All posts by Mark

Letting Go: How Far Do I Take This Approach to Life?

I know that the problem for many of us — which leads to stress and pain and ultimately to dysfunctional relationships and/or addiction — is this: we get too wrapped up in our expectations and desires for our lives and other people. Everywhere we look there are problems to fix. Everyone in our lives has something we want them to change. We vacillate between trying crazy hard to control and change, and then swing over to passivity and disengagement.

It seems like the more we try to change things, the more resistance we get, and the more disappointment we feel.

What would it be like to just accept other people the way they are? What would it be like to accept my life as it is? Could I do this? Should I do this? Doesn’t it seem like we’re giving up “the fight” then (as in, fighting for what’s right, fighting for our marriage, fighting for purity, etc., etc.)?

I don’t know. I do know that some point we have ask ourselves: What is all this fighting getting us? How well are the people in our lives responding to our suggestions and encouragement to improve?

I ran across a paragraph from Byron Katie that got me thinking. I’m not sure I completely agree with it, because it seems so extreme. But it sure has me thinking. Somehow there is a curious co-mingling of acceptance and change. Somehow these two things seem to go together: accepting my life and myself and others around me just as they are … and moving towards something more healthy and God-honoring. Listen to how Katie puts it:

I don’t know what’s best for me or you or the world. I don’t try to impose my will on you or anyone else. I don’t want to change you or improve you or convert you or help you or heal you. I just welcome things as they come and go. That’s true love. The best way of leading people is to let them find their own way.

What do you think?

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What lab experiments can tell us about the cause and cure for addiction

Most people are familiar with the drug experiments that use rats to demonstrate how addictive certain drugs are. Rats are hooked up to monitors and given the opportunity to choose regular water or water laced with drugs. In the experiments, rats choose the drugs, and this is used to show how addictive drugs are. In fact, some rats will kill themselves because they take drugs instead of eating or drinking.

Bruce Alexander is an addiction researcher from Canada who took these tests further. In what has become known as the “Rat Park” experiment, he and other researchers showed that the environment rats are in while they’re being tested completely changes rats’ propensity to use drugs.

The Skinner Box

Rat in a Skinner Box

Alexander noted that rats like to run around, play with other rats, hide under shelters, and make baby rats. But in the drug research at that time, none of this was possible. Rats were isolated in hellish contraptions known as “Skinner Boxes” (individual cages that allow researchers to hook up sensors to the rat’s body, thus reducing the rat’s ability to move around).

The Rat Park research was based on this question: “What if all the traditional drug/rat experiments show is that when rats are isolated, and live in horrible environments, they will tend to use drugs?” In other words: what would happen if you put rats in a more natural, non-isolated environment? Would that affect their propensity for addiction?

The researchers built a 95 square foot environment to house a group of 20 rats (both sexes). They equipped this environment with wheels for the rats to run, shelters to hide in, and space to move around in. This place was so nice for the rats that it was given the name “the Rat Park.”

One section of the Rat Park

What Happened

Guess what happened? In the rat park, rats were given the choice between plain tap water and water laced with morphine. To the surprise of many, in this new natural environment, most of the rats chose the plain water! Alexander wrote, “Nothing that we tried produced anything that looked like addiction in rats that were housed in a reasonably normal environment.” Even more amazing, rats that were previously addicted to morphine slowly weaned themselves off the drug when placed in the Rat Park. You can read more about these experiments here and here.

For a variety of reasons, Alexander’s work has not gotten the widespread attention that it deserves. Even though he was able to replicate the results of his study, Alexander says his research was “dropped like a stone” in the addiction community. He and his colleagues, who were all just starting out in their careers, moved on to other pursuits. Part of the problem may have been timing: The Rat Park experiments were published in the early 1980s, just as the war on drugs — with its “just say no” and “this is your brain on drugs” PR campaign — was taking hold.

What It Means

I believe that what Alexander and his fellow researchers demonstrated has profound implications for how we understand addiction and how we go about treating it. I have come to believe that careful attention to one’s emotional and spiritual well-being is THE central task of recovery. Our relational, emotional, and spiritual “environment” will make or break our recovery.

