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Healing the Shame-based Self in Sexual Recovery

As long as the sex addict is acting out, he or she can never see how their own emotional needs have gone and often continue to go unmet, as intense sexual 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 needs to become exposed and acceptable, often through years of 12-step work and good therapy. In early recovery, however, sex addicts will often continue to express various forms of their control issues and self-hatred through 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 so when dealing with sexual addicts in early recovery. 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 choose to engage in some form sex during the 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 that 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 that is 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, or otherwise replacing shameful behavior with self-nurturing and healthy attachment, then the call of the addict will have been served and is deserving of appreciation.

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 guide the addict toward a more objective understanding that what happens in a dysfunctional family can leave a child needing their addiction to “survive.” Only in this way can the shame of the past be left behind to be replaced with compassion and empathy.

Written by Rob Weiss to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Dr. Patrick Carnes book, Out of the Shadows.