Why do Therapists Tell You to “Sit with Your Feelings”?

This is one of those therapy clichés that never worked for me.  Since it refers to negative feelings, it always sounded unreasonable to ask people to sit there feeling angry or sad and not try to do something to feel better.  And yet it is routinely said to our sex addict patients and to patients in general.

If we are going to tell someone to sit with their feelings I think we owe it to them to tell them what this means and why it might help.  Sometimes it’s good to escape from your feelings and sometimes it’s better to delve more deeply into them.

When to escape your feelings

Feeling bad feelings is not helpful in and of itself.  In fact it may be stressful and if it continues could potentially take a toll on your functioning, your sex addiction treatment, your relationships and your heath.

If feeling miserable has become a way of life and you have allowed being unhappy to become part of your identity then there is probably something that needs to change. The same is true for feeling resentful or rebellious all the time.  Negative feelings are not productive if you let them become part of the definition of who you are. In these cases escape means getting help.

On an everyday level feelings are just feelings.  They come and they go and it doesn’t do any good to get alarmed by them or to get down on yourself about them.  By and large you can escape the minor irritations and disappointments that occur by just getting involved with something else or waiting until they pass.  You didn’t get to the phone in time, you burned the toast.  Oh well, you say, and you get on with your day.  Managing the ebb and flow of feelings is part of having good adaptive skills.

If you are saddened by the suffering in the world it may motivate you to become active in a cause.  But if you cannot escape the feelings of despondency and the preoccupation that feeds them you will be harming yourself. You will not be helping others by leading a miserable or unfulfilling life.

When to become more deeply aware of your feelings

One way to think of addictions like drugs,  gambling or sex is that they serve the function of numbing negative feelings.  All addictions start out as ways to avoid or eliminate pain and unpleasant emotions.

When someone is in sex addiction treatment, one of the treatment strategies is to get them to be willing to become aware of the feelings (like fear, resentment, self-loathing) that they are trying to medicate through the addiction.  We do this by getting them to give up the addictive drug or behavior and connecting the dots that will allow them to understand and let go of the feelings.  To do this they need to feel the feeling however painful.

Apart from working through ghosts of the past, this process also allows you to see that feelings won’t kill you and that you can in fact do quite well without medicating them in your usual way.

But there are other good reasons outside of the therapy situation, to allow yourself to fully feel whatever it is that you are feeling.

Knowing what you feel right now, good or bad, is part of knowing who you are at this moment.  It is the most basic way to be mindful, and mindful presence is what allows you to be fully yourself in the moment.

Being honest with yourself is better for you.  Trying to suppress what you really feel involves effort and stress.  Allowing yourself to just experience what you feel whether or not you express it or do anything about it is actually physically more healthful.

Being “in denial” about what you feel is harmful in another way.  Denial is a kind of self delusion and the delusion doesn’t just stop with denying your feelings; it tends to spread to other areas of life and it means that you don’t fully live in reality.

Last but not least, feeling negative feelings allows us to connect not only with ourselves but with other people.  We can connect romantically or intellectually but it is connecting on the level of our deepest feelings that allows us to truly know and be known.  Furthermore it is the basis of empathy.  The closer we get to our feelings the more we are on solid ground as far as our relation to our partner and all of those we care about.

Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource.

“Honesty is an Aphrodisiac” – But is This True for Sex Addicts?

I heard the saying “honesty is an aphrodisiac” a long time ago and I felt intuitively that it was true.  But does honesty really set the stage for sexual arousal?  If we are talking about a healthy, committed relationship I think the answer is probably yes.

If honesty in a relationship is being yourself with a partner, being open about who you are and what you are feeling at a given moment then honesty undoubtedly brings you closer.  In fact being vulnerable enough to let a partner know what you feel and what you need is one definition of intimacy.

