4 Spiritual Practices You Don’t Know You’re Doing

Spirituality and spiritual enlightenment are mystified in our culture. By mystified I mean made to seem mysterious and esoteric. I think this is mistaken thinking. In the world of addiction recovery many people balk at joining 12-step groups because the spiritual emphasis is alien or elusive and they cannot relate to the idea of surrender to a higher power.

The 12-step literature is deliberately vague about what is meant by a faith or by a spiritual awakening. But even for people who are very religious there can be something that is not working for them.

A religious client of mine put it well. He said basically that his religion had not been adequate to help him to overcome his sexually problematic behavior. Although he continued in his religious life, he was open to another kind of spirituality as part of his recovery.

I have argued in a previous post that one does not need the concept of a higher power to succeed in recovery and I proposed practicing certain attitudes and behaviors that promote spirituality. These ideas which are now increasingly accessible and a number of excellent writers draw on a variety of spiritual traditions without requiring any kind of religious faith. Their emphasis on mindfulness, meditation and intuition has now become well established in the scientific literature as an evidence-based aspect of treatment.

But in addition to spiritual practices that can be cultivated, I believe there are many things we do in the course of our daily life that draw upon our spirituality. These are things we are not aware of as being spiritual per se, but which serve a necessary purpose in our everyday attempt to regain our equilibrium and cope with inevitable challenges big and small.

I will describe some of these, in no particular order, and give a rationale as to how each is an expression of our spirituality.

Schadenfreude. This refers to the rather base impulse to take some pleasure in someone else’s misfortune. We all do it. Sometimes it’s gloating but very often it’s relief: “At least I haven’t lost my job, or my money or my health, etc.” In other words, “It could be worse.” And hidden in this line of thought is a very important concept; that of gratitude, the idea that life is pretty darn good. Gratitude is a key concept in maintaining contact with reality. In taking our thoughts away from what is lacking and focusing on how lucky we are, we are brought back into the present. We are taken out of the frame of mind of never having enough, of being deprived, or being a victim. We let go of the “if only” mentality and enter into the feeling of the present moment without judgment. It doesn’t get any more spiritual than that. Gratitude is the royal road to acceptance.

“Whatever!” This is what we say when we hit the wall. We are in a situation where we care a lot about the outcome; a test we will pass or not, a meeting that could go well or badly, an operation, even whether or not our partner is telling the truth. At the “whatever” point we are allowing ourselves to let go. Letting go of outcomes is one of the premier spiritual moments and we experience it instinctively when we give up on obsessing about something that is out of our control. Letting go of outcomes does not mean thinking that everything will turn out great, but it implies a kind of faith that we can retain our perspective and our serenity no matter what.

Running away. By this I mean making a conscious choice to hide or isolate one’s self temporarily. This could be getting away from a party or gathering that feels alienating, withdrawing from an unpleasant conversation, carving out quiet time at home, or walking out of a movie. This is a spiritual practice in two ways. It involves listening to an inner voice or intuitive sense that something is not right. In listening to this voice we are practicing getting in touch with or becoming aware of what we are feeling in the moment and being willing to trust that awareness. But isolating, deliberately being alone, also serves to provide the outer stillness that allows us to get centered in inner stillness, to shut out all the noise both inside and outside our heads. This is essential to mindfulness and meditation.

Empathy. Feeling sorry for someone else is powerful spiritual practice. When we pity someone it may or may not do anything for them but it helps us. We are noticing another person not just with our eyes but with our feelings. This involves letting go of any other feelings of resentment or judgment we may have had about the person. It also involves letting go of our separateness; we identify with another being and in so doing we are, at least momentarily, experiencing a oneness with them and letting go of the illusion of our separate ego identity.

There are many resources for spirituality (mindfulness) practices and guided meditations available that do not depend at all on sectarian religion. For more on spiritual practice and guided meditations I recommend the work of Sam Harris  available online at www.samharris.org.

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

Subtle Signs of Self Hate: Recovering Sex Addicts Find New Outlets

There is a common saying among sex addiction therapists that “sex addiction is not about sex, it’s about pain.”    Sex addicts use one or more sexually addictive behaviors such as internet pornography, frequent visits to prostitutes or sexual massage parlors, compulsive sexual hook-ups or serial affairs and so on as a drug of choice to escape stressful or unpleasant feelings.

