied and sometimes made completely unconscious in order for them to cope in the present, the underlying agitation of this hidden anxiety feeds the entire addiction process (obsession, compulsive repetition, denial, minimal concern for consequence and resistance to change). The emotional suppression of anxiety is damaging to our bodies and continual suppression can produce the pathology of what we label 'addiction'.

The therapeutic investigation of original, unresolved trauma experience could lead towards a heightened state of wellness. The difficult challenge of therapy would entail the willingness of those afflicted to allow themselves to 'safely' access these old wounds and blocked memories that they have desperately tried to bury, as deeply and as far from their awareness as possible.

The targeted approach to healing sex addiction has been evolving for several decades. Some initial findings and solutions remain valid although many aspects of treatment have since developed significantly into new methodologies with deeper understanding of trauma, relational bonding, healing and recovery.

Facing Addiction

Most addicts are in denial of their addictions and I found that cutting through this denial was an arduous obstacle towards the beginning of my own recovery. My addictive behaviors were dysfunctional and dissociated solutions to both my deeper anxieties and my everyday stress. When my addictions were exposed I tried to stop acting them out but I did not have any other models of stress management to replace these behaviors with so my stress levels skyrocketed. My attempt to remove the only 'problem-soothing tool' that I had in my toolbox of solutions actually increased the spin of my stress cycle, prompting a significant escalation of my addiction.

For me to admit to this humiliating behavioral problem and that this problem was beyond my control was devastating for me to consider owning. For many years prior to the exposure of my addictions, I felt that my sexual behavior was a personal embarrassment and not allowing me to feel good about myself; contributed to my low self-esteem, and that these compulsive acting out behaviors had no meaningful value for me.

Deep within, I knew, and yet still bypassed the realization that I was entangled with elaborate ploys to deceive my partner and others and that these dark secrets were vitally important for me to protect and to keep hidden. This was the voice of addiction. Lying became a daily and ritualistic behavior that undermined my personal sense of values.

Regardless of obvious consequences, I chose to believe that:

  • Things will be fine if I just keep my secrets (denial)
  • Many guys do this, it's normal (rationalization/normalization)
  • My secrets do not harm my partner, or our relationship (compartmentalization)
  • These behaviors could not be harming me because I enjoy them (entitlement)

My excuses allowed me to deny the addiction’s existence. Overly sexualized behaviors, the trademark of classic sex addiction, are routinely idealized in today's cultural media. This reality did not exempt me from knowing that my sexual behaviors were not right for me to do, under any circumstance. Going against my inner nature undermined my self-esteem and moral integrity.

When I betrayed my integrity I unwittingly closed the door to my own internal strengths, which would otherwise be held open and available to help support me through life’s dark days and challenges. My inner strength is nourished by my integrity. Being ignorant and blinded by lust, I stupidly closed that door, denying access to my inner core-strength. The addiction was in place to protect me from the anxiety that haunted me and it seemed to grow stronger every time I did something that I swore that I would never do. It was winning, one chunk of me at a time. I found that I became more of a host to this ghost of addiction, much like befriending a demon in barter for its protection against my anxiety, only to be devoured later on.

Acting Out

Addicts feel safety with their addiction—it performs the function of shielding the addict from anxiety. Due to this, they are not easily giving up the addiction as it has become their active solution for regulating their nervous system and being without this shield would likely instigate a protective and defensive reaction.

Without the acting out behavior, the addict would feel defenseless against the ever-present anxieties. Additionally, the addict’s disorganized perspective of the world could create paralysis from perceiving overwhelm, exposure and severe confusion.

This outlines the usual resistance of an active addict as well as the challenges that therapists and recovery systems must pierce in order to reach the addictive thinking/behavior. The development and gentle introduction of healing modalities into the life of an addict has become critically important in the world of Recovery.

