What if shame is secretly fueling your compulsive porn use?

Maybe you’ve been caught red-handed in your porn habit, and shame has sent you into hiding. You know you’re guilty as charged. You WANT to quit porn. But guilt’s evil twin shame sends you running right back to porn to medicate your pain.

Shame and Guilt. Shame and porn. How does someone break free from the grip of these unhappy pairs? Dr. Caroline Leaf, cognitive neuroscientist, author, and speaker, calls this the “shame spiral.” As you read, you’ll see how achieving freedom from porn also means breaking free of shame in three key steps.

First, what’s the difference between shame and guilt, you may ask?  

Consider the story of “Jenna,” an anonymous survivor of child abuse. (Trigger warning.)

Picture five year old Jenna, who’s in love with her daddy — sort of. She wants more than the whole wide world to hear, “Great job, sweetie!” Or just a simple, “I love you to the moon and back,” but she never, ever hears this. Instead, she both loves and terribly dreads being with her daddy.

Jenna has glimmers of hope — because on daddy’s good days, he gives the best swing rides ever. He also takes her on grand adventures sometimes. Exploring the woods seems safe with daddy on a good day.

But when she starts learning to read, she sees words backward. She can’t even really explain what’s going on inside her head. All she wants is to make daddy proud.

But instead, the blows come. Every time Jenna messes up a word, she gets whacked while sitting on her daddy’s lap trying her hardest to read. That’s not the only time he yells and hits. In fact, pretty much anytime she’s not perfect, that’s what happens. Violent, loud, scary anger erupts and violent blows land.

No wonder Jenna runs and hides when daddy gets home from work. She’s not sure what she might have done wrong or how she messed up that day.

But she does mess up in some way. Every single day is filled with her mistakes. So much shame!

Some days her anxiety is enormous, even when she hides. Jenna KNOWS precisely what she’s done wrong that day. She had a rebellious moment and broke a rule on purpose. She was angry, too. And the guilt mixed with shame makes her sick to her stomach.

For Jenna, the public library gradually becomes her escape! Huge piles of books take far, far away from her problems. Because — in spite of herself — she amazingly, almost miraculously, learns to read quite well.

She learns to love reading so much, she’s guilty now of hiding books under her covers at bed-time and reading with her flashlight.

Jenna’s other secret life-saver? A wonderful mom who soothed her tears, encouraged her, and patiently helped her sound out words — lots and lots of words — when daddy wasn’t around. She found ways to teach Jenna to overcome her learning difficulties.

For Jenna’s entire life, she’s carried the inflicted shame — shame she didn’t deserve — of never being good enough to please her dad. She’s often felt less-than and broken. Never good enough.

“Guilt says,‘I have done bad’. But shame says, ‘I AM bad,” explains Ted Shimer, author of The Freedom Fight, a book that addresses causes and effects of the rising tsunami of compulsive porn use. Medicating feelings of shame with a dopamine high from porn use is a common cause and effect cycle.

Shame and porn. Shame and guilt. Shame and fear. These entangling webs are often tied into another web called trauma.

The shame that fuels compulsive porn use is even more excruciatingly painful for you if you’re a trauma survivor. Not surprisingly, Shimer marks shame and trauma as two of the six underlying root causes of addictions.

“Shame makes people feel like they are unable to change because of an inherent personal flaw,“ Shimer also notes.

Next, note that a “shame identity” is a huge obstacle in your path to freedom from porn.

One young man who is only known as “T” recently shared his story of recovery from compulsive porn use. He spent six years — from ages 12 to18 — trapped and feeling worthless and full of shame over his porn habit.

“T” says, “If I didn’t have parents that were so supportive, out of sheer shame and a painfully keen understanding of the judgmental and apathetic nature of people towards pornography addicts I would never have gotten better. Because I hated myself for it so much.”

The article goes on to state: “Shame is part of the porn problem. So many who watch porn feel an enormous amount of shame brought on by others or themselves which makes the issue worse. Many feel like they’re a “bad” person, worthless, or permanently broken.”

“T” credits his recovery to his parents who came alongside him in love and support to help him win his fight with porn. Unlike many, his parents did not use his shame and porn use as a weapon against him. Beautiful compassion, scientific research, and loving support were their tools.

And how did Jenna break free from her crippling shame identity? Mentors showed Jenna unconditional love along life’s path. Over time she recognized her shame triggers. Friends spoke up and named the roots of her shame with her. Abuse is not your fault, but you may need help realizing that. Healing rarely takes place in isolation.