Let me put it another way: If your life sucks, it’s really hard to stay sober. You can do it, but it’s really hard, and it’s hard to sustain. It takes a huge effort, laser focus, and lots of time. The fact is, this is how recovery starts for most people. They enter into recovery because their lives suck — their lives are spinning out of control and they are depressed … that’s why they keep turning to their addictive behavior.

So in early recovery we start out from a place of spiritual and emotional ill-health — and in order to get and stay sober, we’ve got to do “whatever it takes.” People often need to take extreme measures: Continue reading What lab experiments can tell us about the cause and cure for addiction

The Key to Overcoming Hurts in Recovery … and Maybe it’s not Forgiveness

When people have hurts and struggles in relationships, they tend to work on resolving them by focusing on forgiveness. There’s nothing wrong with forgiveness, but sometimes it’s hard to get there.

Maybe we should be talking more about compassion instead. Let me explain.

We all know that we’re supposed to forgive people who hurt us, but we get hung up on what it means and how to do it. We struggle to make sense of the jumble of emotions we still feel, even after we’ve made that seemingly momentous decision to forgive. The focus of forgiveness is often on what amounts to quasi-legal/moral decision – to pardon someone, or “let them off the hook.” Then we often struggle to sort out what happens internally after we make that “decision to forgive.”

A Different Way

I want to suggest a different approach. If you’re struggling to let go of some hurt, forget about forgiveness for now, and instead just focus on compassion.

Webster’s defines compassion as: “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” Compassion is what happens when Continue reading The Key to Overcoming Hurts in Recovery … and Maybe it’s not Forgiveness

Addiction Recovery: Short Term Fix or Long Term Life Change?

Everybody who struggles with addictive behavior wants fast results in recovery. It’s part of our bent as a society that we are used to getting things done quickly. We have no patience for complex processes that drag on and on. On top of this, when people seek help for addiction, they are often experiencing pain and chaos. Partners, family, and friends are at their limit of patience.

So everybody involved is calling for dramatic and speedy change. Is that realistic? Can recovery help a person make big changes quickly? The answer is a qualified “yes.”

First the good news…

If we devote ourselves to the process of recovery, we will quickly see significant change in our feelings, self-esteem, and behavior. It’s amazing what can happen in a few months, when someone gets regular support through a recovery group and counseling, and starts to get some sobriety under their belt. The world looks better.

I heard a speech by one of the early members of Sexaholics Anonymous who talked about the “30 Day Shine.” He said that he could often see a noticeable difference in the demeanor of people who had started the program and experienced their first 30 days of sobriety. It was so obvious that they felt better about themselves and their lives that he could see it on their faces.

Make no mistake: when people start taking recovery seriously, and devoting themselves to honesty and recovery practices, things change fast. It’s great to see that.

Weight Loss Analogy

Using weight loss as an analogy — this is the period where someone gets “on the program” and starts losing weight. It’s hard work, but it’s exciting. There is positive energy and momentum, and positive feedback from the scale. We can tell we’re making progress, and we feel encouraged by that. Not only do we get positive feedback from the scale, we sometimes start getting it from other people who notice that we’re losing weight.

That’s what it’s like for many people in early recovery. There is often noticeable progress and encouraging signs in the first months of recovery. If the struggler is in some kind of recovery group, other members are likely demonstrating support, and commenting on how the person is doing.

The newly recovering sexual struggler may also experience significant positive changes in their marriage – even in early recovery. Many partners are encouraged by the changes the addict is making, and the relationship takes a positive turn. But of course this is not universal. There is often much hurt and mistrust to be worked through, especially if the disclosure of addictive behavior has unearthed an ongoing pattern of dishonesty. It’s even worse if the struggler has a history of failed attempts and broken promises, which create cynicism in the minds of any discerning spouse.

But all that being said — the newly recovering struggler may be surprised at how quickly positive change takes hold. If they take their recovery seriously, and engage with counselors, groups, and regular recovery work, they will see progress.