Sex addicts, like most other kinds of addicts have long-standing doubts about their worth as people.  They have early life histories that have left them fearful of intimate relating.  They are afraid to be open or vulnerable.  They protect themselves from situations in which they feel insecure by retreating into their addictive behavior, their fantasy life of sexual acting out in which they are soothed, gratified and safe.

Addicts may continue to experience low self worth even as they are becoming stronger in their recovery.  It takes a long time to understand and work through the feelings of low self worth and even longer to become confident and comfortable in their own skin. 

Substitute ways of acting out in recovery

Recovering sex addicts who are reliably free of their sexual acting out behavior may exhibit certain behaviors which get in the way of their work, their ability to relate to other people and their intimate relationships.  They are finding new ways to “act out” their feelings and fears now that they can no longer use their drug of choice.

In their work life and social life addicts often exhibit their need to escape their deep self doubt in one or more predictable ways, such a

Conflicts at work.  Addicts may have trouble getting along with others and may be irritable in ways that they never were before.  This is due to the absence of their ability to soothe themselves with their sexual behavior.   

Compulsive overwork or workaholism.  Addicts may pour themselves into their work as a way to escape having to deal with people or relationships.  Work can take up all the space that is left over in which the recovering addict feels ill at ease.

Comparing, competing and contempt.  These are the narcissistic behaviors.  They are an attempt to avoid self doubt and self hate by constantly judging others and trying to be one up.

Need to please.  In the absence of an inner sense of worth and validity, many sex addicts become pleasers.  They feel safe and soothed when they have the approval of others.  This takes the place of a skill they have not yet mastered, that of speaking their truth and being clear about their needs and feelings.

In close relationships addicts will engage in behaviors that tend to put distance between them and their intimate partner.  In this way they escape the demands of intimacy which they feel inadequate to meet.  They do this even as they exhibit codependent behaviors like the need to fix and control.  They will

Subtle or passive aggressive hostility.  This can take many forms such as sarcasm, contempt, sighing, groaning, and eye rolling.  This behavior expresses feelings indirectly which the addict feels incapable of expressing directly. 

Provoke conflict.  Recovering addicts often feel dissatisfied and irritable.  They may project blame onto their partner for this and they may escape intimacy by creating a rift. This can come in cycles, almost like an abuse cycle of lashing out, remorse, reconciliation and repeat.

Flirt or engage in other mini-sexual behaviors.  As discussed in my previous post about subtle forms of betrayal, sex addicts in recovery may use behaviors like flirting, ogling or talking about other people sexually, or reaching out to old girlfriends or boyfriends online as a substitute for their earlier sexually addictive behavior.  This is a way to give themselves a small bit of their drug, a mini “fix.”

Avoid sex.  Sex addicts may take a long time to get comfortable with a sex life with their partner.   Even if they enjoy it, their whole inner sexual landscape has been revamped in recovery and they may have new fears about sexual intimacy such as sudden attacks of performance anxiety or other fearfulness such as jealousy.

Overcoming all of these insecurities and learning to feel and express feelings takes time and patience for both the addict and those around them.  Sex addicts in recovery are building a sense of self and acquiring a set of interpersonal skills that they never had before.  They will get there if they and their spouse or partner or trusted friends are honest about what is going on.


Too Good-Looking, Too Smart, or Too Rich (to give up Sexually Addictive Behaviors)

There is an old recovery saying that you can’t get sober if you are too smart, too rich or too good-looking.   Clinicians working with clients who have sexually addictive behaviors know that these attributes can sometimes present challenges.

I’m not saying that looks brains and money lead to sexually addictive behaviors but I can see some of the ways they might operate to prevent the addict getting better.


There is no longer any doubt that success (fame, money adoration) can cause what is known as “acquired situational narcissism.”  Narcissism is a false sense of self worth which can be bolstered and encouraged by massive amounts of positive feedback from others.  This feedback promotes narcissistic self-centeredness, lack of empathy for others and over-entitlement. (See also my blog Narcissism, Sex, Power and Herman Cain.)

