Monday, July 21, 2014

Don't Relapse! (But if You Do...)

Here are 3 tools I often give clients as a packet to complete as soon as they can after relapsing. Some people just use one; others find it helpful to do all three. They can help you break down your last relapse, see it more clearly, and give you some good momentum for preventing the next one. 

Here's an even better idea: why wait for a relapse? You can also use them to get back on track after a close call! 

Give these exercises a try and let us know if they help.

Exercise #1: Retrace Your Steps

Use these codes to categorized each numbered item in the sequence: H = What Happened, D = What you Did, T = What you Thought, F = What you Felt emotionally, B = What you noticed in your Body

1. What I ended up doing... D:

2. and before that...

3. and before that...

4. and before that...

5. and before that...

6. and before that...

7. and before that...

8. and before that...

9. and before that...

10. and before that... (continue as long as it's meaningful...)

Sample Retrace Your Steps from Derek

1. What I ended up doing: D: Looked at porn on my phone

2. and before that... F: Was tempted to find porn

3. and before that... F: Overwhelmed, worried about how behind I am on school assignments

4. and before that... H: Weekend ended

5. and before that... D: Watched a lot of TV

6. and before that... D: Put off doing my homework

7. and before that... F: Frustrated that the essay isn’t perfect, can’t seem to get some of the wording up to my satisfaction

8. and before that... D: Worked on my essay

9. and before that... F: Excited, enthusiastic

10. and before that... T: I’m determined to get better grades this semester

(Before completing this exercise, Derek would have never suspected that being determined to get good grades would be a part of the sequence that led to his relapse.)

Exercise #2: Mental Redo

Part A. At what point(s) could I have changed courses? What could I have done different?






Part B. Mentally practice 5x interrupting what I actually did and taking the path(s) above instead.

What do you notice as you mentally run through taking these other, better courses?

Exercise #3: Letter to a Friend

Imagine one of your friends just did what you’ve done and has the exact feelings you do right now. Write them a note, starting with “Dear ________”. Offer encouragement, your perspective as an outsider, and anything else that will help them to keep the problem in proportion. Remind them of what good people they are and how much they have to offer. After you've finished, read below for more instructions.*


Dear ______________,

*Only read below after you’ve completed the letter:
Now, cross out your friend’s name and insert your own. Read this “letter to yourself” with an open mind.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Gentle Art of Self-Control, Lesson 11: Reverse Conditioning

Over and over again, you've paired the image of a sexually attractive person with the habit of lusting. In time, you don't even have to choose to lust when you see something or someone tempting--the sequence initiates automatically.

To change this pattern, you can condition yourself in a different direction by deliberately pairing trigger events with another, better sequence every time you're triggered.

To do so, try responding to triggers with a brief gesture designed to remind yourself who you are and what you care about.

George Collins suggests one I've found to be quite powerful: put your hand on your heart, look heavenward, and silently mouth or quietly say the words "Thank you."

This process is a sort of value anchor. When you think or see something that would usually trigger a lust lapse, it helps by:

  • Reminding you who you are: a human being with a heart, not just an animal driven by your genitals.
  • Orienting your attention upward instead of downward--heavenward if you're a spiritual person--and toward what you're grateful for, giving you somewhere to focus besides the potential object of your lust.
  • Initiating gratitude, a higher level (human) feelings state that can be a potent antidote for the animalistic state of lust. 
  • Giving you something to ponder: what, exactly, am I grateful for right now? This gives the searching mechanism in the mind something else to scope out besides objects of and opportunities for lust.
  • Bringing you back to your realm of power. From a spiritual perspective: the devil operates in the realm of thoughts and feelings. When we wrestle on his home territory, he has better footing. But (at least according to my beliefs) he doesn't possess muscles or vocal chords. So when we initiate even a simple behavior (placing your hand on your heart) or make even a brief, quiet statement ("Thank you"), we're like the alligator that just dragged the lion into the water, where our advantage lies.