Now the bad news…

Here is where we need to face the “qualified” part of the qualified yes. Getting sober isn’t recovery. Recovery is about an internal life-transformation that allows us to stay sober … to live sober. Getting sober for a few months is one thing — staying sober for a few decades is another.

Getting sober is like losing weight. Living sober is like keeping it off. Just as many people lose weight and few keep it off, so it is that many people get sober and few people stay sober. The road to recovery is littered with cars and trucks in the ditch.

Many people start the recovery journey with the wrong mindset. They treat it like a problem in their lives and/or marriages that needs to be solved. And after they have solved that problem, they turn their attention to something else. They’re like the person who lost weight, and now just wants to go back to their regular life.

This mindset spells disaster. When you go “on a diet” and lose weight, you will eventually go “off the diet” (back to your old ways) and gain it back. In fact, this yo-yo dieting experience is so common that many people are cynical about dieting altogether. The real issue is the mentality of dieting … thinking that it’s a problem to be solved, after which you can turn your attention to other things, and go back to business as usual.

It’s the same for peoples’ recovery. People with the short term mode of thinking don’t keep focused on the heart issues, the ongoing need for honest relationships and support, the ongoing quest for emotional and spiritual well-being. They allow themselves to get alienated from and filled with resentment towards key people in their lives. A sense of entitlement starts to build. They allow their lives to get over-crowded with responsibilities and stuff, and go back to a life filled with chronic stress, anxiety, and/or depression. They allow themselves to compromise their boundaries, playing around the edges with sexually provocative material or dangerous relationships.

And in so doing, they set themselves up to drift back into addictive behavior.

The bottom line — a mindset shift

There is a profound shift that needs to take place for lasting recovery. The shift is from stopping a certain behavior to becoming a different person. What kind of person?

  • A person who doesn’t need the behavior in order to be happy or “okay.”
  • A person who lives with honesty, integrity, and intimacy in relationships.
  • A person who lives with ongoing emotional and spiritual health, not allowing him/herself to live in the chronically overwhelmed and stressed out state that is so common today, or to live with resentment, or un-dealt-with spiritual confusion and doubt.
  • A person whose life is characterized by healthy community — a network of friendships with people who he/she is honest with — rather than isolation.

First we focus on stopping the behavior — the recovery equivalent of losing weight — but over time we engage in the deep, ongoing work of heart and life transformation. It’s hard work, but necessary work. It’s an ongoing lifestyle. That is the only way to maintain ongoing recovery.

What do you think? Has this been your experience in recovery, or observation from what you’ve seen in the lives of people you know? I’d love to hear your thoughts and responses in the comments.

When does “looking” become “lusting”?

When does a look become lust? Where is line that separates normal, healthy, God-given sexual response from sinful, destructive lust?

Christians generally focus on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:27-28 as the standard for moral purity: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” So if this is our goal, we need to be clear about what it actually means to “look at a person lustfully.”

Let’s say you go to a restaurant. You look over to your left, and notice someone at the next table who is very attractive. Maybe they are dressed provocatively. You look at them, and their attractiveness registers in your mind. You might even notice something about their body that is attractive or alluring.

Is that lust? When does awareness and/or sexual attraction cross the line into lust?

Christians have been wrestling with this question for generations. Many wise people have written and taught about this. Let me suggest three words that are helpful in drawing the line between looking and lusting:

1. Looking becomes lusting when we stare

Intuitively we all know that there is some difference between looking at someone and staring at them. It’s one thing look at, or notice someone, it’s another to intensely watch them, to “visually feast on them.”

This is where the much maligned and often misunderstood “two-second rule” applies. The two-second rule suggests that looking at someone for a short amount of time is normal and socially acceptable. But looking at someone for more than two seconds constitutes staring and generally signifies crossing the line into lust.

While trying to legalistically apply this “rule” doesn’t work very well, understanding the principle behind it can be helpful.

