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When working with pornography addicts, it is critical to identify and uncover the deeper feelings that prompt the addict to turn to porn. These feelings are real and valid, but they must learn to take them to Christ rather than sin.

Feelings Matter

“Let not thine heart decline to her ways…for she hath cast down many wounded” Proverbs 7:25 (KJV).

Pornography addicts are both unaware of their emotions and unaware that they are using pornography to numb these emotions that arise from wounded a heart or even just the daily vicissitudes of life.

In Step 4 of my Pornography Recovery Plan, your task is to help the addict become aware of their negative emotions and how they take those emotional needs to pornography to be met. Of course, you will then help them find healthy, godly ways to deal with those same emotions.

This is why one of the father’s warnings to his son in Proverbs 7 includes a reminder about the heart: it is all too easy for a wounded heart to seek relief in the arms of the seductress.

Let us look first at more common, daily feelings and then at deeper ones that may have been present in the addict’s heart for some time.

HALT

Remember the acronym HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely and Tired. Share this with the addict and point out that they will need to be aware of these feelings and use them as a signal to choose a healthy response.

Most addicts are largely unaware of the feelings and emotions they are experiencing. They just plunge onward through life self-medicating their negative feelings without stopping long enough to consider what other options might be available.

Awareness of these feelings is the first step towards making a better choice.

You see, when the addict is feeling any one of these, he or she is more likely to be vulnerable to pornography. The more of these HALT feelings they are experiencing, the more vulnerable they will be.

As I have pointed out in the past: the feelings themselves are not sinful. But the choice to numb or distract one’s self from them in pornography and masturbation is sinful.

Consider Esau. He was probably all four of these things: hungry, angry, lonely and tired when he chose to ditch his birthright for a bowl of soup. Likewise, as believers we can ditch our birthright, our holiness, for a bowl of sin just as quickly when we are in the same place.

Hungry and Tired

Hungry and tired are usually easier feelings to resolve: you will need to work with the addict to make sure they have routines in place for basic, healthy nutrition and sound sleep habits.

Often the addict will have trained himself or herself to use masturbation as a means to find sleep. This may even be a nightly occurrence.

This behaviour is typically rooted in the belief that sex is his or her greatest need. This is a faulty belief. If there are serious concerns about a sleep disorder, a visit to the family physician is in order. Otherwise, the usual constructs of a healthy life are required: a full day’s work, gratitude for what has been accomplished, perhaps some planning for tomorrow as a way to put the mind at ease, exercise, and some healthy ways to wind down at the end of the evening.

A common issue I see is he or she may be using a cell phone or tablet at the end of the day, not realizing that the device is emitting blue light which is keeping him or her awake by upsetting circadian rhythms. Typically, all device use and screen time of any sort should end about 60-90 minutes prior to bedtime to prevent insomnia.

This sounds like some pretty basic self-help stuff but often the addict’s life is out of order on multiple levels so they will be quite motivated to establish some good habits at this time.

Angry and Lonely

These two may belong in the “Deeper Feelings” section below but I want to address the short-term, daily aspect here.

If something goes wrong during the day, perhaps at work or school, the addict may arrive home feeling angry and/or lonely.

You will want to teach him or her to identify these feelings before acting on them. Loneliness is best sorted by choosing to spend time with God, or a good Christian friend or with family.

Anger is best explored and understood, rather than numbed. Most anger is secondary anger: that is, it comes second to some other negative emotion like sadness or hurt or fear. Especially for men: anger is easier and more comfortable to express than sadness, as you might imagine.

When I come across anger, I explain to the addict what I just articulated: that anger is often easier to feel than a deeper negative emotion, and then I ask the addict to try to guess what that deeper emotion might be. It may take a little exploring but they will always get there.

The anger can be used as a signal to dive deeper to explore primary emotions such as sadness, hurt or fear. Expressing these emotions and sharing them with someone important in their life will be much more constructive and will leave them feeling much better than just numbing those feelings with pornography.

Occasionally, however, that anger and loneliness are part of deeper feelings that need to be explored.

Deeper Feelings

You will get to the feelings the addict is experiencing in one of two ways: either by asking him or her to identify the feelings at the time leading up to using pornography, or by examining the fantasy or feelings associated with deeper wounds that you uncovered in your previous session. (LINK to episode 12.)

Here are some of the typical deeper feelings that I see:

  • Loneliness or isolation
  • Rejection
  • Disappointment (in him/herself, usually)
  • Grief
  • Stress
  • Shame (I have a whole section dedicated to this one below)

It is worth exploring where those deeper feelings originate so that you can learn more about how the addict needs shepherded. In any case, the feelings should be validated (e.g., “I can see why you would feel that way”) and empathy given (e.g., “That must be very difficult”) for their experience.

Then I like to ask the question, “How does pornography help with that particular feeling?” Often they will reply that it does not, porn makes it worse, but I ask them to put self-criticism and self-judgment aside for a moment and try to think about how pornography specifically reduces the pain associated with these feelings.

Here are some ideas of what you might expect to hear:

  • Loneliness or isolation: pornography offers companionship (it is fake, but it offers the lie of companionship, closeness and intimacy regardless)
  • Rejection: porn sends a strong message of acceptance. Not just acceptance, but burning desire. It is easy to see how this would appease the feelings of rejection for a moment.
  • Disappointment: the pornography could be acting as a distraction from this. Or the desire communicated through this medium could be sending a signal to the addict that he or she is very attractive and not a disappointment at all.
  • Grief: it is very possible that the addict learned to comfort him or herself with masturbation. In this case, porn is often just a means to create arousal in order to achieve the comfort from orgasm.
  • Stress: again, this is often more tied to masturbation. Men especially are socialized to see it as a stress relieving function.
  • Shame: pornography offers relief from shame in the moment, but ends up piling more on. Every addict I have worked with readily agrees with me on this point!

