As occurs with all addictions, sex and porn addicts experience a great deal of both guilt and shame about their behavior. Unfortunately, a lot of people think guilt and shame are the same thing, but they are not.
- Guilt is a healthy and necessary sense that we have violated our moral code and values, or that we have stepped on someone else’s rights. Guilt exists in a system of accountability and respect.
- I made a mistake.
- I did a bad thing.
- My behavior was hurtful.
- Shame is a sense of being a failure as a person; never feeling as if you are quite good enough; feeling doubt about yourself (your strengths and who you are) at your very core; feeling exposed in a very painful manner; feeling humiliated, discouraged, and despairing much of the time; feeling like there is something vaguely “wrong” with who you are as a person; feeling alienated from others and yourself; feeling worthless, like you have nothing to offer to others. Shame exists in a system of perfectionism.
- I am a mistake.
- I am bad.
- I am wrong.
Guilt is a healthy human emotion that tells us we have done something wrong that we need to correct or amend, whereas shame is an internal feeling of “badness” that consistently flares up, especially when we are active in our addiction. Guilt implies: “I did something regrettable and I’m upset (i.e., guilty) about my actions.” Shame implies: “I did something regrettable because I am a bad person, and there is nothing at all that I can do about that.” When seen in this light, guilt is a positive force in terms of changing behavior; shame is quite the opposite.
Sadly, addicts often feel shame more than guilt, with their shame creating a distorted and mostly negative self-image. Needless to say, having a distorted, mostly negative self-image can be highly destructive. Consider the following belief, held by almost every addict:
I am a bad person, unworthy of love and true connection.
A distorted view of self like that can and often does lead to distorted thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. For example:
- I can’t tell anyone about my addiction or they’ll know how awful I am.
- I will pretend to be “normal,” smiling and acting as if everything is OK no matter how miserable and depressed I am.
- I will “get mine” as revenge for being shorted in life, engaging in my addiction whenever I feel like it without regard for others.
As stated above, addicts typically feel more shame than guilt, with that shame creating a distorted and mostly negative self-image. In other words, addicts tend to believe that something within themselves is the cause and crux of their problem, as if they are flawed in some deeply meaningful way and therefore doomed to a life of misery, isolation, and regrettable behaviors. Often, it takes a great deal of time and effort before they even begin to understand that they are not inherently defective, that it is their unresolved trauma and maladaptive choices rather than some inherent internal defect that drives their addictive behavior.
For addicts, the most effective way to combat feelings of shame and a distorted self-image is by stating affirmations to the contrary. Affirmations are powerful messages that confirm our worth, reminding us that who we are today is OK and enough. Affirmations validate that we are not defined by past behaviors. Affirmations are stated aloud daily, often several times per day, as a way to replace our shame-distorted sense of self with self-esteem.
Typically, the best way to implement affirmations is to pick out a shame-based self-belief, to create three affirmations to the contrary, and to state each of those affirmations aloud, preferably while looking in a mirror, at least three times each day for 30 days. And yes, I know this sounds hokey, but it works. (If you find yourself struggling to come up with positive affirmations, click here for a list of suggestions.)
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If you or someone you care about is struggling with sex or porn addiction, help is available. Seeking Integrity offers inpatient treatment for sex and porn addicts, as well as low-cost online workgroups. At the same time, SexandRelationshipHealing.com offers a variety of free webinars and drop-in discussion groups, podcasts, and more.