In his book, Breaking the Cycle, Collins tells about a time when he came upon an attractive woman in a grocery store aisle. She bent down in front of him to grab a can of soup from a low shelf. His old lust-based reflex would have been to stare. Instead, he reached for his protein powder, put it into his cart, and turned to walk away. As he did, he put his hand on his heart and quietly whispered, "Thank you."

From the other direction came the soft voice of a woman he hadn't noticed before: "You're welcome."

Rather than a coincidence that she was standing there and responded as she did, it seemed to George like a little gift meant just for him. As he walked toward the cash register, tears came to his eyes as he relished how nice it was to be breaking free of the clutches of his sex addiction and deciding for himself where to focus and what to think.

One remarkable thing about reverse conditioning is that it can turn a source of aggravation--everyday triggers--into an ongoing series of opportunities to do something that bolsters your recovery instead. Little events that used to trip you up become the innoculations that help your mental immune system get stronger.

Keep at it regularly and this little reverse conditioning, value anchoring process will become a habit. Before long, you'll end up like George. You'll find that your brain, in response to triggers, automatically initiates movement down a better, more life-affirming path.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Address Low Female Desire So You Can Make Love More Often

Sexless and sex-sparse marriages leave men (and some women) more vulnerable to porn problems. No one gets everything they want in the sex department, but if yearnings are rarely or never fulfilled, despair may cloud judgment and good-hearted people may end up falling to temptation in weak moments.

For this reason and countless others, it's a good idea for all couples to keep their sexual relationship vibrant and active. At times that's easy and comes naturally to both partners. At other times sex is less enjoyable than usual and may not even seem worth the effort.

Levels of sexual desire can wax and wane for either partner, but sometimes the problem is more persistent. In some cases, chronic low female sexual desire is the end result of a downward spiral that includes:
  1. Inadequate time and attention being given to foreplay and the buildup of her sexual desire.
  2. As a result, she isn't adequately lubricated during sex. 
  3. Therefore, sex is not only less pleasurable than it might be, sometimes it's downright painful. 
  4. Her nervous system keeps her body out of "relax and enjoy sex" mode and in "brace myself against pain" mode. 
  5. Enjoyment and orgasm become nearly impossible. 
  6. That distasteful sexual experience creates a lasting negative association.
  7. She finds herself wanting to avoid sex altogether.
  8. She goes into their next encounter tense, bracing for another bad experience.
  9. And so on the downward spiral continues. 
When a couple works patiently together to assure the woman becomes adequately aroused before sex and climaxes during lovemaking, it makes for a much more fulfilling experience. Such positive experiences also create lasting associations, and she finds herself more eager to have sex. 

Sometimes, however, even when a couple diligently works to foster mutually fulfilling lovemaking experiences, desire, arousal and orgasm remain elusive. They may try and try but never get there, or finally succeed but only after a great deal of effort. They don't always have the time or energy to go through the process in the ways that work. Sometimes, even when they do persist, she doesn't find it as stimulating as usual and they tire of the ordeal. 

I've found a particular approach helpful for about 70-80% of such couples. If you try it out, remember that sexual desire and enjoyment require a delicate balance of many complicated factors, particularly for women, so don't get too discouraged or critical of yourself if the technique doesn't "work" for you.

This technique adapted from Claire Hutchins' book, Five Minutes to Orgasm Every Time You Make Love. The woman is on top, in the straddle position. Close your eyes and turn your attention to your own pleasure. (Don't worry that you're depriving him--most men are plenty turned on by this process.) Use your index or middle finger to rub your own clitoris. Use KY Jelly or another lubricant if needed. Experiment and vary the rate of movement and intensity of pressure. Some women find it stimulating to imagine various scenarios of lovemaking, talk about things that turn them on, or moan to express their pleasure. However, if it works better for you, don't hesitate to keep your focus inward, on your own sensations and experience, particularly when you are first experimenting with this approach. Over time as you get better at finding your pleasure zone and reaching orgasm, you'll open your eyes more often during the experience and communicate more freely. In general the process will become more interactive.