In sexual terms there is no doubt that communicating honestly about what we feel, what we like and don’t like frees us up to experience what is most arousing to us and can increase our enjoyment of sex.  This suggests that if we share our secret sexual wishes with someone we are letting go of any residual shame that we may feel about those thoughts or urges and are allowing ourselves to become more comfortable with ourselves.

For practicing sex addicts honesty doesn’t work

Comfort and vulnerability are not what sex addicts associate with sexual excitement. Practicing sex addicts find powerful sexual excitement in a world of fantasy.  Whether this fantasy is a scenario on a computer screen, a lap dance, online sexual chat, or a hook-up with a prostitute they are “acting out,” and what they are acting out are their fantasies.  The experience is one of hyper-arousal and in fact sexual arousal is thought to be physiologically connected in some ways to fear.  Fear and risk taking can increase our general level of arousal and can amp up our sexual excitement, as can certain drugs.

If the addict has a spouse or partner but is completely lost in fantasy during sex then they are using their partner to act out their addiction, to use their drug.  And if this is the case they are being dishonest and are closing the door to sexual intimacy with that person.

Honesty works better for the addict in recovery

Recovering sex addicts hope to have a sex life that, while it involves some personal erotic fantasies, also involves a real relationship and an ability to become aroused and to be sexually gratified within a partner.

As addicts progress in their recovery, honesty becomes increasingly meaningful in supporting a healthy sex life.

As the addict recovers he or she gains a stronger and more positive sense of who they are.    Sharing our honest feelings and wants with someone is an act of trust.  It means not only that we trust our partner, but that we trust our new found sense of self, we know that we have nothing to be ashamed of.

Being accepted for who we really are not only makes us feel more trusting it makes us feel that it is possible to be loved.  We feel that we are OK in our core we not longer feel that we have to put up a front or an act in order to be acceptable.  This in turn works wonders for intimacy and for sexual fulfillment.

Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource

How Much Porn Can You Watch Before it’s a Sexual Addiction?

Sexual AddictionThis is a very different question from the standpoint of the person using the porn versus the standpoint of a spouse, partner, boyfriend or girlfriend of the porn user.  Spouses and Partners may be worried about something the person is doing that makes them uncomfortable.  Porn users are worried about whether being a sex addict is something they need to worry about at all.

I know of no hard and fast rule about how much porn viewing makes you an addict.  And it is sometimes confusing because using internet pornography may be the addict’s primary and sometimes even their only behavior, but more often it is part of a pattern or set of behaviors.  Some porn addicts may have other sexually compulsive behaviors like seductiveness, affairs, online sexual hook-ups, use of prostitutes or visiting sexual massage parlors.  Viewing internet porn may exist along side one or more of these as a part of an overall sexual addiction.  Nevertheless is is possible to look at what factors do and don’t make porn an addiction.

It’s not the exact number of hours per week

If a person is a “recreational” porn user and has no other addictive sexual behaviors they may not have any problem at all.  However, this assumes that they can stop if they want to and that they can honor their partner’s feelings if their partner wants them to stop.  It also assumes that they are capable of being honest about what they are doing and are not leading a double life.  Further it assumes that the use of pornography is not interfering with their having a relationship life in the first place.

So searching for an exact number of hours of watching internet porn is difficult.  It is like the question “How many hairs do you have to lose before you are bald?”  But at the extreme end of the scale where the person is watching porn several hours a day or 20 hours a week it is clear that there is some kind of a problem.

It’s not the content

Some people might think that if the content of the pornography being used is especially bizarre or violent or even illegal that this means the person is an addict.  Such people may have problems or fetishes but they may not act them out in an addictive way.  Likewise the fact that a porn addict only looks at “normal” heterosexual scenarios does not mean that he or she is not a sex addict.

