Managing Problematic Thinking | Counseling | Therapy

Managing Problematic Thinking

Jennifer , MS, LPC, PHD — Clinical director

Managing your problematic/persuasive thinking is a big part of sexually compulsive behavior recovery. Whether it’s rationalizations or thoughts persuading you to engage in compulsive behaviors, they need to be managed as part of your recovery process. Everyone has thoughts that are problematic and persuade them to do things that are not good for them. Individuals who have struggled with compulsive sexual behaviors have a lot of difficulty with problematic thoughts. Also, compulsive behaviors such as giving yourself permission over and over to continue your compulsive sexual behaviors to cope with emotions, and achieving feel good highs can contribute to regular problematic thoughts. We can’t control what we think. What we can control is how we react to what we think and how we decide what thoughts to give attention and what thoughts are problematic and need to be dismissed. Managing problematic thinking for your recovery may sound easy but it’s not. The reason is that we often develop ingrained patterns of what we think and how we then react. We are often not even aware of the pattern and problematic and persuasive thinking just moves along on autopilot.

Problematic/Persuasive Thoughts

For the purposes of this recovery tip, problematic and persuasive thoughts can be thought of as rationalizations to engage in negative behaviors, denials of problems or issues, or you could refer to them as pro-compulsive behavior thoughts. Basically these are the thoughts that are trying to get you to engage in behaviors that is not healthy for your recovery.

Examples include:

“Maybe I can go to a massage parlor one more time.”

“I can do this on my own. I don’t need a recovery program or to go to meetings.”

“I know exactly why I do these behaviors. I don’t need a therapist to help me stay sober”

“I don’t need to work on recovery. I went to treatment and I am fine now.”

The thoughts themselves aren’t the problem. It is how you respond to them. In fact, it’s not odd to have them, but if you believe them and then act on them, they will get you in trouble. Say that the thought is “Maybe I can go to a massage parlor one more time”. A person could react to that thought in several different ways:

  1. Talk back to the thought: “That thought is bullshit. I know that there is no way I can do that again. I have been down that road before and it always leads me back to acting compulsively”. This person will likely do something to support their recovery such as contacting a supportive friend, socializing doing a positive activity with others, go to a meeting, etc.
  2. Believe the thought: “I really think I could do that. Lots of other people can go to a massage parlors whenever they want. If I try hard enough I can be one of those people. I am going to do it”. In this situation, the person will most likely follow through with the behavior and fall back into compulsivity right away or at some point. If falling back into sexual compulsivity doesn’t happen right away, it likely will happen as going “that one time” reinforces the idea that it is possible to control and it won't become a problem again. If a person was compulsive in the past, they are highly likely to develop it again.
  3. Taking action: Yet another way a person could respond, is by recognizing that the thought is a problem and needing to take some action to manage the thought such as talking to a sponsor, going to a meeting, speaking with a therapist, or speaking with a supportive friend.
  4. Ignoring the thought and pretending it doesn’t exist: Another person may choose to ignore the thought. This response will likely not be effective as we need to acknowledge that we are having problematic thoughts. Ignoring them and hoping they will go away can lead to acting on thoughts without thinking as thoughts can get stronger and more demanding if they are not acknowledged.
  5. Dismissing the thought: This option sounds like ignoring the thought but there is a difference. Dismissing the thought means acknowledging that it is there but knowing that it does not need your attention. This option is a much more advanced response when a person has established a regular pattern of having the vast majority of their thoughts being recovery based.

Gaining Awareness

The first step is gaining awareness of your thoughts in order to understand your pattern with responding to them. Do you automatically act on them without thinking? Do you believe your thoughts because if you are thinking them, they must be true? What if you don’t even recognize that you are having them? Pay attention to the thoughts that you are having regarding your sexually compulsive behavior and recovery and record them in a journal. It will give you a good idea of your patterns. Here are some examples of questions:

What thought do you have that prompts you to go to a meeting or hang out with recovery friends?

When you experience an urge what thought do you have?

When you have a memory of engaging in a problematic behavior what thought do you have?

When you think about engaging in problematic behaviors, what is the thought?

When you think about skipping a meeting or don’t feel like calling or meeting with your sponsor, what is your thought?

When you experience a trigger, what thought do you have?

Managing Your Thoughts

Once you have a good awareness of thoughts and your pattern, step two is learning to manage them. One way to manage them is to recognize that they are just pro sexually compulsive behavior thoughts and to dismiss them as thoughts that you do not need to attend to. However, these types of thoughts can be very persistent and convincing and it can be very difficult to just dismiss them. One of the best ways to manage them is to contradict them with recovery based thoughts. So, if you have the thought, “maybe I can go to the massage parlor one more time”, the other side responds with “I know going to the massage parlor just once never works. I will want to keep going.” Another really good way is something you may have heard before which is to play the tape out. So your thought is “maybe I can go to the massage parlor one more time”. Tell yourself the rest of the story. Keep going until you play out the whole scenario to the end. For example, you go once and then you want to go again. You will continue to go and be less productive at work, miss work, isolate from others, spend a lot of money, etc. It is much easier to manage a pro-compulsive behavior thought if you are able to tell yourself what will likely happen from that one decision.

It is very useful, especially in the beginning of learning this skill, to involve other people. Talk about your thoughts to others and what the recovery thought is. No harm will come from involving other people. Others will help to reinforce that recovery thought and keep your head from trying to ignore it. Pro compulsive behavior thoughts are powerful and involving others helps to take their power away. Recognizing and confronting these thoughts takes a lot of practice and assistance from your friends, your recovery community, and a therapist are essential. An outside person, such as a therapist can help to identify your problematic/persuasive thoughts and your patterns of thinking. Patterns can be difficult to see on our own and a therapist can be very helpful in identifying what may not be obvious to you. If you would like to see a therapist to assist you at The Center for Growth, please call 215-922-5683.

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