As humans, some of the most shameful experiences we have are those that involve our sexual selves. A single sexual event can bring such shame that it holds a person captive for a lifetime. It can deliver a devastating blow to a person’s sense of value and evoke tremendous pain and fear that results in isolation from others.
For those who are recovering from sexual addiction, this is especially true. Often the sexual behaviors that they have engaged in not only hurt other people, but also leave scars of shame that paralyze them, preventing them from finding the help they need. For many, they remain locked in a prison of isolation, keeping them from reaching out to their community or sharing their story with others.
In a recent Men’s Sexual Recovery Workshop, one of the participants (whose name will remain anonymous, but I will call him Jerry) approached me after a group session. All week Jerry had something on his mind. When I asked him what it was, he reluctantly described a sexual behavior that he engaged in when he was a teenager. I could see the visible signs of shame on his face and body posture. He was clearly in a lot of pain about this. He wanted to know if I thought he should share his experience with the group. He said, “I have never shared this with anyone, and I feel so horrible about it. I know these guys are safe, but there’s a part of me that is afraid of what they’ll think of me after they find out about it.”
I thanked him for sharing this experience with me and validated his reality. It makes sense that he would feel fear of judgment and rejection and have intense shame about it. One of the most common beliefs that those with a sexual addiction hold is that “no one would love me if they really knew me.” This is attached to the intense shame surrounding their sexual behaviors as well as their core belief that they are inherently bad and unlovable. I attempted to assure him that his fear was normal and reasonable. Given the nature of what he had done, it was quite possible that someone might look down on him for having behaved that way. However, what I also know is that most men in sexual addiction recovery come to the table with a whole list of sexual behaviors that they think are so egregious that no one could possibly understand, only to find out that they are not alone.
Those in recovery frequently have experiences similar to each other and share common feelings of shame, guilt, and fear. One of the most difficult but necessary tasks in recovery is to take a risk and open up to those in your circle of support. It often takes an enormous leap of faith and can feel extremely scary. But if this leap can be made, the rewards are plentiful. Shame begins to diminish, the weight of carrying secrets is lightened, the bond between recovery partners is strengthened, and the possibility for healing is realized.
After weighing the costs and benefits of sharing his experience, Jerry chose to take that leap of faith the next day. With his eyes locked firmly on the floor and tears flowing freely, he began to tell the members of the group what he had done. After a few moments of silence, another group member said in a somber voice, “Yeah, I’ve done that too”. At that moment, there was a palpable change in the room. It’s as if the toxic shame that Jerry had been carrying around for most of his life had vanished. He looked up at his fellow group member, a man he had only known for a mere four days and said “Really, you too?” after receiving a nod of confirmation, Jerry closed his eyes and took in a long breath, followed by a sigh of relief that seemed to symbolize an outward expression of the internal release he was experiencing. This was a moment of healing. Moments of healing, such as this one experienced by Jerry, are possible when someone remains in recovery with a community of support.
Dr. Patrick Carnes, the primary architect of the Gentle Path at The Meadows program, has said that group therapy is the most vital modality of treatment for sex addiction. I couldn’t agree more. There is only so much an individual therapist can do to help, and even a trained professional is limited in his or her ability to bring healing moments like this into the room. I have heard The Meadows Senior Fellow Dr. Tian Dayton explain that group therapy is a dynamic in which every group member becomes a therapeutic agent of the other. In this moment, I was not the agent of change, the group was.
Here at The Meadows, we prioritize group therapy for this very reason. Much more can be accomplished in a shorter amount of time when we work in a community than when we work alone. And for sex addiction, this is especially true. Paralyzing toxic shame, isolation, and withdrawal from relationship is the hallmark of sexual compulsion. The remedy is often the very thing most addicts are afraid of; connection with others. It can feel like the most harmful thing they could imagine, and many will flee from it as if it were the plague. Yet, for those who courageously push past the fear, healing and freedom from addiction can be found.
The Rio Retreat Center at The Meadows offers intensive workshops in a group setting for those who desire to find healing from the shame and isolation that keeps them stuck. If you would like to know more about our Men’s Sexual Recovery Workshop or any of our other workshops, contact our intake department at 1-800-244-4949.