Healing the Shame-based Self in Sexual Recovery
By Robert Weiss, LCSW, CAS
As long as the sex addict is acting out, he or she can never see how their own dependency needs have gone and often continue to go unmet, as acting out provides too many reasons for anger and hurt to be turned toward the self. Much of the important work of recovery is to encourage the painful longing of the addicts’ unmet dependency needs to become exposed and acceptable, often through years of 12-step work and good therapy. In early recovery however, sex addicts can often continue to express various forms of their control issues and self hatred utilizing perfectionism, judgment of self and others and strong black and white views of healthy sexuality.
The saying, “there is nothing worse than a reformed smoker” applies even more intensely when dealing with sexual addicts. While it is true that early recovery requires a clear and well-defined sexual plan and often may require a period of celibacy, I never cease to be amazed by the degree of judgment, sexual anorexia and fear that can be generated by sex addicts who actually chose to engage in some form sex of in their early part of their recovery. Desperate to ‘do it right’, knowing the stakes are very high, most sex addicts have good reasons to be guarded about their early sexual choices and behaviors. However, what often gets dragged into the sexual decision making process is the perfectionism, shame and self-hatred which drove the addictive behaviors in the first place. While the first few months of sexual recovery necessarily require somewhat rigid boundaries, beyond that it is essential to help addicts negotiate the line between healthy sexual recovery and a healthy nurturing self.
One part of the self-love essential to help reverse a lifetime of self/other abuse, neglect and trauma needs necessarily to be directed toward the addiction itself. Despite all the negative behaviors, the losses and the harm caused by the addiction, recovering sex addicts need to find ways to love and value the addiction within themselves even when the desire to act out remains active. If the desire to act out, indeed the addiction itself are merely emotional alarm bells going off within the addict, telling him that he is in some kind of need, that it is time to reach out, then the addiction can really be seen as an ally, a part of the self to be valued and appreciated, not disparaged. As long as he or she responds to these addictive longings by calling someone in recovery, going to a meeting etc, replacing shameful behavior with self-nurturing and healthy attachment, then the call of the addict will have been served and is deserving of appreciation.
I recall a story that demonstrates this. Many years ago, when I was first providing inpatient treatment for Dr. Carnes, we had a number of stuffed animals available for hugging in our hospital dayroom. Between the cute teddy’s and cuddly puppies was a particularly ugly, green humpbacked dragon stuffed animal with only one eye and big felt ridges all along its’ yellow-green tail. One day as I walked past the dayroom I saw a few of the male patients kicking this creature around the room and calling it names. As I got closer I stopped them and asked them why they were abusing this ugly, but otherwise harmless unfortunate dragon. One patient replied, “He’s green and ugly, he reminds me of my addict and I am kicking him around because that is how I feel about my addiction. I hate it and want to kill it off, that is why I am here.” As the other addicts participating in this rather unusual inpatient soccer match nodded their heads something in their attitude just struck me as wrong. I realized then and believe still now that the addict can never be “killed off”, that hating and controlling the addict part of the self can only lead back to shame and unmanageability.
As you get to do in addiction group work, especially in inpatient treatment, I sat down with the guys right there that afternoon and we turned that time into a group treatment experience. I closed the door and we spent a good hour doing gestalt work talking to that poor ugly stuffed dragon. We spoke to him about how we had dishonored him, understanding how he, as our addict, had only tried to help us become aware of our needs and encourage us to reach out for nurturing, validation and support. We acknowledged that in our active addiction we hadn’t ever responded to his call in ways that respected him. We told him, each in our own way, that in recovery we were committed to loving and appreciating him, knowing that he was not going away, but would remain in us as a guide and observer, that it was our job to listen to him and respond appropriately. Respecting the silent hurt child that our addict is inside, who longing for acknowledgement and help, angry about having been ignored and shut out, found sex as a means to finally get noticed and validated, we took the time to say, “thanks for helping us survive, we see you, we will listen now, we will take care of you now, you don’t have to do this job inside of us alone. We can work together without shame”.
The work done that day underscores the importance of relieving the burden of shame from the recovering sex addict. No matter how hurtful the past has been, no matter how strong the current desire to act out may be, the addict must come to understand that their behavior came about in an early attempt to cope with unmanageable circumstances. They must learn that the addict part of them allowed them to emotionally survive until they could get the help they needed to let him go. Healthy 12-step work and therapy must help to replace self-hatred with grace and a more objective understanding that what happens in a dysfunctional family can leave a child needing their addiction for continued existence. Only in this way can the shame of the past be left behind to be replaced with compassion and empathy.