The Question of Identity

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Joe Saavedra, LMFT

In 1970, comedian Flip Wilson introduced a fictional female character named Geraldine Jones to American audiences while performing on the Ed Sullivan Show. “Geraldine was played as a sassy liberated Southern woman who wore her clothes tight and revealing and flirted with men but never failed to be anything but faithful to her (never seen) boyfriend, Killer.” (More about Geraldine Jones) Ms. Jones would repeatedly engage in some form of shenanigans, often cause for interrogation by Killer or others, leading to her infamous response, “The Devil made me do it!”

In his book Life After Lust, author Forest Benedict conveys his personal journey from pornography addiction toward the path of recovery. Forest, a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and Sexual Addiction Treatment Provider (SATP), shares multiple stories of a created character he calls his “Evil Genius” attempting to thwart his sustained history of sobriety from pornography use. For many years, Forest let this “voice of reason” (more like denial and rationalization) lead him to numb his physical, emotional, spiritual, and relational wounds via pixels on a screen filled with images of “[a] woman who wore her clothes tight and revealing and flirted with men.”  Benedict states, “The Evil Genius is the part of us that places inventive ideas in our minds on how to numb our pain or increase our pleasure. Our Evil Genius once served the powerful purpose of helping us survive. Its tactics helped us cope with our hurts.”

In both cases (Wilson and Benedict), these created external characters are methods of externalizing the problem. In his book Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, Michael White writes, “Externalizing is an approach to therapy that encourages persons to objectify and, at times, to personify the problems that they experience as oppressive. In this process, the problem becomes a separate entity and thus external to the person or relationship that was ascribed as the problem.”

In the case of Geraldine Jones (Wilson’s created character), her effort to credit actions to the Devil can be construed as shirking responsibility for her mischievous deeds. In the case of Benedict, the Evil Genius that had a propensity to cloud the author’s mind wasn’t fabricated in effort to distance himself from any misguided or unwanted actions (i.e., unwillingness to accept responsibility for viewing porn), as much as it was a recognition of the values that Benedict subscribed to.

When a psychotherapist can help a client create a narrative about his or her life journey that is supportive and encouraging, what the therapist is ultimately doing is guiding the client toward claiming an identity that’s based on his or her desired value system. The story of a client’s identity determines his or her self-efficacy. The narrative process allows clients to identify desired values and how each of these values might play out via their own skill set and awareness. In the case of sex, love, porn, or relationship addiction, this value system often differs from the negative beliefs or problematic behaviors that initiated a client’s search for help.

When I first entered recovery for sex, relationship, and porn addiction 14 years ago, my therapist encouraged me to consider externalizing the problem versus identifying as the problem. He used the metaphor of living with a cancerous tumor. The tumor happened to me, not because of me. Unquestionably, I made poor choices that led to hurtful and harmful outcomes (for which I accepted full responsibility via the amends process and continue to make living amends to date). However, my true character – the person that I am today – was not the product of “the Devil making me do it.” With the help of my therapist, I chose a new narrative, an identity that aligned with the values I so desperately desired.

So, what does that look like, you might ask? In my own recovery narrative, I’ve chosen to identify with the love and reverence that I hold for my Higher Power in lieu of simply identifying as an addict. Here’s how I introduce myself in the context of recovery; “Hi, my name is Joe, I am a grateful believer in my Higher Power, who is in recovery for sex, relationship, and porn addiction.” I am not denying that a problem exists; I am simply choosing to identify the cancerous tumor for what it is – a cancerous tumor.

The concept of externalizing addictive behavior may be controversial to some. For yours truly, it boils down to the difference between shame and guilt. In her 2012 TED Talk, author and social science researcher Brené Brown distinguishes between the two, asserting that “guilt says I’ve done something bad, whereas shame says I am bad.” Learning to differentiate these two states of being was the turning point toward a new narrative in my recovery journey.

The question is – which narrative are you choosing?

Joe Saavedra is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with expertise in Compulsive Sexual Behavior Disorder. He works with Emmaus Road Christian Counseling.