Monday, April 28, 2014

The Gentle Art of Self-Control, Lesson 1: The Rebound Effect

My heart went out to the missionary who emailed asking for some coaching:

“It’s been two years since I’ve seen any pornography and almost a year serving here in Brazil. But it’s still a real struggle to keep my thoughts clean. And my eyes love to wander. I always try my best to kick the thoughts out when they do come and I try not to let my eyes wander. Seems like a losing battle. Why can’t I get on top of it?”

If self-control were just about changing our behavior, this young man would be ecstatic—almost two years free of the behavior! But he’s still struggling and distraught. He wants his mind back. His life back.

It is important to work on changing our behavior and to track our successes and failures in that arena over time. However, because self-control is such a mind game, it’s also helpful to assess initially and periodically measure again the size of the footprint of the problem in our lives.

What's the Size of the Footprint in Your Life?

Of all the things you do in life, what percentage of your time, energy and focus is consumed by your self-control struggle? For this missionary, that includes everything from
  • wishing he wasn’t still struggling
  • trying to learn ways to get over it
  • feeling drawn by temptation
  •  trying to resist the pull 
  • slipping up in some way with unclean thoughts or wandering gaze
  •  feeling guilty about giving in to the urges
  • beating up on himself that he even struggles with this problem in the first place

When my new friend wrote back and said that the footprint of the problem is around 30-45% for him most days, I couldn’t help but gasp. Here’s a young man who has taken two years of his life to go try to help complete strangers halfway across the world better their lives and find spiritual light. I’ve never been happier that I’ve spent the last 24 years trying to crack the code of self-control and learning everything I could from others working in the same field. I couldn’t wait to pass along to him everything I know about the topic.

Struggling Can Make Things Worse

I knew he'd have to start approaching the problem in a way that would allow the footprint of the problem to shrink rather than continuing to grow. So the first thing I did was teach my friend about the Rebound Effect.

Trying to suppress our urges and unwanted thoughts may seem to work, and may indeed work quite well for a time. However, if those urges and thoughts are intense and difficult to manage, then suppression eventually breaks down. In fact, it can even backfire. In time, the thoughts and feelings we were trying to suppress come back with a vengeance. The energy we poured into urge suppression actually intensifies the later echoing intrusion. The vigor in our fling of the boomerang translates into nothing but a harder bonk on our own head when it flies back our way.

That’s the rebound effect, and it happens whenever we suppress thoughts that are personally potent and difficult to manage. And there are reasons why.

What would happen if every time a smoke detector went off in your city, the fire department was automatically alerted and firefighters were required to barge into the area with hoses gushing? Not effective fire suppression.  Why not? Smoke alarms are ubiquitous, their detection capacity hypersensitive, and they require next to nothing to keep running—a single nine volt battery will keep one going month after month.

While detection may be easy demand barely any resources, the suppression function is another story. In the scenario suggested above, firefighters would be busy all the time and even then wouldn’t be able to keep up. Think of everything that would get used up to soaking every home where a smoke alarm went off: the man hours, gas for the trucks, the water drained from the city’s pipes. Fire suppression places a heavy demand on limited resources.

Because suppression resources would get used up even in the event of false alarms, there are bound to be times when a true need gets neglected, times when real fires don’t get doused.

Fighting Fires in the Mind

These kinds of breakthroughs happen in our efforts at thought suppression as well, and for similar reasons. First, there’s no shortage of smoke. The part of the brain that’s good at looking for sex, food, or any other potentially addictive substance or behavior is very good at doing its job. This part of the brain is bound to get activated regularly and forcefully.

The part of the brain that detects this “smoke” is also good at doing its job of blaring away, calling attention to this “urgent” state of affairs. It keeps flagging thoughts that need to be suppressed, pointing out all of these new important jobs that need to be done.

The part of the brain that suppresses thoughts and urges, on the other hand, requires conscious effort and attention. It’s mentally taxing to suppress unwanted thoughts, and we only have so much energy to devote to it.

Given this setup, breakdowns and breakthroughs in thought suppression are inevitable. They’re also extremely costly: they scorch our self-confidence and our hope that we can eventually be free. They char our spiritual strength and consume our time, energy, and money. Perhaps most devastating of all, they can make ashes the trust that was once placed in us by loved ones.

We can wear ourselves out trying to extinguish unwanted thought after unwanted thought, but we can never succeed at it over the long run.

There has to be a better way.

Stop Calling 911

To start our pivot to different direction, consider this question: What did you actually do last time a smoke detector went off in your home? Did you call 911 and ask the operator to tell the firefighters to charge their hoses and come in blasting?

No, you probably took the pan of bacon off the burner, opened the windows, or fanned the air near the smoke alarm. Or you may have cleared out the spider web that was being built inside your detector, like I once had to do.

You probably didn’t resent the sensitivity of the detection function or smash the annoying-sounding device with a hammer. You need it to keep doing its job, as long as you’re the one who gets to decide how to handle the signals it sends.

You didn’t respond in a knee-jerk way. Despite how urgent everything seems at the time because of the intense noise, you appraised the situation and responded in a way that corresponded to the degree of actual threat. You acted in a manner that was commensurate with the need.

A proportional and fitting response: that’s way you'll be learning to handle unwanted urges and cravings

The purpose of these lessons is to show you how to address temptation similarly, in a way that is more proportional to and fitting of the actual need. Your new approach will work better and won’t drain you the way the struggle has up to now.