It’s how you do it that makes it addiction

  • Addiction has been described as a pathological relationship with a mood altering experience.  The use of porn as an addiction involves the use of sexual arousal and gratification as a way to escape from unpleasant feelings in the same way that using alcohol and other drugs is a way to numb out or escape.
  • Another of the key features of porn as an addiction is that the addict continues to engage in the behavior even though it has negative consequence.  Like a drug addict, a porn addict will take extreme risks such as viewing porn on his work computer even though it may mean losing his job.  And the addict will not stop there but will continue to use porn despite what it costs in terms of the damage it does to his life or livelihood.
  • A distinguishing feature of porn or sex addiction is that it goes against the addict’s basic value system.  If there is no effective intervention the porn or sex addict continues in the addiction regardless of the harm to himself or others he is close to.  The addict does not like what he or she is doing and often feels very bad about it.  The fact that it continues is evidence that an addiction is present.
  • Porn addicts are also people who want to quit at various times and who have every intention of quitting.  Sometimes these are merely cynical ploys but very often they are real intentions.  And yet the fact of doing something despite the intention not to do it is a sign that addiction is present.
  • Lastly, any sex addiction including porn addiction is distinguished by the fact that it involves the avoidance of intimacy.  The addict removes part of himself from the relationship with a significant other and compartmentalizes it in a particular sexual activity.  This is the intimacy “disability” or intimacy avoidance that is present in some form for most sex and porn addicts.

So to sum up:  If the person is not using pornography to medicate anything, is feeling fine about it, is able to be honest and open about it with a partner, is able to maintain an intimate relationship in which he shares all parts of himself, is not taking risks, losing jobs, going into debt or otherwise ruining his life for the sake of porn and is able to make a decision to quit and stick to it when there is good reason to do so then the person is probably not a porn addict.

Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource

Sexually Addictive Behavior: Do All Sex Addicts Cheat?

In the strictest sense, the answer is no, not all sex addicts cheat.   For example there is the addict whose sexually addictive behavior involves pornography and who doesn’t have sex with anyone but their partner.  And certainly there are many such sex addicts who lead the typical double life of the addict but who do not have sex with another person.  There are also sex addicts for whom actual cheating is their preferred or only acting out behavior.  They flirt, they hook up with people or they have “serial” affairs with various people outside their primary relationship.  I have previously argued that not all cheaters are sex addicts and that sometimes a cheater is just a cheater.

For many addicts cheating is one of several sexually addictive behaviors

The average sex addict has more than one sexually addictive behavior.  He or she may use internet porn and also engage in sexual chat, or he may go to sexual massage parlors and also see prostitutes.  So the porn addict may also be having affairs but only admitting to the porn as an addiction or a problem.

The addict may not see the actual cheating as being a part of his or her addiction.  The sex addict who has a very obviously compulsive behavior such as watching porn for hours on end several times a week may feel that infidelity does not qualify as part of his or her addiction.  This is almost always a mistake.  In these cases where addiction is clearly present in another form, cheating is

(a) Part of a pattern of sexual duplicity

(b) Used as a way to feel better, i.e. as a drug, and

(c) Used as a form of intimacy avoidance meaning there is no viable relationship involved.

In other words cheating is part of the addiction even when it is seen as “minor” or is intermittent.  When cheating is intermittent it is often easy for the addict and even the partner to think that it is not part of the sex addiction and is not being done as a sexually addictive behavior.  This is because it does not appear to be compulsive or preoccupying in the same way as the addict’s other behaviors might.  After all it’s only once every year or two or three.

The sex addict who is faithful may be cheating in their fantasy life

Consider the married sex addict who watches porn involving sex with several people at once, or with homosexual content, or with violent or sadistic scenarios, to name just a few possibilities.  He may be bringing those addictive fantasies into his sexual experience with his spouse or partner in order to become aroused but without telling her about it.  Or the fantasies may just flood in without the addict consciously thinking about it.

Sexual fantasies often enter into sex with a partner and to a great extent they can be private.  But for sex addicts, the inability to be mentally present becomes a form of separating their sexuality from their real life with a partner.

