Is pornography your problem or your solution?
Updated: May 12, 2021
What if I told you that looking at porn isn't actually the problem in your life, but rather the solution you've been using in an effort to fix the problems in your life? You may think I'm crazy, but it's true. Let me explain.
First, let's be clear: viewing pornography is a problem. And compulsively viewing pornography is a huge problem. I won't get into the weeds on this point now, but here's a short list of some of the most harmful effects of porn: it hurts our relationship with God; it isolates us from friends and family; it warps our view of sexuality; it increases the likelihood of divorce; it damages our ability to have enjoyable sex; and it fuels sex trafficking and sexual abuse around the globe.
Still, porn isn't your root problem. Instead, it has been the medicine you've used to reliably, albeit temporarily, relieve the deepest emotional pains in your life. As recovery coach Drew Boa likes to say, porn is the pacifier we use to soothe ourselves. Pastoral Sex Addiction Professional Ted Shimer further explains the concept in his book The Freedom Fight.
A pacifier temporarily soothes a baby when it's upset or hungry, but it doesn't meet their real need for nourishment. If a hungry baby only has a pacifier, their growth will be stunted. Porn is a pacifier that stunts spiritual and emotional growth by numbing the underlying pain. It keeps the real hunger from ever being addressed.
A friend recently shared with me how this concept played out in his life. At age 13, he was full of self-doubt as he experienced puberty in a home full of parental conflict and criticism. Then he found pornography in the bottom drawer of his dad's dresser. "Finally, I found something that could make me feel good in the midst of all the painful feelings I felt," he recalled. "What a great solution." But fast forward 45 years, and his so-called solution had become the defining problem of his life. Masturbating to pornography was a daily compulsion that occupied his thoughts, compromised his integrity, pulled him away from his most important relationships and enslaved him in shame. In the end, he determined porn was "an unhealthy 'solution' that never delivered what it promised and only caused me to sink into even greater levels of despair. My real problem was that I never learned healthy solutions to deal with my pain."
We might be adults now, but we're often just like the five-year-old boy who still wants to take his favorite binky to kindergarten. It's time to spit the thing out and grow up. But how? Ultimately, outgrowing porn involves learning how to sit with the deep wounds we've experienced in life rather than medicating them with sex, food, drugs, or any other compulsive behavior. That's easier said than done, but it is possible, no matter how much pain you've had to endure in life.
The journey starts with self-awareness. Most men who struggle with porn addiction have an emotional IQ of next to nothing. Instead of learning how to identify our feelings and process them with God and others, we've escaped them and avoided them by picking up our porn pacifier. People with a strong emotional IQ know how to do these four things: identify their emotions; effectively express those emotions to others; discern the emotions of others; and validate others' emotions. Does that sound like you? If not, consider the words of Proverbs 14:8: "The wisdom of the prudent is to give thought to their ways." In other words, emotional intelligence grows when we evaluate our ways. We have to think about how our emotions influence our behavior and try to understand why we do certain things, Shimer writes in The Freedom Fight. This is hard work that takes practice and time. In his book Going Deeper, therapist Eddie Capparucci offers some really practical tools to help men identify what they're feeling and why.
As we learn how to identify our core emotional triggers -- the feelings that make us want to act out sexually -- we can then begin to connect those triggers to the emotional wounds of our childhood. Therapist Jay Stringer explains the concept this way in his book Unwanted: "One way of thinking about unwanted sexual behavior is to see it as the convergence of two rivers: your past and the difficulties you face in the present." Recognizing when these two rivers converge can be difficult. For example, when something seemingly minor happens to us, such as a friend not replying to our text, the wounded child within us subconsciously associates it with a "similar" episode from our past and goes into firefighter mode, urging us to use pornography to extinguish our uncomfortable feelings. Bam! Just like that we find ourselves acting out and we're clueless about how we got triggered.
Many times, what we feel doesn't match up with what is real. For me, I often find that my feelings of loneliness or self-doubt don't reflect what's actually happening around me. Instead, I'm assuming that I'll be rejected and feel alone just like I did in 7th grade. Being self-aware of this gap between what I feel and what is real helps me recognize that I have a choice in how I react to these feelings. I can speak truth to them instead of blindly following them down the path to self-medication with unwanted sexual behavior.
In his book, Capparucci offers this example of connecting an emotional trigger to a childhood wound:
You forgot to pay the electric bill on time and you've incurred a late fee. On a scale of one to 10, this probably is not a major negative event but don't tell that to your inner child. He sees what has happened as incompetency on your part. 'Lazy! Lazy! Lazy! That's what we are, lazy! Lazy people make foolish mistakes!' That is what the Kid is experiencing when the late charge occurs. Why? Because he remembers dad always criticizing you about being lazy and telling you constantly that you would amount to nothing, and although you have made a good living as a police officer, internally, you felt you haven't measured up in your father's eyes. He still tells you it was a mistake not becoming an attorney. It is the heartbreak of being a disappointment to daddy that your inner child cannot escape.
Freedom is near when we can make these crucial connections between how we feel today and the emotional wounds of our past. With this self-awareness comes the ability to make a different choice. We can choose to confront our wounds, knowing that we are resilient and fully capable of withstanding uncomfortable feelings, instead of trying to ignore them, run from them or medicate them.
I'd love to help you spit out your porn pacifier and learn how to identify and process your emotions as you journey toward radical freedom. If you'd like to know more, please take a moment right now and set up a free coaching session below.