Homework for Lesson 1:

1.      How big is the footprint of your self-control struggle in your life? In other words, how much of your time, energy and focus is consumed by it? This includes both inner and outer responses, such as thinking about it, feeling drawn by it, fighting against urges, giving in to it, feeling guilty or ashamed about having the struggle, and trying to get rid of the problem once and for all. If you took a pie that represents all of the time, energy, and focus you spend on everything in your life (100%), what slice of that pie ends up going to this struggle throughout a typical day or week? Give it a percentage. Don't worry about getting the number exactly correct, just estimate roughly. This number (_____%) is your Baseline Footprint.

2.      Now, ask yourself this question: how much will the footprint have to shrink for you to be satisfied with the degree to which your particular self-control issue is still a concern in your life? You won’t necessarily be ecstatic about it, mind you, simply okay enough with where you’re at regarding this issue that you can focus almost all of your time and energy on other endeavors. What percentage would be small enough that you will no longer consider it a weight on your shoulders or a problem that’s haunting you? This will tell us when you’re ready to fire me as a coach. This number (_____%) is your Target Footprint.

3.      On a somewhat related topic: How big of an issue do you think your self-control issue is to other people who have never had a particular problem in that arena of life? What percentage of their time, energy, and focus would you guess they spend dealing with their sexuality, if that’s your struggle? Or their appetite for food, if that’s your struggle? This number (_____%) is your Estimation of Normal.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Join us this Friday!

George Collins, author of the bestselling book on sex addiction recovery, Breaking the Cycle, will be speaking this Friday at the South Town Convention Center in Sandy, Utah. His talk for the general public goes from 7-9 in the evening, but some folks are joining us for the "therapist continuing education" sessions from George and other great speakers throughout the day. Why not? For the price of one therapy session you can get a day full of help and inspiration! Daytime speakers include Don Hilton, a brilliant pioneer in the brain science of sex addiction, and Steve & Rhyll, one of the most courageous and energetic couples in recovery you'll ever meet.

George is my favorite theorist and practitioner in the field of sex addiction. He has a huge heart, he'll blow your mind with his creativity, and he's hilarious. His approach is so refreshing. He actually makes it FUN to learn about recovery! Perhaps most important of all, you'll come away from this presentation with a renewed sense of hope for your recovery and your relationship. 

For more information check out this announcement on our Suncrest Counseling Website. 

If you decide to come, please find me and say hello. Hope to see you there!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

You Are Not Alone

Here's a guest post from a wonderful new member of our Suncrest Counseling family, Kylie Bair. 

A tall, athletic BYU student sits across from me fidgeting, unable to get comfortable. It's our first meeting; I'm learning the basics. Loves to play soccer. Enjoys time with friends. Excited that a brother is coming home from an LDS mission soon. 

Then I dive in: "So, what brought you in to see me today?"

Deafening silence. 
Eyes shut. Then a mumble: “I struggle with looking at pornography.” 

A tear runs down her face, which she promptly wipes away.

As you read about my experience with this individual, who did you imagine walking into my office? My guess is that you envisioned a male. What was your initial reaction when you finally learned that it was a female coming in to address a pornography addiction? As I’ve worked with numerous female clients who struggle with pornography and sexual addictions, one of the most difficult things to address is their fear that this is a man’s problem, thus making them, in their own words, a “really horrible”, “broken,” or “appalling” woman.

Pornography has been referred to as, “the drug of the new millennium” (Kastleman, 2007) and has been said to be “more addictive than crack cocaine” (Duke, 2010). If we were to change avenues for a moment and look at narcotics, would we not recognize that both males and females struggle with drug addictions? Would it make sense then to say that if both a man and a woman where to consume heroin, that only a man would experience its effects? The women that I work with have adopted a very similar distortion in that while pornography, the “drug of the new millennium” is rampantly available to all in our society, somehow only men should be affected by it.

Recent research shows that pornography use is increasing among women:

• A 2006 survey released by Internet Filter Review showed that one in three visitors to pornography sites were women.
• About 30 percent of internet pornography consumers are women, according to the 2008 Internet Pornography Statistics.
• The 2006 Internet Filter Review poll also found that 9.4 million women access adult websites each month, and that 13 percent of women admit to accessing pornography at work.

To any women who may be struggling with a pornography or sexual addiction, here are some steps that I have suggested to my clients that have helped initiate affirmative change:

• A lot of women stay imprisoned in the addiction because of discouragement or fear that no other woman struggles with this specific problem. Gain hope from knowing that you are not alone.
• Identify triggers and create a safer environment. For example, if your “drug of choice” is viewing pornography on your laptop in your room, set boundaries to only use your computer in an open area or utilize an internet filter blocking certain websites.
• Reach out for help. This step is vital, whether it is a trusted family member, friend, ecclesiastic leader, or a professional counselor, getting support is a crucial step toward creating change.

Don’t stay trapped because of fear. You are not alone. If you have a pornography or sexual addiction, take the necessary steps to regain your life. Change is possible.


  • Duke, Rachel. (2010). More women lured to pornography addiction. The Washington Times, LLC.
  • Internet Filter Review (2006).
  • Internet Pornography Statistics (2008).
  • Kastleman, Mark (2007). The drug of the new millennium: The science of how internet pornography radically alters the human brain.
Kylie Bair is a licensed therapist and specializes in addiction recovery, specifically female pornography addiction. She graduated from the clinical Master of Social Work program at BYU. Kylie has gained valuable experience as a therapist at the Children’s Justice Center working with primary and secondary victims of sexual abuse, LDS Family Services, and is currently working in the American Fork office of Suncrest Counseling.