Any sex addict can adopt a narcissistic defense system but the process is magnified if the person is rich, beautiful, etc.  The greater the narcissistic self-importance the greater the sense of being exempt from the ordinary rules that govern behavior.

If this superiority is constantly reinforced then the addict has a hard time getting a grip on reality.  His attitude is “I’m special, I’m allowed; even my flaws aren’t flaws.”

Masking shame

Most addicts feel some level of guilt or shame about their sexually addictive behavior.  After engaging in a behavior like repeated visits to prostitutes or sexual massage parlors or the wasting of hours on internet porn and masturbation most addicts go through a period of feeling let down.  They have engaged in an out of control behavior that they must keep secret and they soothe the feelings of self-loathing in any way they can.  Often they use other drugs to numb the feelings.

The problem for the rich successful or beautiful person is that they can use these assets as tools with which to numb or mask their negative emotions and restore their facade of self worth.  The more easily the addict can dodge the feelings of self-hate, the more easily they can avoid coming face to face with their own double life.

Normalizing sexually addictive behavior

Normalizing is one of the defenses invoked by most sex addicts but with the brilliant, beautiful or rich addict it is particularly useful in certain cases.  Take the guy who engages in repeated seduction, predatory flirting, workplace harassment or serial affairs.  If he is successful or good-looking he can much more easily excuse his behavior by saying “I can’t help it, women just come on to me—what am I supposed to do?”

In this case the special attributes can function to keep the addict in denial.  Special levels of status or achievement can be seen as justifying behavior which would be reprehensible in mere mortals.  “Beauty is life’s Easy Pass,” as a New Yorker cartoon put it.  Or in the words of Henry Kissinger, “Power is an aphrodisiac.”

Never hitting bottom

For the very good-looking, smart or rich addict can to a great extent use their special advantages to avoid or greatly minimize the adverse consequences of their behavior.  These attributes give them power and that power allows them to maintain the status quo.  They may never have to confront the reality of what is wrong with their way of life let alone what they have done to others.

The very smart, successful or powerful addict will have a hard time accepting the basic fact of his or her powerlessness over the addiction.  The very smart addict is used to relying on his ability to think his way out of a problem.  There is nothing he can’t solve.  Therefore he doesn’t need to rely on others, doesn’t need to take direction or work a program.  He’s got the answers, or so he believes.

Those around the addict face a dilemma

Attractive high-achieving people often do have many strengths.  Their intelligence, attractiveness and resources can be used in a positive way to help them overcome sexually addictive behaviors.  But as a therapist—or even as a friend, colleague or partner it is  important to notice when these traits are being used in the service of self-delusion and be prepared to confront the addict directly about it.

Is it Possible to Recover from Sexual Addiction?

The concept of “recovery”

I have seen many sex addicts recover from an unhappy, lonely, self-destructive pattern of behavior in their sexual addiction and go on to not only rebuild their lives but to reach greater heights than they ever imagined.

Yet there is a tradition in the addiction field of viewing addictions as in some ways similar to “chronic” mental illness and chronic medical conditions like diabetes; conditions that require ongoing care and can be managed successfully over time.  This implies that there is no “cure,” that there may be periods of relapse and that there is no end point to recovery.

Current thinking about sexual addiction has moved beyond the earlier more limited concepts.  See a recent review of the history of the concept of recovery in mental health and addiction.

Recovery from sex addiction

Recovery from sex addiction is considered today to involve much more than abstinence from the sexually addictive behavior.  It involves a long term process of years rather than weeks or months in which the addict will make many positive changes in his/her life and functioning and in which abstinence is merely a first step along the way.

Sex addiction is viewed in the larger context of a problem with intimacy in general, usually relating back to a relational trauma of some sort during childhood.  Treatment involves resolving the underlying trauma issues and building up the life competencies that have been compromised.