Hitting Bottom

Addictive behavior is like wildfire, hungry for any fuel it can acquire. This desperate need would most likely inevitably burn through all of one’s personal resources—time, energy, finances, relationships and finally one’s health. Hitting bottom is when one or more of these has a catastrophic failure and we lose something that we valued, usually a connection or the respect of someone who mattered. Losing these connections, often one at a time, will eventually leave us facing a major survival challenge, alone and weakened in the world. This loss of support becomes a cruel lesson in self-defeat.

This departure from our life support is known as hitting bottom and is the most common marker for an addict to begin taking the importance of recovery seriously. Hitting bottom deftly cuts through the most stubborn denial and leaves one feeling humbled and desperate for change. Hitting bottom is when addicts realize, often with great despair, that their acting out behaviors are costing too much to slavishly continue; something must change. It is a time of great confusion, anger and despair.

The Lens Of An Addict: Entangled With Shame

Since addiction in general perpetuates a delusional state, an active addict would be challenged to perceive anyone in a healthy, relationally balanced way. A romantic partner, being the primary recipient of the addict's emotional chaos, would be quite likely bound-up within the fabric of dysfunction created by the addict. The relational bonding threads are as confused and unclear as the addict and infused with the addict’s chaos. It cannot be any other way. The addict can bring great chaos into the relationship. Poor relational boundaries perpetuate the classic scenario of "taking it out on others," or projection, with the addict’s partner often being the primary target of the abuse and projections. This insanity is abusive to the partners and destroys the potential for trust and intimacy in the relationship.

For the fellow addicts whose sexual addiction/compulsion was responsible for destroying a committed relationship (and our lover's heart) the resulting shame can be a torturous burden to carry. Shame needs to be fully understood and processed for us to begin self-recovery. 

There is a fundamental misunderstanding of shame and guilt and the discourse on this subject can continue for quite some time. To summarize my findings:

  • Shame, in its healthy state, is an emotion whose source is internally generated and moderates our behavior through the individual's developed sense of moral judgment.
  • Unhealthy shame is an externally driven concept that becomes trapped within us to become a self-identifying, self-demeaning influence that discolors who we believe we are, and how we believe we appear to others.
  • Guilt is a non-emotional, non-feeling, factual state that occurs directly from committing  a wrong action.

Healthy and authentic shame, in its natural state (also known as one's conscience), is actually a strengthening emotion designed to help us to monitor and moderate our behavior. It is an internal process and functions naturally in a healthy and balanced self. However, most of us have been manipulated and threatened by external sources which confuses, undermines and disengages our own judgment. The natural and unnatural aspects of shame create a conflicting spiral of overwhelm that often causes us to dissociate and shut down. Learning to identify our own associations with judgment and morals can eliminate the shame spiral and strengthen our healthy boundaries and self-esteem.

Wrestling with external shame was the most difficult aspect for me to manage during my early recovery period because it required a shift of my own sense of ego and boundary to begin any healing. Creating this personal shift of my self-identity required me to first acknowledge that I am fundamentally whole and healthy but that I have become obsessed with wrong behaviors as a way to cope. I then accept the true guilt of my actions while simultaneously cutting through the denial of the existence of my addictive behavior.

How Can I Amend Bad Behaviors?

Most people have developed relational fractures from minor traumas and high stress levels in our lives. Disruption of our belief structure is common, natural and required in order for us to adapt to the ceaseless change of life. When these experiences are intense, repeated or abusive, they can be overwhelming, especially to young children whose brains are actively forming and learning relational patterns. These patterns dictate how we relate to ourselves, others and the world around us. What is critical is that we learn to cultivate the ability and flexibility to repair and modify these ruptures of our belief structure.

Repair and adjustment skills are more naturally developed as children through the observation of our parents and role models as they encounter stressful obstacles and show us by example how to adjust to them. If this teaching was poorly expressed or was not available for us then we need to cultivate these dynamics ourselves and gradually learn these new behaviors through trial, error and repetition of those behaviors which achieve the desired goals.