Some of my conservative religious clients are hesitant at first to try out this technique because they equate it with masturbation. I encourage them to consider whether self-stimulation during intercourse with their husband might be different from the masturbation that is discouraged by their Church. (I agree that masturbation can be detrimental when individuals are off on their own pleasuring themselves--having a solo experience--rather than channeling that sexual energy back into connecting with their spouse.)

I also ask, "How successful would your husband be at experiencing pleasure and achieving orgasm if he did not stimulate himself during sex? He thrusts because it stimulates him. You don't view that as him using your vagina to masturbate himself. You don't ask him to abstain from thrusting and only let you stimulate him. If you decide to experiment with this technique, as you do, consider whether rubbing your own clitoris during sex may be comparable to him engaging in the thrusting motion."

I don't try to talk a couple into doing anything they're genuinely uncomfortable with. Most of them have simply never considered this kind of technique as an option. I want to give them permission to explore and discover for themselves and then follow their own consciences and sensibilities in the matter.

The majority of my religious clients report after trying this approach that they're comfortable with it and it becomes a part of their lovemaking repertoire. It is a nice way to awaken her interest, heighten her pleasure, and more readily reach orgasm--even when she's tired, not as easily aroused as usual, or they don't have a lot of time or energy. 

When both partners reliably experience ecstasy and orgasm, they're both more invested in making sure they make love on a regular basis. And that's good for each of them as individuals and for the vitality of the bond they share. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Gentle Art of Self-Control, Lesson 10: Let Cravings Remind You to Address Real Needs

It's not as easy as it may seem to keep us addicted. Craving must lead to acting out because it's acting out that fuels future cravings. If we stop acting on our cravings, the entire machinery of addiction starts to wind down. Momentum starts to fade. Therefore, to keep the cycle going, the elements that foster the illusion of desirability must continually be convincingly recreated. That illusion of desirability, the spell we fall under when we're craving, is the linchpin of addiction. Break this trance and you've begun the process of breaking free of addiction's trap.

I liken the trance of addiction to the spell the Disney Corporation works so skillfully to hold us in when we're in one of their parks. They know all of the elements of trance must be painstakingly maintained in order to foster the "magic" that is key to their success. That's why you'll never see Aladdin break out his cell phone from the pocket of his harem pants to check a text from his buddy about what they're doing after work tonight. So we're left happy in the illusion that no resident of ancient Agrabah would carry a cell phone. Nor would he get a text even if he did have a phone, because his best friend is a monkey.

My client, Brandon, is becoming more and more familiar with the elements that fuel his addictive trance. He came in to our last session with a list and expounded to me on each item:

Working a ton: I find that whenever I work like I did over the past couple of weeks--7 shifts in 9 days at one point--I get worn down. I feel shaky emotionally. I feel like I'm on thinner ice spiritually. It's like I'm an empty bucket, but the things I usually find fulfilling, like going for a walk or watching a cool documentary, don't do the trick anymore. Even when I'm not at work I can't seem to wind down. There's a low grade tension that's a part of my life like background noise.

Self-doubt: I wonder more whether I'm a good husband and father. I doubt my spiritual contributions--wouldn't I have done more as Elder's Quorum President and felt closer to the Spirit of the Lord if I hadn't been dealing with this pornography addiction? Have I made the right career decisions? Would we have been better off staying in Albuquerque? My imagination generates these scenarios where life would have been easier or more fulfilling if I'd taken a different path. I'd be doing more with friends because I'd still be living around people I've known for a longer time. I'd have more free time because the hospital there does their shifts differently. And so I'd have taken twice as many bike rides this summer as I've been able to here... if only! I make myself miserable that way.

Nice guy mode: I don't bring up the things I want or need. I just suck it up. I'm reluctant to confront people and stand up for myself. I don't try to take the shoes back to the store, even though they don't fit after all. The shoe box just sits in the trunk of my car. I don't tell our lead that I've already worked my share of weekend shifts for the month. The ugliness of my parents always fighting is etched in my hard drive. I just want everyone to be okay and get along. My mom always told me I was the peacemaker, and I do love tranquility, but now it keeps me stuck going along with things I really shouldn't.