Sex life in sexual addiction

The sex life of the practicing sex addict looks very different from that of the addict in recovery.  The sex life characteristic of sexual addiction is:

  • Compulsive in that it involves preoccupations, cravings and urges that defy control
  • Compartmentalized in that a chunk of the sexual life of the addict is separate from the addict’s intimate life i.e. the addict leads a double life
  • Secret in that the behavior characteristic of the addicts sexual addiction does not square with the rest of the addict’s life and the face he presents to the world, and
  • Used as a drug in that the hyper-arousal characteristic of the addictive behavior serves to distract, numb or otherwise escape from negative feelings
  • Does not usually involve a real relationship although the addict may fantasize a relationship with a stripper, a masseuse etc.

Sex life in recovery

In recovery the sex addict will be able to integrate his sex life and his “regular” life instead of keeping them separate.  This implies that the recovering addict will be:

  • Less narrow and rigid in sexual preferences and fantasy scenarios
  • Less compulsive about sex, meaning less preoccupied with seeking sex and less obsessed with sexual cravings
  • More relational and less isolated in sexual activity (e.g. sex with a person vs. porn only)
  • Less selfish, in that he will be less focused on himself and his gratification and more able to focus on a partner and
  • Able to give up the “hyper-arousal” of addictive sex in which sexual excitation is used as a drug

Long term benefits in recovery from sex addiction

Not only can the recovering sex addict have a richer, less destructive sex life, but he or she will throughout the time of recovery make many other changes as well.  If recovery continues to be a process of overcoming past fears and insecurities through active participation in treatment, therapy, support groups or a combination of these, the addict can grow in many ways over a period of 3 to 5 years and beyond.

Some of these areas of improved functioning are internal, and some have to do with relationships and general levels of functioning.  The addict in good recovery will show improvement in

  • Empathy for others
  • Less narcissistic attitudes
  • Greater feelings of overall comfort
  • Improved self-care
  • A commitment to honesty
  • Greater ability to be responsible and nurturing as a partner and parent

Addicts in recovery can expect to learn many life skills they never had before, such as the ability to set appropriate limits and boundaries, to stick up for themselves, and to set life goals and achieve them.

So where does it end?

These are pretty hefty promises but I have seen them fulfilled.  You might ask “So why do we keep on talking about ‘recovering’ addicts instead of ‘recovered’ addicts?”  Perhaps addicts feel the need to be vigilant about habits that may still be deeply buried in their “lizard” brains.  Perhaps it is just a leftover tradition from the founders of AA.  For the time being we could just think of it as a way to stay connected to a fellowship and a reminder to us to give back.

The One Essential Key to Porn and Sex Addiction Recovery

Some people start recovery for sex addiction at a full gallop and never look back.  But for people who struggle with sex and porn addiction and who have multiple slips or periodic relapses there is one key thing they may be missing.

I’m not talking here about the spiritual enlightenment side of it, the so called “white light moment” or even just the daily spiritual practice.  Those are important elements but there is something much more mundane than that.

A simple idea with big ramifications

It sounds deceptively simple but the thing you need to get your head around in recovery is that your recovery comes first.  Deceptively simple because it is very hard to put this idea into practice.  For one thing although addicts may be selfish and narcissistic, that does not mean that they are any good at getting their priorities straight.

The idea that  recovery literally comes before anything else. 

You might say well what if I am having a heart attack?  Should I go to a Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting or to the emergency room?  Well of course you need to deal with really life threatening situations first.  But in day-to-day life it is important to take the commandment to put recovery first quite literally.

Why is this so important?  Because addicts find excuses to avoid getting sober.  The need for the “drug” leads to rationalizations for putting other things ahead of the addict’s own need to recover.  This is faulty logic.  And it is part of the “cunning baffling and insidious” nature of the addiction talked about in the 12-step literature.

Isn’t spending time with your kids more important than your own recovery?  My addict clients are surprised when I challenge this idea.  Off the top it seems selfish and harmful to their children to disappoint them and undermine the closeness.  But dropping the ball on your recovery work is more harmful in the long run to everyone concerned.

There is a saying in 12-step circles that “Anything you put ahead of your recovery you will lose”.

This is profound  The reason recovery comes first is that addiction is so destructive.  Over time, the un-sober addict will forfeit everything that ever mattered to him.  He will destroy relationships, jobs, money, health, and lose any chance to fulfill his potential in life.

Many addicts get stuck in a pattern of continual relapse even though they are quite diligent about going to treatment, going to meetings and so on.  Making recovery the center of your life, at least until you are well on your way (usually at least a year or two and often longer) means more than just going through the motions of getting help.