Neuroscientists tell us that if we look at something intently for an extended period of time, that image gets burned into our brain, and we can recall the image later. We encounter millions of images and sensory impressions as we go through each day. Most of these we either ignore or pay such scant attention to that we can’t recall them later. They move in and out of our consciousness and aren’t retained.

But some of these images and sensory impressions make a deeper impression. They are retained if we pay focused attention to them … if we “take a mental picture.” That’s what happens if we stare at someone.

Let’s go back to the restaurant example. So you see someone who is attractive and/or dressed in such a way that catches your attention and possibly even creates a minor sexual response. But then, instead of fixating on that, you turn your attention elsewhere. You get involved in a conversation with your companion(s), and other thoughts, sights, and sounds take up our attention. It doesn’t take long for that earlier stimulus to fade, as your consciousness is filled with other thoughts and other stimuli.

But if you were staring, you were burning that image into your memory. Later that day, if you sat down and closed your eyes, you could probably call to mind that person, or that image.

2. Looking becomes lusting when we fantasize

Sometimes we do this while we stare: we build a fantasy in our minds about the person we are starting at. We imagine talking to this person, starting a relationship with this person, or doing something sexual with this person. In the later instance, way we are literally “committing adultery in our minds” as Jesus talks about in Matthew 5:28.

When we start to obsess about the person, when we spin stories or scenarios in our minds about them, then we have crossed the line into lust.

3. Looking becomes lusting when we objectify

To objectify someone is to cease to view them as a person, and instead view them as an object. We do this when we focus on a person’s body – or body parts – instead of focusing on them as a person. Then we move from relating to them as a human being to thinking about them, looking at them, maybe even evaluating them in the same detached, objectifying way we might look at a pornographic picture.

Habitual pornography users can struggle to build healthy relationships with members of the opposite sex because of this tendency. Viewing pornography trains you to objectify people, focusing on their body and sexuality. Sexual thoughts can intrude in your consciousness as you are trying to relate on a social level with someone.

You can probably see that these three words — staring, fantasizing, and objectifying — are related, and they often go together in practice. If you’re staring at someone, you might also be fantasizing about them. If you are fantasizing about someone, you might also be undressing them in your mind … objectifying them.

Obviously things like pornography, sexual chat, and erotic stories all fit into this category of lusting. They don’t satisfy our sexual desire, they feed it and create desire for more. They don’t build intimacy. They don’t bring people together. They alienate people, because they train people to objectify and fantasize, rather than to love, serve, and relate.

Our goal is to treat other people with love and with dignity as persons. When we view people primarily as objects for our viewing and critique, or view them primarily from the standpoint of potential sexual partners, we are severely limiting the ways in which we can connect on a human, non-sexual level.

Taking Inventory: what it is and why it helps our recovery from sex addiction

In recovery from sex addiction, many people find it helpful to work through the 12 Steps. One of the cornerstones of 12 Step recovery work is taking inventory. Taking inventory is the essence of Step Four, and shows up again in Step Ten as an ongoing practice.

The Fourth Step is to make “a fearless and searching moral inventory of ourselves.” Many people in recovery groups struggle with this step. In fact, this is such a common scenario that there’s a term for it in recovery circles: “the three step shuffle.” People come into a 12 Step group, work the first three steps, get bogged down with the fourth, and then drop out of the group. Fairly soon they relapse, and come back into a group again, start working the steps again, and drift away before really working the fourth step. Some people do this repeatedly, and so they work the steps like: “123, 123, 123.”

They don’t make progress in recovery, because they don’t get to the heart of the issue: heart transformation.

Making a decision vs Implementing a Decision

The first three steps are about recognizing how great our problem is, and turning to God and the group for help. Step Three states that we: “made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.” As is often pointed out, making a decision to do something is not the same as actually doing it. Making a decision to build a house is not the same thing as building it.

In Step Three we make a decision to turn our will and lives over to God … but the actual doing of that is the work of steps 4-12. This is why doing the three step shuffle is so pointless. You never get around to actually doing the work that helps you recover.