Perfect is an impossible standard, after all — unless you’re talking about perfect love which casts out fear.

Healing wasn’t easy for Jenna. It took real work. Some days she felt hopelessly bad. Sometimes, she remembered she was deeply loved. Other days, she remembered that she was deeply loved by others. There were moments when Jenna’s mind felt like a blender full of guilt, shame, and hope all mixed together.

Hope and love won the day.

How do you break free from shame and porn — the crippling shame spiral?

After working for 30 years as a neuroscience brain researcher — including the study of neuroplasticity — Dr. Caroline Leaf offers some helpful tips based on brain science. Here’s a very brief summary.

1. Name your shame to defeat it.

Dr. Leaf calls this embracing your story. What makes up your story? What memories bring you shame? Take note of these. Naming your shame is a painful but necessary part of creating healthy new connections in the brain.

According to Dr. Leaf, shame creates neurochemical chaos in your brain. Shame also causes toxic stress in the human body. Dr. Leaf is convinced that shame is an underlying cause of the spike of early deaths in the past 40 years from preventable diseases. She notes that the only way to truly get past shame is to identify where shame intersects with your personal life story. Then you can root it out purposefully.

2. Foster a forgiveness mindset.

Forgiveness has two parts — forgiving yourself and others. You’ve messed up. Everyone has. Owning up to your mistakes is the only way to overcome them. When you’ve wounded others, apologies are painful but powerful.

Others will have hurt you, too, perhaps in almost unforgivable ways. Honesty creates healing pathways in the brain. They were wrong! By stating this, you can release yourself from their power over your life. Forgiveness doesn’t require a restored relationship with an abuser. Instead it allows you to let go of shame.

While this sounds so simple, you may need the help of a therapist or a very trusted friend to walk through your wounds with you. Talk therapy is legit. Here’s the gist of how a mental health therapist might use talk therapy:

“… talk therapy may simply serve as a safe place to discuss feelings and emotions triggered by daily stressors, a medical illness, relationship issues, grief and loss, or the impact of a specific trauma.”

3. Recognize that the process of breaking the shame and porn spiral takes time.

Most people quit in the thought detox process at about day 4, says Dr. Leaf. Instead, creating new, positive pathways in your thought patterns may take about 63 days.

Shame and porn use have both trained your brain and created a brain rut. If you persist in identifying your negative thoughts and replacing them, you can climb out of the brain rut! Even better? You’ll begin creating healthy pathways in your brain. Real freedom is possible!

Be aware that the shame spiral can activate your own body’s “fight or flight” mechanism.

Your brain is trying to protect you from further hurt. According to this Harvard School of Medicine article, just the thought of facing stress often activates this mechanism in your brain:

“When someone experiences a stressful event, the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. This area of the brain functions like a command center, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has the energy to fight or flee.”

Instead of flight, a proven shame-fighting tactic is accountability.

Consider bringing an accountability partner into the loop instead of shame spiraling down into the darkness of porn. This tactic creates a safe place to run from shame and porn. Love and encouragement trumps shame!

“Perfect love casts out fear, because fear has torment.”

Real freedom brings you into the light of safe accountability to a safe person. Even having one person cheering by your side makes the fight bearable. Imagine having a small community of safe partners!

Everyone on the Ever Accountable team is deeply moved when clients share things like this statement:

“I would say it has been 100 times easier to stay away from pornographic websites. My relationship with my wife has grown so much since taking the step to let her know my struggles and to put up safeguards like Ever Accountable.  

The shame I once felt is gone …”  Jason

No more shame? That’s real freedom. But, again, you can’t do this journey alone.

The very thought of trusting someone this deeply and becoming vulnerable might be one of your hardest first steps out of the shame spiral.  

Here’s what we KNOW. Choosing the right accountability partner often bolsters your self-worth immensely. Becoming accountable may be one of the most positive experiences of your life.

It’s time to take your heart in your hands and offer it to someone you trust. 

Make a simple list of the people in your life who care about you and are trustworthy and kind. If finding this person is a struggle, you might find an accountability partner inside of a sex addiction (SA) recovery group. Or you may ask a trusted pastor or therapist for suggestions.

If you’re considering accountability, there’s nothing like putting your money where your mouth is! However, you can “try on” accountability for absolutely nothing with Ever Accountable’s free 14 day trial. We’re so thrilled to help you gain freedom from porn!

Rooting out and rewiring old shame and porn patterns in your brain is possible! The process of overcoming pornography IS hard work, but worth every ounce of effort.

We know YOU are worth it.