Recovering addicts may enter treatment for any number of reasons other than wanting to get over their addiction.  In fact few actually want to stop using porn or sexually addictive behaviors in the beginning.  Most likely they have come to get help because their spouse or partner threatened to leave them, because they lost their job, because they got in trouble with the law, or some other crisis situation.

The crisis motivates the addict to get into recovery in order to hold onto something else: the wife, the career, their freedom.  And yet in the long run the motivation needs to shift, the addict needs to put those things after his recovery or he will stay an addict.  He will lose the very things he came into recovery to keep.

Putting recovery first is very hard.  As if the siren song of sex addiction weren’t enough, life throws numerous other challenges our way.  We get temporarily derailed from what we need to do to stay sober.  But eventually the basic principle applies: be ruthless in your pursuit of your own need to recover.  If you think in this way nothing and no one can stop you.  Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource

Why Some Sex Addicts Keep Relapsing in Recovery

Let’s assume you are already clear on the fact that you are a sex addict.  You have consulted with experts and ruled out other causes of hypersexual behavior such as medication reactions (as with some Parkinson’s drugs) and other psychological, physical or neurological disorders. Are there any wrong reasons to get help?  Yes and no.  The initial motivation for getting into sex addiction treatment is often as a means to some other end rather than as a way to become healthier. Yet in the process of recovery the motivation moves from outside of you to inside of you; from extrinsic to intrinsic.  This is when you become truly engaged in recovery.  And this process of embracing recovery even in the absence of any outside pressures to do so is what makes it possible to enjoy solid, long term sexual sobriety.

What drives people into recovery vs. what keeps them there

There are a number of  situations that lead people to reach out for help and then stall out. 

  • Getting in trouble

This could be anything from getting arrested for indecent exposure to losing your job after being discovered using pornography at work to getting in trouble for sexual harassment.  You may get into treatment because you are required to as a result of getting in trouble. But if that remains your only reason to change you will not get too far.  You may stay committed to your addictive behavior and simply “white knuckle” your sobriety in order to meet society’s requirements.  Chances are you will correct your legal or employment situation but you will  still lack the recovery skills to stay away from sexual acting out. It is extremely hard to “embrace” recovery while you are feeling forced into it.

  • Pressure from a partner

This is by far the most common reason propelling people to seek help initially.  It’s not a bad reason, but if all you want is to get your wife back or placate your husband you will not only have a poor prognosis in recovery, you will also probably find that your partner continues to be mistrustful.  And with good reason. Partners can regain trust in a sex addict but only if they see the addict as genuinely involved in their own individual growth.  Furthermore, if you only want to get things “back the way they were” (before you were found out) then the chances are you will continue unhealthy patterns in your relationship that provided the excuse for your addictive sexual behavior.

  • Social pressures

You may find that your sexual behavior is inconsistent with the belief system of your church or community.  You want the good opinion of people you need to impress. You seek to appear to yourself and others as though you care about changing. Wanting to behave in accordance with principles is a good things except when it involves placing the locus of control outside of yourself.  You are seeing your worth as determined by what others think and not what actually works for you in your life.  This is a position of low self esteem and if it does not change in the course of treatment you may remain stuck.

  • Self image

You may be  stuck in your addiction even though you are active in treatment and support groups.  Your addiction doesn’t square with how you want to think of yourself, and yet you don’t want to give it up.  In this case you are only partially engaged in the recovery process.  You can say “I’m trying really hard but I just can’t get sexually sober.”  This allows you to let yourself off the hook while you continue to have frequent relapses.  You can go to meetings that offer you fellowship and sympathy but you don’t have to change. The way out of this involves building in serious contingency plans for “upping” your program like going into a residential program and going back into therapy in the event that you are stalled out.

The right reasons

The journey of recovery involves establishing abstinence from the behavior, working through the issues that caused the problems, building a sense of commitment, connectedness and strength, and finding a new way of living based on honesty and integrity. If recovery doesn’t start to become valuable to you for its own sake then you are likely going to stall out half way through.  You have found a way to keep one foot in denial.  Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource