Help. Hope. Healing.

The Value of Pain

By Mark Chamberlain, Ph.D.


Sex Addiction Recovery Tips from Mark Chamberlain, Ph.D.

The Value of Pain

One day my neighbor and I were setting the posts for a fence to go between our yards. As I dropped one of the 4x4s into the ground, I felt splinters of wood going into my hand. The stinging told me that there were several slivers, but as I looked at my palm I could only see a couple of them. Later that afternoon, after some work with the tweezers, I wondered whether I had removed every one. Then I realized, “I don’t need to worry about finding every last one of them right now. If I’ve left any behind, they will make themselves known.” I knew that pain would draw my attention to the any that still needed to be removed.

There is a parallel between that pain and the pain involved in the work we do recovering from an addiction. As we give up our habitual ways of pacifying discomfort, we feel the pain we have been avoiding. As we do, we deal with the biggest sources of pain–the most apparent problems–first. For instance, LaMar, one of my clients, found that stress was one of the most powerful triggers in his life. He had to find ways to decrease the demands to which he subjected himself at work and lower his perfectionistic expectations for his own performance a few notches. Once he began dealing with stress more effectively and managing his time so that he felt at ease more often, he felt a dramatic decrease in the urgency of temptation to engage in his compulsive behavior.

Three weeks into our work together, however, LaMar came to the session frustrated because he had relapsed to his old behavior the previous Friday afternoon. He described how upset he had been after his wife had criticized the way he handled a discipline problem with their foster daughter two days earlier. LaMar felt like she was “hammering” him, and after the criticism had continued for a time he had blown up at her in an attempt to defend himself and fight back. After that they had given each other the “silent treatment” for a couple of days, and feelings between them remained tense and discordant. On Friday afternoon, burned out from a week of work and conflict at home, LaMar succumbed to temptation.

At first LaMar felt that by violating his resolve and returning to his old ways, he had completely cancelled out all of the progress he had made to that point. “I guess I have to go back to square one and start this whole process of abstinence over again,” he said. However, I described to LaMar how the sliver metaphor can provide a different way of looking at the process of recovery.

“When you struggle again with emotional discomfort and find yourself wanting to go back to your old narcotic, it could be that you are becoming aware of another sliver that has been festering under the surface. You have been working successfully to remove the most obvious one–stress. But now you’re becoming aware of another one–conflict with your wife. Don’t think, ‘Darn it, I am in pain again.’ That is the mentality that led to your addiction in the first place: the belief that pain is bad and must be removed, or at least masked. Instead, consider yourself fortunate, just like someone who discovers another splinter of wood that needs to be removed. ‘I am becoming aware of one more problem in my life that I avoided by resorting to addictive behavior. Now I must work to develop other ways of coping.’”

Over the next several months, LaMar and I worked together to prevent relapse by resolving the challenges he became aware of, one by one, as he abstained from compulsive behavior. When we had almost completed our work together, LaMar came down with the flu, which put him out of commission for several days. “Staying home alone for three days from work was a real challenge,” he said. “With all of the unstructured time and the strong desire to feel better than I was feeling, my mind naturally reverted to the way I used to soothe myself.” I pointed out to LaMar that he had just discovered one of the few remaining slivers. Just as he had developed other ways to handle stress and conflict with his wife, we could now brainstorm about methods for comforting himself when he was in need of physical nurturing. Together we came up with several: cozy blankets, warm baths, lying in the sunshine, listening to certain radio stations, comfort foods or drinks, and starting a small collection of heart-warming videos.

Even though we no longer meet together on a regular basis, I know that LaMar may give me a call when he struggles with temptation again. The need for follow-up sessions may be frustrating to LaMar, but it won’t be to me. That is because I know that if he finds himself craving his old narcotic, it may be because he is feeling some pain. And pain, I have learned, is not such a terrible thing. It is what draws our attention to and helps clarify the problems in life that need to be resolved. Much worse would be a problem that caused no pain, like a sliver that festered and caused infection, but never hurt enough to demand our attention.

Mark Chamberlain, Ph.D. is Salt Lake City-based clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of sexual addiction. He can be reached at 801-564-7566. His offices are located at 1258 West South Jordan Parkway, Suite 202, South Jordan, UT and in Davis County at 1785 East 1450 South #233 Clearfield, UT. Mark is author of Wanting More: The Challenge of Enjoyment in the Age of Addiction and coauthor of Willpower Is Not Enough: Why We Don’t Succeed at Change. He specializes in the treatment of addictions and compulsive behavior. Contact Dr. Chamberlain to try out his eWorkbook, “Turning from Other Dependencies to God.”

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