Having this discussion with the addict forces them to understand and come to terms with the reason why they were turning to pornography. It helps to frame the behaviour as a coping mechanism and to see that it did serve a purpose.

As I go through this part of the process I have been very non-judgmental because I want the addict to identify how these emotional drivers have acted in their lives. Yet, at this point I also ask the addict to consider if the porn really works.

Inevitably, they identify that it has not helped: it leaves them feeling more lonely, disappointed and filled with shame and grief. Although it offers temporary relief or distraction they know very well that it leaves them worse off than before and really is not helping them at all.

Take Those Feelings to God, Not Pornography

The addict probably has been stuffing these deeper feelings for years. Except they are not really stuffed: they are still present and in a sense, asking to be numbed or appeased or medicated through pornography.

The addict must now learn to take those feelings to God and not to pornography. What does this look like?

In some cases it is going to involve nurturing one’s relationship with the Lord and with the Father. This is where you can help the addict learn some real rubber-meets-the-road Christianity! What should he or she do when feeling lonely? How does God meet that need?

What you are doing here is you are teaching them how to replace what is false and unsatisfying with what is true and satisfying. Pornography only offers pseudo-intimacy. A real relationship with God offers true intimacy. Once the addict gets a taste of this it marks a turning point in his or her relationship to God as well as a turning point in his or her relationship to the addiction.

Of course, this will challenge you as it does me. How can I point the addict to a real, active, thriving, moment-by-moment relationship with Christ if I do not have one with Him myself?

This is why it is such a blessing to work with struggling believers: at the beginning, you may challenge the addict. But by the end, the recovering addict will challenge you!

Shame

The one emotion that all addicts feel is shame.

Shame vs. Guilt

It is useful to notice the difference between shame and guilt.

Shame says, “You are a bad person.” Guilt says, “You have done something bad.” Shame is about identity. Guilt is about behaviour.

Addicts understand this readily, and also identify with the shame readily. So this is a part of their experience you need to talk to them about.

In the life of a believer, the truth of the gospel and our position in Christ make it untrue to ever say that I am a bad person. In other words, the messages of shame are all lies. I believe they come from Satan, the father of lies. If he can get the believer to feel shame, this will keep the believer from ever accomplishing anything for God.

On the other hand, guilt is useful. Our conscience leverages guilt to make us aware of those times when we have broken God’s law, sinned and need to confess and repent from that sin. Guilt has purpose and value in our lives as believers.

You will need to teach the difference between these two things to the addict so that they understand that guilt is a valid consequence of their behaviour but shame must be confronted.

When shame is reigning, we no longer see ourselves the way God sees us. A shame-filled addict will feel and believe that he or she will never break free from sin. This helplessness promotes the thought that there is no point resisting the urge to act out once more, leading to an addictive cycle.

The Addictive Cycle

For the addict, shame plays a critical role in the addictive cycle. Again, you will want to explain this to the addict.

The cycle begins with preoccupation. These are the early links in The Chain (LINK TO 10) where the addict begins to contemplate looking at pornography.

The addict will continue to move through the ritualistic links in his or her chain until he or she is sufficiently aroused to bypass the conscience.

Then pornography and masturbation follow.

The addict then realizes they have transgressed again and are now filled with feelings of guilt, self-loathing and shame.

When you feel you are a horrible person, you desperately need someone to lift you up and tell you that you are actually very attractive and admirable. So, the virtual seductress says, “now I have come out to meet you, to seek you eagerly, and I have found you…come, let us take our fill of love till morning; let us delight ourselves with love” (Proverbs 7:15 & 18 ESV).

Do you see how pornography also offers momentary relief from shame? And now we have an addictive cycle. Add in there the other feelings and the deeper yearnings of my next article, and you can see how this sin holds such a grip on the life of the addict.

Replace Shame with Truth

You will want to teach the addict that as a child of God, he or she has at least two escape routes from this.

First, the addict must choose to believe what God says about him or her. To do this, they will need to examine the Scriptures (it is good to help here, but you also want to see the addict doing the digging into the Word that is required). In their examination they will want to uncover the identity-forming statements that God makes towards those He redeems. Who does He say they are? How does He see them? Who has He made them to be?

These are matters of identity that will confront and undermine the deep-seated, shame-based beliefs the addict carries. Shame must be confronted with truth from God’s Word.

You can get practical here. Have the addict put a Bible verse that speaks about identity on his or her phone. How about a sticky note on the bathroom mirror to start the day? In the car? Are there texts that speak to him or her especially strongly that may be worth framing? The Word of God must be made prominent in their life: how can you help them make this happen?

The second escape route is faith. The addict must choose to believe what God says about the grip of sin in the believer’s life. They may feel trapped, but they need to believe in the truth of Romans 6:14 “For sin shall not have dominion over you” (KJV).

Is that verse really true? You bet it is!

The born-again addict has been made free from sin through the power of Christ. They are able to choose to take those feelings to God rather than pornography.

So while shame is a major part of the addict’s experience, it can be addressed through the Word of God. I often like to tell addicts that an accurate summary of who they are (i.e., of their identity as a believer) is that they are a valuable, fallible child of God. That is a beautiful gift that they must hold onto in the face of the lies that shame speaks to them.

So you will definitely want to spend time exploring shame with the addict and also working through and identifying other negative, difficult feelings. All of these need to be brought to Christ for redemption.

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About the author

Caleb Simonyi-Gindele

An overseer himself, Caleb's mission is to help other elders lead their local assembly through some of the unique challenges of the 21st century: both doctrinal and shepherding. More about Caleb.