Since behavior is acquired through repeated experience, we are indeed capable of modifying our undesirable behavior by consciously replacing these thoughts and actions with more healthy and successful behaviors. Beneficial actions, repeated over time have enabled early humans to learn important survival techniques such as making fire and tools. The repetition of behaviors will automatically imprint their effects into our deep memory, without regard or judgment as to whether these practices are poor choices in the long term. This self-reinforcing  mechanism has been an obstacle towards healing addictive behavior.

For addicts to learn new, healthy behavior, we need to train our brain to accept the sensation of reward for new behavior while we simultaneously cease the re-grooving of the old memory tracks, and the old reward system. This can be extremely challenging since an addictive mindset has a very disorganized thinking process but the good news is that the cultivation of new structural and functional behavior models encourage this growth and change.

We need to resist the reward cravings from unwanted behaviors and create new, healthy rewards for the new behaviors. Then we repeat the new behavior over and again until we have established an automatic model of new behavior and response. This rewires our brain. Sounds simple and it requires commitment that most addicts have never given themselves to—except the dedication to the addiction. Turn that fierce dedication towards your healing instead.

In fully embraced recovery, brain plasticity creates new neural pathways, while de-activating the addictively created neural tropes, supporting recovery with a re-wired brain. This is a long process, but one well worth the time and struggle.

What is Top Line Behavior?

Healthy and desired practices are known in recovery as 'top line behavior'. Here are some common top line behaviors and also a few essential suggestions for early recovery:

  • Creating a daily practice performed every morning with meditation and reading inspirational and healing information about addiction, brain science and recovery
  • Ceasing the damaging behaviors, while simultaneously and consistently practicing your new behaviors, allowing your new actions to take hold as the feelings from these new activities are acknowledged by your brain as being safe and rewarding
  • Become honest and be accountable to your partner who, having their trust in you betrayed repeatedly, now needs objective measures of your honesty. This may mean internet filters, password access to e-mail and social media accounts, providing recovery progress reports, routine polygraph exams, etc.
  • Be willing to live a life of transparency. Not having to lie, hide or sneak anymore will greatly assist both your self-esteem and the rebuilding of trust with your partner.
  • Participating in community-building events, going to meetings, socializing, joining groups and clubs—thereby encouraging connecting with others in healthy ways, which develop friendships, purposeful living and a support system that helps limit isolation and cultivates healthy reward circuitry in the 'new' brain
  • Getting outdoors and/or exercising on a regular basis
  • Cultivating a sense of gratitude—start with whatever you can (gratitude is known to beneficially alter brain chemistry)
  • Becoming a true friend to others who are in need; helping others has healing benefits for both parties
  • Being determined to heal your addictions and owning the desire to do so
  • Understanding the brain science behind what made you addicted to the behaviors as well as how to untangle the addiction—this enables your rational mind to use perspective and reasoning in the present and future
  • Having the courage to face the wounds of your life that may hide in the inner shadows

The integrity-building aspects of our top line behaviors increase exponentially in their intensity and power. These aspects alone have become a rich reward system for me, and have become a valuable stimulus in my recovery. I am encouraged with an exhilarating sensation when I feel esteemed acknowledgement from others. I am developing inner strength through my practice of behaviors that are rejuvenating and socially beneficial, and by living a life with integrity!

Developing our integrity can be one of the greatest rewards of our lives, requiring courage and commitment, especially through the period of initial uncertainty. This hard work forms a healthy and well-adjusted sense of boundary and a stronger ego in the world, the qualities necessary for a  meaningful life.

If we were raised with a dysfunctional and damaging family life, then odds are that we have been living without a roadmap or encouragement for attaining a meaningful life. But we can learn to feel and moderate our emotions in a healthy and balanced way, with integrity as our guide. Integrity is an aspect of our inner strength and enables the sense of clarity and the feeling of confidence. These powerful qualities are the foundations of building a solid character, true friendship and also enable one to form a healthy, intimate relationship.

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