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Ask a Latter-day Saint therapist: I can’t stop looking at pornography

Editor's Note: The views, information, or opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author. Readers should consider each unique situation. This content is not meant to be a substitute for individual, professional advice.

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Q: I can’t seem to quit pornography. It’s eating me up inside. I look in the mirror and I don’t like who I see. I feel unworthy to approach my Father in Heaven. I hate myself a lot of the time and run to the very thing that destroys me in order to feel better, even for a moment. How can I get out of this cycle permanently? 

A: Thank you so much for asking this. Please know that, while the adversary is invested in you feeling like garbage, the fact is we are all fallen. We are all broken. We all need redemption. We all need Christ. Specifically as pertains to pornography, there are a lot of very good people who are, or have been caught in that trap.

Remember the words of Paul: “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Here are some tips to help you through this.

Turn to Heavenly Father immediately. Satan wants you to believe that God is harsh, critical, and cold. Lucifer would have you think that you can’t come back, that God is tired of you, that He’s lost faith in you. The adversary wants you not to pray, to think that your attempts at repentance are a joke, and that you’ve messed up so many times that Heavenly Father is not interested until you, of your own power, can get this under control. But the truth—the simple, pure, alleviating truth—is found in the scriptures. “Yea, and as often as my people repent I will forgive them their trespasses against me” (Mosiah 26:30). The Lord is already on your side. He is not looking to condemn you. He is looking to deliver you. As many times as you sincerely repent and try again, He’s right there to help you.

Seek priesthood guidance and support. It’s not about being judged. It’s about getting support. It’s about following the Lord’s pattern. It’s about showing that your heart is broken and spirit is contrite by confessing. Can I tell you something? I’ve fought this fight. That’s right, this fight we’re talking about right now. It took years for me to successfully put it behind me. Every time I’ve confided in a bishop I’ve been blessed, relieved, and received inspired guidance. I’ve never felt judged, shamed, or scolded. I’ve felt loved. Most importantly, I’ve felt the warm embrace of my Heavenly Father as I follow His pattern to be "cleansed every whit" (3 Nephi 8:1).

Identify your patterns. When are you most likely to view pornography? Where? Under what conditions? Is it when you are alone at the office? Alone at home? Late at night? What are the emotions that precede it? Boredom? Anxiety? Self-loathing? Depression? Loneliness? Identifying your patterns can help you to interrupt them.

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Turn to healthy replacements. Turn toward the light. I once had a bishop tell me, “You can’t turn off the dark. You have to turn on the light. That’s how you get rid of darkness.” If you’re most likely to view when alone at home, what can you do to have company or reach out to others? When you’re alone at the office, can you crack open a door or open the blinds so that you’re not entirely alone? If it’s when you’re bored, what can you plan on doing so that you’re engaged in a good cause or appropriately entertained? If it’s when you feel depressed, anxious, or lonely, what are healthy replacements that you can put in pornography’s place? I found, in my darkest times, that having a tab open on my computer with videos about the Savior was a powerful tool. Without thinking, I’d quickly open that tab and watch videos about Christ. Within minutes the temptation had faded. When lonely, I’d seek connection with people in need or just with good friends and family. When anxious or depressed I’d turn to exercise.

Mourn the loss of “the rush of doing the wrong thing.” This is something that rarely gets talked about, but it’s so crucial to recognize. Doing right brings peace, yes, but doing wrong is a rush. I may enjoy a candy bar I pay for. I may feel self-satisfaction in working for it and enjoying the fruits of my efforts. But stealing the candy bar is a rush. There is a little illicit thrill in doing what’s wrong (always followed by remorse of conscience, which we may seek to numb with more wrong behavior). Pornography is designed to excite. Thematically, it’s almost never about healthy relationships, but rather forbidden, taboo, meaningless, immoral, and abusive ones. It’s wrong. Truly quitting means making peace with losing that rush in your life. It means trading that little thrill for the greater joy of a clear conscience, of self-respect, of closeness with the Spirit, and with the ability to enjoy healthy intimate relationships, whether now or later.

Don’t beat yourself up. I once heard an institute teacher say, and I believe this to be a true principle, that “God would rather have your obedience than your misery.” In other words, when you stumble, get right back up as quickly as possible like Rocky Balboa after taking a punch. Know the difference between healthy guilt vs. debilitating shame. Healthy guilt is short-term. It’s directed at a behavior, not at your identity. It says, “I’m a child of God. I’m better than this. I need to rise above it.” Healthy guilt motivates repentance. Unhealthy shame, however, is directed at you as a person. It says, “You’re trash so you might as well act like trash.” It tells you you’re worthless and not worth saving. It does not come from God. Remember what Paul taught: “Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing. For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death” (2 Corinthians 7:9-10).

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Involve the right people. A bishop once told me that Satan thrives in secrecy. He wants you to believe that you’ll be rejected, judged, and thought less of if people knew your struggle. While some may judge, most people respect those who humbly fight the fight with their temptations. Most importantly, the people who’ll respect you become your greatest allies. Whether it’s a therapist, a spouse, a support group, family, or friends, robbing the adversary of the power of secrecy, confiding in trusted allies to be there for you when you’re tempted, or when you’ve stumbled, is a huge, huge part of recovery.

Don’t quit. You can’t let your guard down on this. Not ever. Joseph in Egypt was tempted. King David fell. The moment you think you’ve got this beat is the moment that you’re most vulnerable. I’ve still got my guard up. I still take precautions. And I still work every day to stay close to the Redeemer. Refusing to quit, refusing to give up on yourself, on your loved ones, on the gospel, and on the Lord, will help you overcome when you feel like surrendering. That’s been the secret to my success. It’s through Christ.

Rely on the Savior. He can turn weaknesses into strengths. He can give us power beyond our own. He can bring to pass a mighty change in our hearts “that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually” (Mosiah 5:2). The fight may be long. It may be hard. But it is worth fighting. You can’t win without Him. With Him, however, all things are possible. I know that from my own experience. My testimony of that is based in my own life.

For further reading, I strongly recommend the Church’s pamphlet on overcoming pornography “Let Virtue Garnish Thy Thoughts” as well as its site Addressing Pornography: Protection, Help, Healing.

God bless you. I hope this helps.

► Related content: The perfect thing my husband did when he discovered pornography on our child’s device

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Jonwe

Jonathan Decker, LMFT, Contributor

Jonathan Decker is a licensed marriage and family therapist and clinical director of Your Family Expert. He offers online relationship courses to people anywhere, as well as face-to-face and online therapy to persons in several states. Jonathan has presented at Brigham Young University Education Week and at regional conferences in Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. He is married with five children. Contact him here and join his Facebook group for daily gospel-based relationship tips. 

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