When I was writing my Master’s thesis on anti-pornography campaigns, I found that the most common advice given to pornography users who want to be free is to go and talk to someone about their problem. It is an important first step, and everyone I have talked to who has found successful recovery has eventually found someone to open up to who made all the difference. As therapist Rory Reid noted, “Being truthful frees up energy previously used to maintain secrets.”
All these years we have been advising people trapped in pornography to tell someone, but is “someone” prepared to react correctly? There are two sides to the conversation. I’m afraid that we usually aren’t prepared to be really good at responding to disclosure. Sometimes we unintentionally make the problem even worse by our negative or ineffective reactions. We want to do better, but how?
It takes a lot for someone who is struggling with pornography use to open up to others. Most keep their problem to themselves and never make it into lasting recovery because they fear rejection from others. Some heed the advice to confide in someone they trust. But imagine for a moment that a friend or family member came to you for help. How would you respond? Are you prepared to react in a way that will be uplifting and encouraging? It has been my experience that most people are not prepared to respond positively to disclosure. Take, for example, the following real life experience of someone who struggled with pornography.
What We Do That Shuts Down Recovery
Ryan had been using pornography through his teenage years. He was able to abstain long enough to be a missionary for a couple of years, but when he returned to daily life in college, his old habits came back. He felt trapped and isolated with his problem. He really wanted to change, but needed some help.
Ryan’s first confession ever was to his mom as they were driving to visit family. Why did he choose his mom? Because he thought she was the most likely person to still love him. Coming clean after so many years was a big step. However, instead of the compassionate concern he hoped for, she expressed shock and disappointment. She cried and criticized. She had such a strong negative emotional response that Ryan felt even greater shame and his problems with pornography got worse. He spent many more years silently entrenched in pornography before attempting to reach out to someone again.
Ryan’s experience, unfortunately, is too common. Did you know that 79% of teens and young adults who want to stop using pornography say they have no one in their life helping them? Usually, the person they feel could help them the most is a friend (Barna 2016). Why don’t they talk to their friend? And if they did, would their friend know how respond in a helpful way? People who want to overcome pornography use often want to reach out for help, but are hesitant because they worry that someone will react negatively with anger, disappointment, an emotional outburst, or rejection. They are already struggling with feelings of shame, which will influence anyone to retreat from the possibility of rejection.