A self-compassionate attitude can help offset the influence of shame and rumination that often plague recovering sex addicts, a new study finds.
Sex addiction is one of the most common terms for a form of non-substance-based behavioral addiction centered on patterns of sex-related fantasy, thought or behavior that interfere with the ability to lead a stable, productive life. In some cases, inappropriate or dysfunctional feelings of shame may contribute significantly to the onset or continuation of this condition. In a study published in 2014 in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice, a team of researchers from UCLA explored the impact that a self-compassionate attitude may have on the outcomes of people attempting to deal with shame and to recover from sex addiction.
Human beings have an inherent need to engage in sexual activity, continue their individual family bloodlines and continue the existence of the species as a whole. This need is reinforced by a natural brain response that treats sex as a pleasurable, preferred activity. Most sexually active adults manage to place sexual pleasure in a larger, sustainable life context that also includes a range of other needs and goals. However, some adults come to rely excessively on the pleasure produced by sexual activity or by thoughts and/or fantasies related to sexual activity. In a manner that resembles the development of a substance addiction, this over-reliance on sex can alter the brain’s chemistry and lead to a lasting and largely involuntary pattern of damaging sexual behavior. Terms used to describe the presence of such a pattern include sex addiction, compulsive sexual behavior, hypersexual disorder and hypersexuality.
Sex addiction belongs to a larger group of non-substance-based behavioral addictions that includes gambling addiction (gambling disorder), shopping addiction, food addiction and Internet addiction (known in some forms as Internet gaming disorder). In the U.S., only gambling disorder has a uniformly established set of symptoms that doctors can use to make a diagnosis. However, significant research supports the existence of sex addiction and several other forms of behavioral addiction.
Shame and Self-Compassion
The term shame refers to a negative opinion of the self that develops when a person fails to uphold generally accepted standards of thought or behavior, believes that he or she has failed to uphold such standards or fails to uphold a personal standard of thought or behavior. Some psychologists equate shame with guilt; however, others make a clear distinction between the two emotions and note the feelings of regret and responsibility associated with shame.
Self-compassion is a personality trait based on the ability to forgive oneself for failing to meet a socially generated or self-generated standard of thought or behavior. People with this trait typically also view others with a compassionate frame of mind and see their problems as part of the human continuum rather than as a special burden or source of blame.
Self-Compassion and Sex Addiction Recovery
In the study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice, the UCLA researchers used information gathered from 172 men to assess the influence that a self-compassionate attitude may have on the course of sex addiction recovery. All of these men were part of a pilot project designed to identify the core symptoms that contribute to a diagnosable case of sex addiction (i.e. hypersexual disorder or compulsive sexual behavior). In addition, the researchers assessed the role that a shame-filled outlook can have on promoting an addiction to sexual behavior, thought or fantasy. They also assessed the role of rumination, a term used to describe a habit of focusing on the damaging effects of an ailment or situation rather than focusing on treatments for an ailment or solutions for a situation. Specifically, the researchers wanted to know if an attitude of self-compassion can offset at least part of the harm caused by shame and rumination and thereby help a person affected by sex addiction recover a sense of mental well-being.
After completing a detailed analysis, the researchers concluded that a self-compassionate attitude does partially offset the influence of sexual shame and rumination that focuses on a lack of sexual well-being. Practically speaking, this means that adoption of a self-compassionate point of view may help people recovering from sex addiction, but such a viewpoint will not completely undo the effects of shame and rumination. The researchers note the potential importance of their conclusions and called for additional research that targets the complex relationship between shame, rumination, self-compassion and dysfunctional patterns of sexual thought, fantasy and behavior.