Sex Addicts Willing to Forgive Themselves Do Better in Treatment
People affected by sex addiction may experience a significant decline in their symptoms when they forgive themselves for their actions, according to new findings from a team of American researchers.
A person dealing with sex addiction may feel substantial shame or guilt for violating his or her previously established norms for sex-related conduct. In a study published in March 2015 in Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment & Prevention, researchers from seven U.S. universities looked at the impact that an attitude of self-forgiveness can have on the course of sex addiction treatment. These researchers concluded that a self-forgiving outlook may contribute to a meaningful decline in the manifestation of sex addiction symptoms.
Shame, Guilt and Self-Forgiveness
Shame is the common term for a range of partially overlapping emotional states that can include embarrassment, humiliation, self-hatred, mortification or moral shame. Broadly speaking, shameful feelings apply to the person as a whole rather than to specific actions taken by that person. Guilt is a similar state of mind that typically applies to specific behaviors (and behavior consequences) rather than to the person as a whole. Ingrained feelings of shame may play an important role in the onset or ongoing reinforcement of a number of diagnosable mental health conditions, including an anxiety disorder known as panic disorder, another anxiety disorder known as specific phobia and various forms of depressive illness (e.g., major depression or persistent depressive disorder).
Self-forgiveness is a term used to describe the ability to come to terms with past or current actions and maintain or regain a sense of general mental well-being. Most psychologists consider this ability to be an essential function for human beings, and people who have trouble forgiving themselves for past or present mistakes may have increased risks for a number of serious mental health problems, including alcohol use disorder (alcohol abuse and/or alcohol dependence), anorexia (and other eating disorders) and suicidal thinking and behavior. In order to produce its desired effects, self-forgiveness primarily addresses shame, not guilt. People who don’t feel guilty for their past or present bad acts may lose much of their incentive to change their behavior in the future.
Sex Addiction Treatment
Currently available treatments for sex addiction include change-oriented psychotherapy, medication and participation in mutual self-help groups (some of which have a classic 12-step orientation). Specific psychotherapy options include cognitive behavioral therapy—which helps patients/clients replace damaging or dysfunctional mental reactions with healthier reactions—and psychodynamic psychotherapy, which helps clients/patients bring unconscious behavioral motivations into awareness. Medication options include substances classified as mood stabilizers, substances classified as antidepressants and substances that lower the body’s output of male sex hormones. Mutual self-help groups provide remote and/or local support networks for people dealing with sex addiction.
Potential Impact of Self-Forgiveness
In the study published in Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment & Prevention, researchers from the University of North Texas, Georgia State University, Hope College, Virginia Commonwealth University, Case Western Reserve University, the University of Virginia and California Lutheran University used a project involving 187 adults to assess the potential impact of self-forgiveness in sex addiction treatment. The researchers asked all of these participating adults to self-report a previous violation of personal standards for sexual conduct, thought or fantasy. Next, they asked the participants to complete questionnaires that measured their levels of involvement in sexually addictive behavior. (The researchers used an alternate term for sex addiction: hypersexuality.) In addition, each participant completed questionnaires that measured his or her level of shame and guilt, as well as questionnaires that measured his or her ability to practice self-forgiveness.
After reviewing the questionnaire results, the researchers concluded that the study participants with a relatively well-developed ability to practice self-forgiveness had a lower level of involvement in sexual addictive behavior than the participants with a relatively poorly developed ability to practice self-forgiveness. They also concluded that the participants with a well-developed faculty for self-forgiveness experienced lower levels of shame and guilt. In addition, the researchers concluded that each participant’s levels of shame and guilt helped determine how effective self-forgiveness was in reducing involvement in sexual behavior. Essentially, the positive impact of self-forgiveness on sexually addictive behavior was weaker in individuals with prominent feelings of shame and/or guilt than in individuals with comparatively low levels of exposure to shame and/or guilt.