This is not to say that people should be fantasy-less in sex with a partner, but it is a matter of degree and of the rigidity with which the person is only capable of sexual arousal and gratification when viewing or recalling a set of fantasy scenarios that remove him or her completely from the real life situation.

All addictive sex can be seen as cheating

If a sex addict is in a relationship, then any addictive behavior can and usually will be seen as a form of cheating by the spouse or partner.  One has only to look at the many good blogs and forums by spouses of sex addicts to understand the experience as one of betrayal and disloyalty, not matter what behavior is involved, even if it is solely porn addiction.

The elements of secrecy and intimacy avoidance, i.e. compartmentalizing a part of sexual behavior and leading a double life make it clear that sexually addictive behavior usually has common features and serves a common purpose.  To the addict who says “yes, but when I watch porn I’m not harming anyone, no one else is there” the partners say “you (the addict) are there” meaning you are harming yourself and your relationship with someone you care about.  Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource

3 Wonderful Life Events That Trigger Porn and Sex Addiction Relapse

Any porn addict will tell you how hard it is to stay away from porn.  In recovery the sex addict will work at identifying his or her most treacherous situations, circumstances and ritual behaviors that can be an engraved invitation to relapse.

Obvious triggers

The obvious triggers might include situations like being alone in a hotel room on a business trip.  There the deck is totally stacked against the addict: he is tired, bored, lonely, under pressure, and there is easy access to porn.  Other common life stressors like having your in-laws move in next door, a major illness or losing your job are also obvious stressors that can lead to cravings for an escape and can weaken the addicts defenses.

However, there are positive life events that are as likely, if not more likely, to trigger sexual acting out.  These are so common that the addict may not see them as posing a danger. Also they are generally so positive that no one would really want to escape form them.

Nevertheless, sex addiction therapists know these situations well and they can anecdotally support the fact that these happy circumstances are correlated with episodes of sexual acting out.

Three positive life events that trigger relapse

Each of the following circumstances can trigger relapse in its own way and for its own reasons.

  • Having children, no matter how much an addict welcomes the event, is a major life change.  It places stress on a relationship or marriage in a way that is challenging for an already intimacy-challenged addict.  Addicts fear they will not get their needs met under the best of circumstances and may be seriously stressed when their partner is less available.  Addicts typically experience abandonment fear due to early relational trauma and this may kick in as well.  And addicts are often quite narcissistic, meaning they may not take well to sharing the spotlight with a child.
  • Getting a promotion, getting a raise or otherwise gaining success and recognition add stress to the addict’s life.  Addicts are insecure to begin with and getting promoted may increase the demands and expectations of their work life.  This means increased fear of failure.  And the way addicts typically cope with insecurity is through escape.  Becoming more involved with work means the addict will have less energy for the relationship with a partner or spouse and may literally be gone more.  The resulting stresses for the couple can lessen the level of intimacy in an already intimacy challenged situation.  The addict may even use the new demands of work as a way to escape the interpersonal demands of relating.
  • Dating, or beginning to date again after engaging in sex addiction treatment is very problematic territory for a sex addict.  Very likely, the addict has never been comfortable with beginning and building a real relationship and may lack confidence and experience in conducting a normal courtship.  Addicts in early recovery will most likely bring their old addictive habits and fantasies with them into this new situation.  They may pick the wrong kind of person, someone who feels familiar but who mirrors their old acting out sexual fantasies.  The early relationships in recovery can become addictive in that they can be obsessive, dishonest or lack any firm basis in mutual caring and shared enjoyment.  They may also lack a future.  These old habits mean that a new dating relationship will also bring with it the addict’s same old fears and distorted thoughts an expectations.  This puts the addict back in an addictive mind set and can lead to further acting out and relapse.

The nature of stress

One definition of stress is: “A loss or the threat of a loss.”  Each of these three happy circumstances carries the potential for loss along with their many rewards.  The threat of a loss is inherent in any big change.  Even in a change for the better something will be given up in the process of change.

Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource