The counter-cultural examples are probably the most obvious. Think about the many messages we get that promote recreational sex and pornography as normal and healthy. As sexual strugglers, we realize that these things are destructive for us. So we need continual reminders of this to counteract the onslaught of the messages of popular culture. We need continual reminders of our commitment to sexual sanity when we are confronted by suggestive TV or movie scenes, advertisements, or web sites.
But there are other kinds of messages that are just as destructive to our souls and dangerous for our recovery. Many of us fail to recognize their power. Shaming, self-derogatory messages set us up for relapse just as sexually-triggering messages do. To maintain our recovery, we must be on guard against messages that put us down and undermine our hope for a better future for ourselves.
We get these messages from other people, and from our own self-talk. Maybe when you were growing up, you were teased or put down in some way, and now as an adult you find that it’s very easy to put yourself down. You somehow internalized those messages, and now you’re hearing them in your own head.
There are two ways to deal with these negative and hurtful messages: (1) guard yourself from places where these messages get reinforced, by limiting time spent with people who are negative, critical, and/or disrespectful (2) counter-act the negative messages with positive messages that remind you of the truth, and reinforce your hope.
1. Limit exposure to negative messages
As important as this first strategy is – limiting our exposure to these negative messages – sometimes it can be hard to do. Some of us get a lot of negative, critical messages from our spouses. Especially in early recovery, we bear the brunt of anger and sadness from our spouses, and it’s not uncommon to hear a lot of “what is wrong with you?” kinds of messages.
In some cases, the spouse of the addict gets stuck in that anger; and flies into rages that include cruel put-downs, hysterical screaming, and even physical violence. In those situations we coach the addict to establish boundaries. It’s one thing to face the consequences of our actions by bearing with our spouse after we have hurt them deeply. But it’s another thing to suffer ongoing abuse.
Most marital situations are not like that, however. Most spouses are able to process their grief and anger in ways that don’t cross the line into abuse. But even so, addicts still must deal with the hurt they have caused people, and often people who’ve been hurt deeply will lash out in anger.
When that happens, it’s very easy for addicts to slip into shame and self-hatred. This is dangerous because shame is the fuel that causes the explosion of sexual acting out when the match of temptation is lit.
As addicts, we also are likely to have other relationships with people who are critical, demeaning, or otherwise disrespectful. Sometimes it works to confront these people, and let them know we’re not going to put up with being mistreated. Other times, we just need to do what we can to limit our interactions with the person. Shame drives addiction, and it must take its destructive power seriously.
2. Counter-act negative messages with positive reminds of the truth
The most important thing we can do – regardless of how much we’re able to limit our exposure to negative messages – is to increase our exposure to positive ones. Of course we need to do this in ways that are true to our nature. Maybe you can’t stomach the over-the-top-upbeat messages that are found in some motivational cards, coffee mugs, or posters. That’s okay. We don’t need to turn into Stewart Smalley or Tony Robbins if we’re going to stay sober. Maybe there are other, more nuanced ways of reminding ourselves of the truth about life, recovery, and the love God has for us in spite of our faults.
In my own life, I have found it helpful to have a list of “reminders” that I go back to periodically. I don’t call them “affirmations” because that word conjures up unhealthy images for me (maybe it works for you … if so, that’s cool). I prefer to call them reminders, and look at them periodically during the day, and especially at night and in the morning.
In the 90 Days to Sexual Sanity program, I include a reminder each day in the daily emails I send out. I use rotation of ten different reminders, so that the participants see each given reminder nine times during the program. If you’d like to get a list of some reminders, send me an email, and I’ll send them to you. Find a way to post these somewhere you will see them throughout the day. Put them in your Bible, or your refrigerator.
Maybe you have other reminders that you want to give yourself … messages that counter-act the shaming, sabotaging self-talk that you have tended to give yourself. Whatever you find helpful – as long as it is consistent with the values and mindset of recovery – by all means, put it to use.
* This article is adapted from materials in the 90 Days to Sexual Sanity program. In that program, I send out a daily email that includes teaching about recovery, along with a short recovery task, so that the participants have some recovery-oriented work to do each day. Find out more about the program here.