Editor’s Note: This article is written from the perspective of an individual who is male; therefore, masculine pronouns are used. We recognize that females can struggle with sexual addiction as well. This is one person’s perspective as an addict and this guidance can most likely be applied to the female addiction experience as well.
Steven Shields from UnashamedUnafraid.com is a recovering sex addict who has committed his life to talking about his experience with addiction. He hopes to remove the stigmas that come with addiction so that more and more individuals will speak their shame and in turn seek for recovery. During his personal journey of recovery, he has had a lot of experience working with Church leaders, including church discipline. He has seen the influence for good and bad that church leaders can have on an addict. In this article, he discusses keys to help leaders better help an addict reach recovery.
As a recovering sex addict I’ve experienced many discussions in the bishop’s office. My decision led to heartbreak in my personal relationships from which we are still recovering. On the surface I was the type of guy every parent would hope their son would become: returned missionary, married in the temple, member of a bishopric, etc. But in a dark double life I was seeking out evil, improprieties, and fornication. I am so grateful for the Grace of Jesus Christ that saved me from the cycle of addiction.
With that said, I can only imagine the burden put on bishops to effectively mentor those that face addiction and help them reach a state of repentance and recovery. I’m grateful for the good priesthood leaders that did their best as they encouraged me to change, and even supported me after I was disfellowshipped from the Church. The following tips are not meant to make a priesthood leader feel like you are not doing enough, but I hope they can give you a new perspective that will help you more effectively understand the difficult road to recovery.
1. Have a Game Plan Long Before the Addict Walks in Your Office
Often the addict in your office needs to be connected to resources. As a leader, you cannot effectively guide him to resources if you are only “familiar” with the resources. Having a list of Addiction Recovery Program (ARP) classes and a phone number to a therapist is not enough. Take the time to attend a few ARP sessions and understand the spirit and structure of those meetings. Dive into online resources, including addictionrecovery.lds.org. Watch the videos and study the material the Church has provided. Become familiar with local therapists who are certified in sex addiction treatment, who respect LDS values on sexuality, and make sure the addict is connecting with the therapist enough to honestly and adequately address his addiction.
The more comfortable you are talking about pornography and sexual addiction, the more likely you will avoid accidentally shaming the individual.
2. Focus on Removing Shame and Establishing Hope
When an addict finally gets himself into the bishop’s office, he does so with a ton of self-inflicted shame. He knows he has done wrong and the last thing he needs from a leader is a reminder of the seriousness of his actions. The best place to start is with compassion and establishing hope in the Atonement of Jesus Christ by relaying a message that even the strongest of addictions can be overcome. Recognize that taking this step to meet with a priesthood leader is a difficult one and that you are glad he was comfortable with you as their leader to take that step.
Brene Brown, a leading author who writes about shame, defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging — something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” Shame is what keeps addicts in denial and from telling the truth. It creates a core belief that if people really knew what he had done no one would accept him, even Heavenly Father. As a leader, your primary goal should be to remove any form of shame in his addiction experience. This is done by establishing hope by saying phrases like, “You are not alone. There are many men/women who have struggled with the same issues and have fully recovered.” Statements like this remove shame and replace it with hope. If the leader says things like, “I’m not sure how to help” this magnifies the addict’s hopelessness and focuses him back on shame, thinking he as a person is broken and beyond repair.
Note that statements of empathy are more helpful than statements of sympathy. When a bishop tries to give sympathy by saying, “It must be hard being addicted” he is unintentionally telling the addict he is broken (shame). Focusing on empathy is more effective because it stimulates connection, “I would imagine some days are very difficult and you often wonder if recovery is possible.” Empathy creates a connection that diminishes shame. Sympathy only points out the shame.
3. Full Confession May Not Happen in the First Visit
Denial comes in many forms and justifies behaviors that are against one’s value system. An addict most likely has the flawed approach of only sharing a part of his addiction. For example, he may disclose to you that he has viewed pornography online for years and years, but leaves out the detail that it has led to fornication with prostitutes. This is called “spotlighting” and though it is not the best way to handle a confession, it is typical. Many addicts only disclose that which they have been caught doing or as little as needed to remove the pressure that is likely to expose his shame. Once the pressure is diminished for a time, the shame can be hidden again. When a leader finds out later that the individual wasn’t 100% truthful on the initial visit, it is easy to assume the individual is not sincere in their quest for recovery and repentance. In reality, the addict has been dishonest but it is because he lives with so much shame it is difficult for him to confess it all in one instance. Confronting his denial directly is often ineffective and the leader should realize that the addict needs time to process this shame and arrive at a realization of his denial over time. It is at that time when you will most likely hear a complete confession.
As an addict begins to confess his past, especially if he was caught, it is helpful to say something like, “I understand how hard being honest can be, especially when there is so much shame involved. It’s okay if there is more that you are not ready to share. As we continue meeting there will be more opportunity to disclose what is missing.” Statements like this create safety to share and remove the feeling of shame between the addict and the leader. If a leader leaves it up to the addict by saying, “Let me know if you need to meet again,” it puts a huge burden on the addict to try to overcome the shame of their situation or if they relapse again they can justify their motives by thinking they are “working with the bishop” when in reality they only met with him once. He needs your help and he will most likely not ask for it upfront. Drawing attention to the fact that full confession might take several meetings in the bishop’s office establishes hope and moves him towards recovery and repentance.