Step Four is where the hard work begins in recovery. It’s where we strip away the various forms of denial, blame, and self-delusion. It’s where we are forced to face ourselves.

Facing Reality

Psychologist M Scott Peck says that “mental health is the commitment to reality at all costs.” It is the commitment to see life as it really is, to see ourselves as we really are, and to see our relationships as they really are. This is hard to do, because it’s often painful. There are things about ourselves and our relationships that we would rather not have to face.

To the degree that we are unwilling to deal with reality, we move further and further away from mental health. The extreme end of this is someone who is psychotic, completely out of touch with reality. But what about the man who is unwilling to face the reality that his wife is having affairs, and has no interest in him? What about the parent who is unwilling to face the reality of their child’s drug use? What about the woman who constantly criticizes and belittles her children, who thinks she is just “being helpful”?

Mental health is the willingness to face reality, and this takes courage. The apostle Paul reminds us in Romans 12:3 “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has given you.” In other words, don’t think of yourself too highly, or too lowly either. Think of yourself accurately, honestly.

Step Four forces us to do this by asking us to take an inventory of ourselves. As it says in the Big Book, an inventory involves both assets and liabilities, positives and negatives. A fearless and searching moral inventory is not simply a laundry list of the things that are bad about us. It is an honest assessment of our strengths and weaknesses, of our gifts and our challenges.

Sometimes people are held back from taking a Fourth Step because they want to do it perfectly. Remember that the step is to take “a” personal inventory not “the” personal inventory. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You will be doing it again later, when you work through the 12 Steps again. For now, just make a start. Do it as best you can, and give up the idea that you will do it perfectly, or exhaustively.

Six Great Articles to Read about Recovery, Sex Addiction, and Codependence

In my continual quest to help give you the best information about recovery, healthy marriages, and sexual struggles, I’m including some links to articles I have read recently. Please note: Just because I recommend some article or podcast doesn’t mean I agree with everything that’s said in it. As they say in 12 step circles: “take what you like and leave the rest.” Check them out!

1. Good article about what it means to “do the next right thing

2. Interesting short article: Why Is It So Hard To Stop Acting Out? (Breaking Up Is Hard To Do)

3. Great article on the biology of anxiety, and implications for recovery

4. Extended interview with M Scott Peck from the 90s, touches on therapy, codependence, religion, and recovery.

5. Very interesting read: Exploding myths about recovery. Not for 12step purists, but it will make you think

6. Series of video podcasts, interviewing various experts about pornography, addiction, and recovery. About half-way down the page, check out the interview with Tamara Robinson about EMDR, a great therapy approach for dealing with trauma.

Six articles about recovery and relationships worth reading

There are lots of good things being written every day about healthy sexuality, marriage, and recovery … but there’s also a lot of junk!  Here’s some of the good stuff I’ve read lately:

Establishing Boundaries in Toxic Relationships – Great article from Recovery Systems Institute on establishing boundaries in relationships with addicts that we love. Many of us drive ourselves crazy trying to help someone who’s not fully committed to helping themselves in recovery. Here’s a sample quote — something to remind yourself every day:

“I can’t make him change — I can only support him if he decides to make the effort. But if he’s not making that effort, then we’re probably both better off acknowledging it.”

Trauma and the Twelve Steps – looks like an interesting book that’s going to be coming out soon. Much addiction has its roots in early life trauma, and most relapsing is the result of unprocessed trauma. This site has some book excerpts that are worth reading.

Can we believe that we have the capacity to change? Great article on Huffington Post with a different take on Step 2 — can we believe that it’s possible to change?

What I wish I’d known about divorce – people who were unfaithful and now divorced write about how life is now, and what they’ve learned. By Rick Reynolds, affair recovery expert.

Another article from Huffington Post — this one on using social media to get support in recovery. Very good stuff, but my question is: what about anonymity? This is an especially big problem with sexual struggles.

The 12 Steps Restated – Here’s one you might want to spend some time with, especially if you’re working the 12 Steps. It’s a re-working of the #12steps, including a re-statement of each in “non-12-steppy” terms, and some commentary.