Healing the Shame-Based Self in Sexual Recovery

By Robert Weiss, LCSW, CAS


Early recovery requires a clear and well-defined sexual plan that often requires a period of celibacy. Often times though, this leads to unhealthy judgment, sexual anorexia, and fear. Desperate to "recover right", most sex addicts are guarded about their early sexual choices and behaviors. Sex addicts often drag perfectionism, shame, and self-hatred into their sexual decision making process, which is what drove the addictive behaviors in the first place. While the first few months of sexual recovery does require somewhat rigid boundaries, it is essential to help addicts negotiate the line between healthy sexual recovery and a healthy nurturing of self.

Despite the negative consequences caused by their addiction, recovering addicts need to find ways to love and value the addiction. They should see the desire to act out as an emotional alarm going off. This alarm is saying that he is in some kind of need and should reach out. Recovering sex addicts should see their addiction as a part of themselves that they should value, not disparage. If they respond to their addictive longings by calling someone in recovery, going to a meeting, etc., then the call of the addict has served its purpose and deserves appreciation. This replaces shameful behavior with self-nurturing and healthy attachment.

Group Treatment Experience

When I provided inpatient treatment for Dr. Carnes, we had stuffed animals for hugging in our hospital day room. Between the cute stuffed animals was an ugly, humpbacked dragon with only one eye. Once, as I walked past, I saw some patients kicking this creature around and calling it names. I stopped and asked why they were abusing this ugly, but harmless, dragon. One patient replied, "He's green and ugly and reminds me of my addiction. I'm 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 nodded their heads, something in their attitude struck me as wrong. I realized then that it is impossible to "kill off" the addiction, and that hating and controlling the addict part of themselves could only lead back to shame and problems.

That afternoon, I sat down with the guys and we had a group treatment experience. For an hour, we did 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 that we hadn't ever responded to his call in ways that respected him. Each of us told him that in recovery we were committed to loving and appreciating him. We understood that he was not going away, but would remain in us as a guide and observer. It was our job to listen and respond to him appropriately. Our addict, who longed for acknowledgement and help, had been angry about being ignored and shut out, and had found sex as a means for attention and validation. We each took this opportunity to say, "Thanks for helping us survive, we see you, we will listen now, we will take care of you. We can work together without shame."

Replacing 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 or how strong the current desire to act is, the addict needs to understand that their behavior came from an attempt to cope with unmanageable circumstances. They must learn that the addict part of them helped them emotionally survive until they got the aid that they needed. Only in this way can addicts leave behind the shame of their past and replace it with compassion and empathy.

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