I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to help people who are wanting to quit pornography but aren’t able to kick it. Of course, I talk almost everyday with men mostly about changing unwanted sexual behavior. But I wanted to learn more about how people were struggling.
I’ve had conversations with people all around the world in recent weeks. Men who have told me that they cannot stop masturbating. Men who have shared that they relapse again and again without understanding why. Men who have asked me in desperation for tips, strategies, and tools to stop.
I’ve listened. Based on all of my experience, training, and these conversations, here are four things you need to do to quit porn for good.
Recently, I went to Disneyland with my wife and son. One of the many attractions we enjoyed was the Indiana Jones ride. Have you ever been? It’s not one that’s easy to forget. I became anxious before the ride, which I’ll tell you about. And I realized that how I dealt with my anxiety was a helpful metaphor for how sexual fantasies work.
The metaphor isn’t perfect, but I’m hoping to show you how sexual fantasies can work. Understanding them can help extremely helpful, especially when healing from porn or sex addiction.
While most of the folks I talk to want to start changing substance use for themselves or someone else, they’re not sure where to begin. Whether it’s abstinence that you’re after, reducing your use, preparing to quit, or wanting to use more safely, you know that wanting to change is only the first step. Learning how to change your substance use is key.
Managing your substance use can help you moderate your use successfully. And implementing the model I’m going to talk about in this post can help you learn to quit. As you’ll see, if you’re struggling with sexual behaviors that are out of control, this model can also help you be aware of what makes you vulnerable to acting out and to observe yourself.
And learning to observe yourself is the key to successful change. Most of the harm that results from substance use comes from how, when, where, and how much you use. You need to become interested in your habit, its impact on your life, and why you’re using. So try to be honest with yourself and be willing to try new things.
In this first post, I’ll talk about the model of drug, set, and setting. Then I’ll talk in my next post about how to use it to change your drug use. But first, a few words of caution: This way of looking at your substance use can help you change, but it’s not a guarantee. I’m also not a doctor, so please don’t take this as medical advice. Also, many drugs are illegal. I can’t protect you from legal consequences of using, so please don’t take this as legal advice either.
In early May, I was in Phoenix for the annual symposium for therapists who treat individuals struggling with problematic sexual behaviors and their partners. I was presenting on harm reduction at the conference on a panel discussing alternative paths of recovery that may not include 12-step recovery groups. I was thrilled to bring harm reduction to the field of sexual addiction and recovery.
While I was there, I spoke further with Jackie Pack, the facilitator of our panel. She invited me onto her podcast Thanks for Sharing to talk more about harm reduction. A couple of weeks ago, Jackie graciously hosted me and we talked about harm reduction, its benefits and rationale, and how it can help those struggling with addictive behavior and those who love them.
We covered a lot of ground, but there are some things we didn’t get to or that I wish I’d said more clearly. Here’s the rundown.
As a psychotherapist for about 7 years now, I’ve had the profound privilege of helping many couples move from conflict, anger, and pain and toward deeper, more conscious intimacy. But it doesn’t always go this way.
Indeed, sometimes couples realize in the course of our work together that their relationship, for whatever reason, needs to end. Many partners view the end of the relationship as a personal failure, blaming themselves. Others wallow in anger and resentment, sometimes lashing out in destructive ways.
Tragically, in these instances the circumstances that bring about the end of the relationship can have the power to redefine a couple’s entire story together. This is especially true with cases of sex addiction, porn addiction,infidelity, or some other form of intimate betrayal. Partners carry with them the pain, loss, heartache, and anger about the relationship long after it ends and can even carry it over into their next one.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There’s another path. That’s where Conscious Uncoupling, a method pioneered by psychotherapist Katherine Woodward Thomas, comes in.
This month was the 25th anniversary of the death of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. I loved Nirvana as a teenager (sorry Mom) and still enjoy “Heart-Shaped Box” whenever I hear it over the airwaves. I remember his tragic end after a long bout with heroin use. It had been quite a while since I’d thought about his story.
Now, after all these years and working so closely with addictive behaviors and substance use, I felt sad as I read stories like this one about how loved ones tried to help him. They did their best, as we all do, in a difficult situation, and they were listening to the professionals guiding them.
Still, they can’t help but wonder today: What might they have done differently? How could they have reached him? How could they have helped? Could his story have ended in another way?
Of course, everyone affected by addiction—including those struggling with addictive behaviors and substance use themselves—asks similar questions not in retrospect but every day they live with their using or acting out.
Those struggling with substance use or problematic, compulsive sexual behaviors want to understand how they could possibly return to their addictive behavior of choice, sometimes even after a long period of abstinence. “Why do I keep doing this?” they ask. “And how can I change?”
Family and friends want to understand helpful ways to support their loved ones. They’re often desperate to help the loved one find healing and become hurt, angry, frustrated, and exhausted trying to understand his or her behavior.
A sound understanding of how people change can provide the foundation for answering both of these questions. If we understand the stages of change, we can give ourselves a bit of grace as we struggle with our addictive behavior. And family members can learn how to better support their loved ones and promote their healing.
Recently, I’ve been wrestling with a business decision. I was unclear about what to do and decided to ask some trusted colleagues about their thoughts. So yesterday, I hopped on a phone call and talked for a few minutes about my quandary. I wasn’t ready for what happened next.
Because of the nature of the decision and my history with similar decisions, I felt very vulnerable. And to my colleagues, it seemed clear that my fears and “not enough-ness” was showing up in my waffling.
And suddenly, there is was. A big, fat helping of shame with a side of inadequacy.
It was like a sucker punch. I admire my colleagues and looked up to them, and suddenly I felt so small. I felt so foolish. So silly. So exposed.
“Why? Why do I keep doing this?” I get this question a lot, especially from new clients who are struggling to comprehend why they keep engaging in an addictive behavior they don’t want to keep doing. They struggle in understanding addiction.
I get it. I’ve been there. I wondered the same for a long time. I couldn’t understand why I continued to drink when I felt as ashamed about it as I did. Eventually, I came to understand why I started to drink and why I continued to need to drink.
Eventually, I came to understand that I drank to alleviate my own shame and anxieties. Understanding what alcohol was doing for me helped me learn to be more authentic and manage my feelings differently. When I didn’t need alcohol anymore, I spontaneously stopped when I got tired of how much it was taking from me.
Maybe you’re trying to understand your drinking, gambling, sexual behaviors, or other addictive behaviors. Really, you’re asking about what you don’t understand about yourself. That’s where looking at a few models of understanding addiction can help.
Recently, I collaborated with Evo Health and Wellness in Venice Beach to talk about sex and porn addiction and how we might think about addiction. Evo asked me a few questions, which I respond to below, and they answered a few of my questions about addiction.