4. Understand Trauma
Addiction is often rooted in deep or long-standing pain or trauma. Addiction commonly develops to soothe the pain and cope with the overwhelming feelings that result from painful experiences or feeling disconnected from self and others. Addiction allows individuals an escape, in an unhealthy manner, from feelings they want to avoid or often don’t understand. Often childhood trauma (i.e. abuse, neglect, shaming) is the root pain cause because as a child you don’t have the skills to cope with these traumas. Because of this an addict may look for something to soothe the pain of the trauma such as addiction. This doesn’t mean an addict should be treated as a victim of the addiction, but it is helpful if the church leader is open to deeper trauma that needs to be addressed.
Many addicts can reach sobriety without addressing their deeper emotional pain. Others, however, have trauma so integrated with their addiction that they must address both their patterns of pain and addiction together. This is why involving professional counseling as early as possible can be so beneficial.
5. Understand the Difference Between Sobriety and Recovery
It is easy to be encouraged when the addict enters a long stretch of sobriety, but that doesn’t mean he is in recovery. Recovery happens when the addict makes lasting lifestyle changes that result in changes to mind, body, and spirit. That is true repentance! Continue to remind the addict that what he is doing is difficult and that it takes a lot of courage to enter recovery.
It is important to meet regularly so that the walls of shame can be removed and the addict can reach 100% full confession. It is also important to ask follow-up questions about sobriety and recovery in their life in each meeting. Is he simply “white knuckling” his addiction in sobriety? Or is he clearly making life changes to recovery by setting up internet filters, establishing accountability partners (including a sponsor in a 12-step program)? Is he recognizing emotional triggers and putting plans in place to cope with those? Is he making progress with his therapist? Does he feel like he can be forgiven? Does he feel worthy of love and connection?
As was mentioned before, past trauma may need to be addressed in order to fully reach recovery. Is the trauma being effectively dealt with through the resources you have recommended and through professional counseling? Are there additional resources of education or different forms of therapy (personal & group) that would help the addict more effectively?
6. Be Aware of Betrayal Trauma of the Spouse and Loved Ones
As you meet with the addict it is easy to get tunnel vision and only place your attention on helping the addict reach recovery. It is easy to forget those around the addict, especially the spouse, are experiencing their own level of trauma. This trauma is often referred to as betrayal trauma. Betrayal trauma occurs when a spouse experiences the shock and overwhelming feelings that come from the discovery of betrayal. When one’s foundational reality has been dismantled, many symptoms arise as an individual processes and finds their footing in their new world. The spouse has been traumatized and needs hope, help, and resources to heal. Because of this, it is important that a leader reaches out to the spouse or includes her in some of the appointments with the addict. Consider the spouse’s state of trauma and offer additional resources including professional counseling. A dangerous assumption is that once the addict is in recovery that this betrayal trauma for the spouse will go away.
The spouse needs to know that the addiction is not her fault and that betrayal trauma has happened. She needs to know that she is enough. The spouse changing her behavior or being different (e.g., having more sex) will not change the addict’s behavior or choices. It is crucial to articulate those points clearly by saying phrases like, “your spouse’s addiction is not your fault.” Empower her more and more so she does not take on shame. Alluding to things the spouse could do differently is not helpful and only reinforces the false belief that she can fix her addict spouse by doing something differently. Leaders must avoid any impression that the spouse has control or responsibility for the addict’s behavior.
Often the initial reaction is to give the spouse “space” assuming she needs time to grieve and sort out her feelings. This approach is easy to do since the conversations might be awkward. But giving her “space” can often be interpreted by the spouse that the situation is so shameful that everyone should avoid talking about it. As the leader meets with the spouse he can, again and again, establish a message of hope and help her avoid isolation. Consider phrases like, “I’m sorry that this can be awkward or embarrassing, but you don’t need to feel that way. How can I help?” This can create trust, safety, and openness so she will talk further and be open to additional resources.
The trauma experience is real for the spouse. The spouse also faces shame and denial. It is important that the spouse finds healing no matter what the addict does. Marriage and family are core to Christ’s Gospel and strengthening marriages is key. Most couples who enter recovery stay together. However, the spouse needs to know that she has the right to a healthy and healed life no matter the addict’s choice to enter recovery or not.
My hope is that these ideas will be encouraging to you as a leader. I realize many leaders find it difficult to navigate through these tough situation. You might say the wrong thing, and that is okay because we know you are doing your best. Continue to validate and love them! Overtime the addict and the leader will learn more about the healing power of Christ’s Atonement as it relates to addiction.
To hear Steve’s full story listen to his most recent interview on the Leading Saints Podcast, “The Atonement Works for Me: One Couple’s Recovery from Sexual Addiction”
Steve Shields was also interviewed on a Leading Saints Webinar, which is available in the Core Leader library. To get access to our full library of webinars, BECOME A CORE LEADER.