Relapse is all about repeating shame messages
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“I’ve had a wonderfully healthy childhood, how did I get this thing called 'sex addiction'?” is one of the most common questions asked of sex addiction professionals. The truth is, according to Dr. Patrick Carnes, sex addiction is not about sex. It is about core feelings of loneliness and unworthiness. Many addicts, in fact, encounter healthy sexuality for the first time when they are in recovery and experience sex without shame.
Where does this shame come from? It can come from physical or emotional abuse, emotional abandonment, even the messages we received as children from our families and teachers. We also have to consider the role each of us played in our families: Hero, mascot, lost child, enabler or scapegoat. There are ways families unintentionally cause shame messages in their children. Common quotations like “children should be seen and not heard” silence children from expressing their feelings. They begin to isolate, feeling lonely and unworthy of having a voice, opinion or belief. “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,” is another common way to silence our feelings. Worst of all, in some families there are unprocessed, unmentionable secrets that have power and create much shame. Children know about them but parents say, “It is in the past, so there is no need to talk about it.”
Children’s needs may also be denied or criticized. When a child gets hurt and the parent says, “You’re not hurt, get up, be a man,” this sends a message to the child that he is unworthy of love from this parent. To avoid further shaming and conflict, the child simply detaches from his own needs. So begins the shame cycle. We are torn asunder by two primary conflicting directives: do things right and do things to feel better. We had no one to teach us how to fulfill normal human needs and still be appropriate in our behavior.
The way relapse occurs is a certain trigger from our environment reminds us subconsciously of the shame messages we said about ourselves when either abuse or neglect occurred in our past. The trigger shames us into believing we are 'less than', lonely, never good enough, or just not worthy of anything good. Without proper boundaries in place, the addict enters the addictive cycle of preoccupation, ritualization, acting out, and despair, and the cycle continues. Sometimes, triggers can be as subtle as a song, smell, place, criticism, fights, problems with children, money, work, etc. Reminding us again that we are not worthy of living a healthy life.
According to Brene Brown, in her book I thought it was just me (But it isn’t),
“When it comes to shame, understanding is a prerequisite for change. We can’t consciously make the decision to change our behavior until we are aware of what we are thinking and why...” This is why it is critical for us to figure out what our past experiences have caused us to believe about ourselves and work on disputing, reframing and contradicting these shameful, internal messages.