Brandon and I spent the hour identifying and working with three "helpers" that coincide with the trance-fueling patterns he had identified. He called these helpers Plow Horse, Second Guesser, and Nice Guy. He acknowledged that they had been trying to make his life better, but also that they didn't know the whole picture. There were some ways that they were not serving him well. We discussed what he could do--how he could handle some of the situations that he be facing over the next few days--that would be more consistent with who he is as a person and what he wants in life. That sounded much better to him than simply continuing these same patterns he had identified. And it sounded ten times better than lapsing to porn, as he'd been more tempted to do lately because he felt out of balance. 

Brandon made a few plans for taking action:
  • Arrange for a couple of long lunches in the next week to go biking.
  • Invite some friends to go out to eat with us this Friday or Saturday.
  • Try taking the kids swimming with me some evening to see if that's a better release than TV.
  • Make sure I go on a walk with Lisa every evening even if I still feel tense afterward.
  • Talk with my lead and be more firm about my schedule preferences (I know from looking at my colleagues schedules that the squeaky wheel sometimes gets the grease.)
Although planning was just the beginning of actually creating a more balanced life, Brandon let out a big sigh and his shoulders relaxed a bit as he looked over his list and considered whether there was anything else he wanted to add to it. He was listening to his soul and considering what it needed. And he was going to act on those needs even if it was difficult. 

Think about how much worse off he'd been if he'd allow all of the stress to merely drive him back to viewing porn and masturbating to it. Sure, there would have been an immediate release of the tension. But there's also the blinding and numbing effect of addiction. He would have set himself back even further from understanding himself and what he genuinely needed. Plus he would have felt guilty and ashamed, and thus even less entitled to asking for what he needs in all the various other arenas of life. 

Addiction to porn sucks away our humanity. Recovery may be about denying ourselves in some small ways, but it's mainly about regaining our humanity and respecting who we are and what we genuinely need. 

Next time you find yourself more compelled by the trance of your cravings, take a step back and consider the various areas of your life that may be out of balance. Then take concrete steps to restore balance in each of those arenas. 

Let your cravings be the light on the dashboard of your life, reminding you to change your worn belts and top off your fluid levels. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Celebrating Freedom!

It's Independence Day in the United States, and everywhere I go I'm reminded of the blessings of freedom and liberty. 

As focused as I am on our nation's independence is, I also rejoice in the growing personal freedom that I see everyday in the lives of clients and readers of this blog. Here's an email I got this week from a former client, Valerie:

Hi Mark,

It has been awhile since we touched base. We've been busy with, well, life. I have been giving myself time to struggle and Randall and I have been working hard on the road to healing and recovery for both of us. 

Struggle is the perfect word to describe the journey we've been on. We have had screaming matches (unusual for us), we've had tears, hugs, and laughter. We've threatened to give up and we have vowed never to give up. I guess you could say that we have gone through a lot the past couple of months. 

I have been reading your blog, praying, participating in actions that bring me closer to the Holy Ghost, as well as having my days of frantically going through the internet search history and obsessing about my appearance. 

I am working everyday towards putting my efforts toward more uplifting and liberating actions rather than the ones that destroy me. I am actually progressing and using the tools that you describe in your blog. 

Our communication is flourishing and Randall is still porn free! He has been working hard on his own as well as on us. 

This email is just to update you and extend to my enduring gratitude towards you, Suncrest Counseling, and all the work you do. We could not have gotten through as much as we have without y'all. Thank you. 

