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The Single Biggest Mistake I Made When First Trying To Quit Pornography

A sign with the word epiphany on it..
In this article, I share the epiphany that transformed my pursuit of sexual integrity.

Some people use the term “porn addict” loosely to refer to anyone who struggles with pornography, while others reserve it for the most severe cases of addiction. I, for one, have never identified as such. I think identifying the problem is important, but identifying ourselves with the problem less so. Luckily for me–unlike many of my friends and peers–I did not get hooked on pornography at an early age. This was due primarily to a lack of easy access and the presence of some parental oversight (link).

However, I did struggle on-and-off with lust and pornography for years, beginning in my early twenties. I knew it wasn’t the right path for me, and I could identify early on the negative effects it had in my mind and emotions. At worse, I relapsed a few times a week. At best, I relapsed once every few months. And I regretted it every single time. In fact, looking back on my life, I have relatively few regrets, and lust is high up on the list.

That said, I tried quitting pornography almost immediately after it became a problem. I installed filters on my phone, established accountability relationships, read books, prayed, meditated, limited screentime, and resolved “never again.” I achieved some success intermittently, to be sure. However, I always felt like there was a part of me that needed an outlet—a restlessness, a compulsion, an emotional unease deeply rooted within me.

The Art of Becoming

I was prompted by some of the anti-porn literature I was consuming to work on becoming the kind of person who didn’t need or want pornography instead of using bully tactics to artificially change my behavior. This insight was transformative. I learned that if I could change my identity, the change of behavior would come naturally. Maybe for once it wouldn’t feel like I was fighting an uphill battle.

But what you have to realize is a part of who you believe you are, a part of your identity is attached to your compulsive and addictive behavior with pornography. So, if you don’t change yourself first—if you don’t start from the bottom up and change who you are and who you are becoming, then the quitting aspect is never going to be sustainable.

Frank Rebuild Your LIfe

Pornography was having a destructive effect on my life. It was separating me from the root of my problems and impairing my ability to cope. I needed to stop the behavior to keep things from getting worse (See First, Do No Harm). However, I realized that unless I treated the cause, and not just the symptom, I would never be free. I would continue to find myself in an endless cycle of success-relapse-success-relapse. Or, in the best case, I would simply replace pornography with another bad habit or addiction.   

I realized that unless I treated the cause, and not just the symptom, I would never be free.

I was carrying a lot of trauma and tension from my past. My parents got divorced when I was a young teenager, after which I was raised by my mother and didn’t have much contact with my father for years. In college, while I was a good student, I suffered from chronic pain and various health issues (testimony). Fear, anger, and shame were big players in my life, whether I liked to admit it or not. Rarely at ease, my mind was constantly searching for a distraction, a remedy, an escape from the reality that something inside of me was broken.

I like to say, how we medicate our problems says a lot about our character. It is true that the correlation between pain and addiction is not inevitable. However, given our fallible nature as people, we see this pattern repeated time and again. As we resolve our trauma and tension, we often find that our behavior improves naturally and effortlessly. In the meantime, we don’t want to throw oil on the fire, salt on the wound, or add insult to injury. However, the best evidence for healing is that we lose all interest in the problematic drug or behavior.

A Word on Vision

Beyond addressing fundamental questions of identity and healing, the beneficial effect of having a vision in life to break a pornography habit or addiction cannot be overstated. Vision gives us something meaningful to pit against our desire for instant gratification. In other words, vision elevates the stakes of our choices; the more compelling our future, the greater the opportunity cost is of engaging in a bad habit or addiction. In the case of pornography, it is constructive to analyze the specific ways in which it undermines the vision we have for our lives. 

There is no favorable wind for the sailor who doesn’t know where to go.

Seneca

I like the way Jordan Peterson explains the importance of vision to break free from an addictive process. For him, vision is an essential element, not an optional accessory, of any winning approach. While Peterson was directly addressing a question about smartphone addiction, he generalizes his answer to apply to other behaviors like drugs, alcohol, and pornography:

Often, what people have to do to get themselves out of an addictive process is to find something better to do to replace it… It can be personal. Maybe you want to have a relationship. You want to get married. You want to have kids. You want to have a career that’s meaningful. You want to have a life. You want to have an Abrahamic adventure and be the “father of nations”… And so I think part of [the solution] is to set your sights high, and make a plan, and figure out who you could be, and see if obsessive utilization of smartphone fits into that vision of nobility.

Jordan Peterson in How To Solve Addiction Simply (Jordan Peterson)

Today, the crux of my strategy to live free from pornography entails staying connected to others, starting with the Creator. It involves intentionally dealing with trauma from my past and attending to my mental health on a regular basis. It means immersing myself daily in activities that bring me closer to where I want to be in life. Last year, I also implemented dietary changes. No more added sugar and trash food, within reason—a resolution I have stayed true to quite nicely during the last few years. I never had a weight issue; however, I strive to become the kind of person who doesn’t indulge in anything that isn’t good for me. As I like to say, excess in one area is a threat to moderation in other areas.

Porn is the high-fructose corn syrup of sex.

Dave Asprey

Quitting pornography can be hard, especially early on in the process as our brains are first beginning to rewire. It also takes time and effort to develop strategies and tools that empower success. However, if quitting is still hard months or years later, that is likely an indication we have deeper issues in our soul that are duly deserving of attention.

I leave you on a high note with a favorite quote of mine from Mark Queppet that captures the magnificent scope and unparalleled opportunity of quitting a pornography habit or addiction. It is excerpted from a viral video he uploaded entitled “Quitting Porn Is the Rite of Passage for the Modern Man”:

When men go through this process, popularly called “reboot,” they experience a huge number of positive side effects that go beyond just the realm of sexual health. They become stronger, more disciplined, more focused. They reconnect with a vitality in life. They gain strength that then enables them to go on and do other, more positive things. And it seems like once a man is able to navigate the field of porn–be able to quit porn–he’s able to navigate these other vices, these other issues, and develop a lifestyle that can really help him show up as the man he wants to be.

Mark Queppet

For more, see the complete archive of articles on integrity.

Cornelius
Cornelius
An intellectually curious millennial passionate about seeing people make healthy, informed choices about the moral direction of their lives. When I’m not reading or writing, I enjoy hiking, web-making, learning foreign languages, and watching live sports. Alumnus of Georgetown University (B.S.) and The Ohio State University (M.A.).
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