Understanding “why” is an important step towards overcoming any addiction, including sexual addiction. In Part 1 of this series, I talked about the first of two very important cycles – the self-esteem cycle – and how a faulty sense of self provides the perfect breeding ground for addiction. If you haven’t done so already, I recommend you read Part 1 now as it will help you better understand today’s blog.
If you are someone who identifies as a people-pleaser, a perfectionist, or an avoider, I want you to pay especially close attention as this should particularly resonate with you.
The Addiction Cycle
As we discussed last week, someone who struggles with a strong ‘inner critic’ generally has a higher likelihood of choosing maladaptive ways to deal with overwhelming feelings of disappointment, stress, anger, fear, and anxiety.
This self-esteem cycle feeds a second cycle known as the coping cycle or addiction cycle.
Here’s a graphic showing how the two cycles work together.
The addiction cycle has 4 stages: preoccupation, ritualization, sexual compulsion, and despair. Let’s look more closely at the first two stages of the addiction cycle.
The Preoccupation Stage
The preoccupation stage is centered around obsession. Imagine a dog sitting at the back window watching a squirrel run from tree to tree. The dog is completely obsessed with the squirrel, such that it’s difficult for him to divert his attention to anything else. If the backdoor opens, the dog will be off to the races.
In the case of sexual addiction, the preoccupation is centered around an obsession with finding ways to be sexual or romantic. Thinking back to the self-esteem cycle, the impetus for this hyper-focus is to divert attention from – or avoid – the negative thoughts we have about ourselves or our relationship. For most people, the preoccupation stage typically starts with erotic fantasies and sexual thoughts.
Wait. Does this mean if I have sexual thoughts or erotic fantasies that I have a sexual addiction?
No! Not at all! We are each sexual beings and it’s absolutely normal to have sexual thoughts and urges. In fact, having kinky thoughts and fantasies about your partner is actually healthy! I encourage it!
The differentiator here is the word obsession. If those thoughts become sexually obsessive, then it sets the stage for a loss of control. It becomes a slippery slope. Minutes turn into hours and hours into days, until you realize how much time you’ve spent lost in this preoccupation and you still have so much to do.
The Ritualization Stage
This leads into the second stage: ritualization. Think of a baseball player as he gets ready to enter the batter’s box. He may adjust the straps on his gloves, first the left, then the right. He’ll take a practice swing, touch his helmet, and then tap the plate twice with the end of his bat. You get the picture. The batter defaults to this same pattern or routine each and every time. It’s his ritual and it’s almost automatic.
In the ritualization stage of addiction, an addict starts to put further distance between their loved ones (reality) and their sexual obsession. Rituals can be hypnotic and trance-like to the brain, thereby making it nearly impossible for the addict to say “Stop!”.
Think of rituals as steps taken to “get the engine warm”. Here are a few examples an addict may use to prime the engine.
- Browsing attractive people’s profiles on social media
- Watching provocative videos on YouTube
- Engaging with people on chat apps
You may be wondering, why are any of these a problem if “all I’m doing is looking”. After all, it’s not porn, right?
In Part 3 of this series, I’ll answer that question and give you a deeper look into the final two stages of the addiction cycle – sexual compulsivity and despair.
If you see yourself in these first two stages, don’t wait to reach out for help. I can provide you with a free online screening test (totally anonymous) which will help you determine if there is something that needs to be further addressed. And if there is, I’ll also be here to help you on your journey. Freedom and hope await!