Warm Regards,


My hat's off to you, Valerie and Randall, and all of the rest of you who are putting your heart and soul into trying to change and heal. May God continue to bless you in your quest for personal freedom!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Gentle Art of Self-Control, Lesson 9: Remember SAND in the Heat of the Moment

These days I’m encouraging my clients to carry a sand timer (you know, those tiny hourglasses that come in kids’ games) and use the word SAND to remind them of four key tools that can help break the trance of temptation in the heat of the moment:

S: State the Sentiment
A: Absorb the Emotion
N: Notice What’s Now
D: Do What’s You

A more detailed explanation of each of these tools can be found in these other Gentle Art of Self-Control lessons:

State the Sentiment in Lesson 3: Look at Your Lenses
Absorb the Emotion in Lesson 6: Face Your Feelings
Notice What’s Now in Lesson 7: Free the Looping Mind
Do What’s You in Lesson 8: Do What’s You

You can use SAND whenever you need help taking back control of your life. When you’re tempted to relapse, remember SAND, pick one or more of the tools, and implement it.

And the SAND reminder is not just for avoiding relapse. You can use it when you’re feeling pushed around by feelings of any kind: discouragement, resentment, frustration, loneliness, anger, envy, etc.

Whenever Henry and Carol go a long time without making love, Henry starts to feel lonely, like he isn’t a priority, disconnected from Carol, and grumpy. Unfortunately, because of their busy schedules, it happens quite often. In an effort to improve their sex lives, they agreed to be intimate at least one morning a week, either on Tuesday or Thursday, the mornings Henry starts work later than usual.

Last week, since they didn’t make love Tuesday morning, Henry was really looking forward to Thursday. Unfortunately, Carol didn’t sleep well Wednesday night and was exhausted Thursday morning. But she didn’t want him to feel neglected. “Tonight at 8:30,” she promised. “It’s a date,” he nodded.

Because it was such a hot day, Henry decided to push back to a little later in the evening the bike ride he had planned to take with his Step-Grandson, Greg, who was visiting them from out of town. Because they didn’t end up leaving until almost 8:00, he knew they wouldn’t be back until 9:30 or so. Nonetheless, he was still eagerly anticipating some alone time with Carol that evening and hopeful that she would also remember and make it a priority.

When Henry and Greg came in the house after their ride, Carol was on the couch with a storage box opened up and memorabilia strewn all over the coffee table. “This is all your mom’s stuff from when she was your age!” she motioned excitedly to her grandson. Greg sat down next to her and started looking at the trinkets and photographs.

Henry gets up to go to work at 5:00 on Friday mornings. He surveyed the stuff on the table and knew there was no end in sight. He turned and walked down the hall to their bedroom, filled with the awful sludge of disappointment.

I’ll just get on my iPad and check out the news before I hit the sack, he thought to himself. Then he realized, It’s at times like these, when I feel left out, unimportant, hungry for love, lonely—it’s times like these that I find myself going from news… to racy so-called news… to sexually provocative material on presumably mainstream websites… to pornographic material on edgy websites… to full-on porn.

He knew that if he didn’t do something fast, he’d soon be on that old luge run with no way off. He really wasn’t in the mood to use a tool he’d learned in therapy, but he plopped down on the bed and forced his mind to remember SAND:

S. State Your Sentiment. How would I put what I’m feeling into words? “I’m down at the bottom of the priority list. I’m the invisible guy. No one sees my needs… or my wounds… or cares!”

A. Absorb the Emotion. I’m disappointed. Hurt. I’m supposed to make room for the hurt and let it in instead of shrinking away from it? Don’t contract, expand and let the emotion in. Really?! Let it in. Ugh. Geez, that is really unpleasant. Henry forced himself to take a deep breath and imagined space opening up inside of himself where that emotion could reside.

N. Notice What’s Now. What can I see or hear? He lifted his head off the pillow and looked out the window. Their home has a view of the city skyline. He looked out at the lights and decided to zero in on one that stood out because it was yellow. He kept his focus on that light as he took another breath or two.

D. Do What’s You. What could I do that’s consistent with who I am and how I choose to live my life, not some habit or addiction that I’ve conditioned myself to go to? Henry wants more than anything to be a good man and a loving husband. Carol loves to be touched and massaged, so one of the actions on his Value Menu that takes just a minute or two is rubbing her shoulders. He peeled his body up off the bed, walked back out to the living room, and sat down on the armrest of the couch, right next to Carol. She and Greg were thumbing through her daughter’s yearbook, back and forth between the index and the various pictures of her. Neither of them gave any indication that they even realized Henry had come back in.

Despite the knot in his throat and the feeling of sludge in his body, Henry started to rub Carol’s shoulders. He felt her soften and relax almost immediately. He continued for a minute or so. At one point she pressed her check against his hand, pinning it between her check and shoulder. Then she sighed and looked up and smiled at him.

“Love you,” he said, “I’m going to bed now.”

“K, love you, too.” she said, turning back to her grandson and the yearbook.

Henry didn’t feel completely settled as he walked back to the bedroom. But, he admitted to himself, I feel a lot better than I do after what usually happens.

It sucks when we don’t get what we want. But it sucks even more when we don’t live as we choose—when we allow the strong feelings that go with not getting what we want to drive us back into doing things we truly, deep down, don’t want to do. And even though we might sincerely feel like other people are to blame for the way we acted, we still end up suffering the dreadful consequences.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Does His Obsession Have to Become Your Obsession?

Four years ago in April, my Client, Liz, discovered that her husband frequented porn and dating sites on his computer. Her eighteen-year-old daughter called her in to the computer one day: “Sorry Mom, but I think you’re going to want to see this.”

A year later when she started therapy with me, Liz still had intense feelings of anger and hatred toward her husband, Frank. A statement I heard repeatedly from her during that time was, “I want to nail his $#% to the wall!”

Fast forward three years and Liz and Frank are still together. She loves him and wants to retire together and enjoy their remaining years as much as they can. They both love to golf and travel. They’ve always relished their weekends together away from job demands. She manages a busy dental practice and he’s lasted decades in an accounting firm that burns out most employees in just a year or two. Their daughter comes to visit with her young son, and Liz delights in watching “Grandpa” roll around on the ground with his little buddy.

Frank still frequents porn and dating sites. Several times she has asked him to quit, making her case in various ways. Each time he promised he would, only to keep going back. Her high hopes were dashed every time she’d discover smut on his computer again.

She monitors his web habits by means he’s not aware of, so she knows the pattern. Typically he gets on when she’s out of the house, although occasionally it’s been while she’s in the other room or asleep. If she goes away overnight or for days at a time, that’s when he binges.

She’s accepted now that he’ll probably never get off it. Sure, she’d rather he didn’t go to porn and the dating sites, but he has lots of other great qualities that compensate for that weakness. Because of those and all they’ve shared and been through together over the 41 years, she’s going to keep trying to make the best of it.

The other day she shared her perspective on a topic that I thought would be worth passing along:

“There’s such a thing as too much curiosity. I wasted too much time over the last three years glued to his computer, looking at his search history, sorting through everything he’d been looking at.

“Some of it was absolutely necessary. Some of that detective work showed me that he goes to the dating sites to look at the photos, not because he’s planning to step out on me or wants to find local women to date. If I hadn’t come to understand what that was about for him, I never would have come to terms with it in the way I have.

“But the rest of it—being exposed to the world or porn and seeing all those sexy, slender bodies of younger women—that’s done me more harm than good.

“I wasted a lot of time on it, time I wish I’d spent in other, more productive ways.

“Just because he got sucked in, didn’t mean I needed to get sucked in. I wish now that I’d resisted the urge to delve into it to the degree that I did. I wish I’d let that be his thing and spent more of my time and energy on the things I care about.”

In your journey as an individual and as a couple, what’s your take on these questions:

How much time and energy should you spend on your partner’s porn habit?

Do you choose how much time and energy to spend, or do the worries take over and make you obsess about it involuntarily, even though you’d rather dwell on other things? Anything you’ve learned over time that you could pass on to others about how to deal with that morbid curiosity more effectively?

To what degree is it up to you to learn about addiction and recovery and to what degree is that his concern and his job? And what if you’re convinced that kicking his porn habit is his job, but he doesn’t do anything about it? Do you live with it the way Liz has decided to, or is it a relationship-breaker?