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Defensiveness Hinders Recovery From Addiction

Don't let the fog of defensiveness dilute your commitment to recovery

Sheffield Media Group
Source: Sheffield Media Group

Recovery from an addiction takes a huge investment of energy. That energy is less available when diluted by defensiveness. Addicts can create their own defensiveness, but they are also surrounded by a cloud of defensiveness generated by would-be "advocates."

For example, addiction to internet pornography has grown rapidly in recent years and some suspect it has boosted sex crime. Many people seek help for this habit and an effective behavior modification program has emerged. is full of testimonials from grateful individuals who have gotten their lives back. But this successful program is constrained by a cloud of defensiveness.

Curiously, it comes from two opposite directions: those who say pornography is not an addiction and those who say it is. The anti-addiction view is that societal puritanism has stigmatized a natural behavior. The pro-addiction view is that dependence on internet pornography is a symptom of a deeper disorder so it's wrong to just treat the symptom.

Both positions obscure the facts articulated so well in Gary Wilson’s TED talk, The Great Porn Experiment. The human brain wires itself from experience. Adolescent experience is especially powerful because that’s when our brain myelinates the pathways we've used and prunes neurons we don't use. Early experience wires sexual response without effort or intent. Today we have a generation of young men who grew up experiencing a new and extreme kind of sexual stimulus that is not adaptive for real-life intimacy. Many individuals in this generation find themselves with a habit that erodes their relationships, their productivity, and even their arousal in a human-to-human context. The behavior modification program provided by has helped many of them build the new habits they urgently want, yet its success is hampered the roar of defensiveness.

A similar fog of defensiveness surrounds recovery tools for other addictions. Recovery is hard work. A person is less likely to commit to it when surrounded by narratives that minimize the impairment, make others responsible for it, or attack solutions for failing to meet a hypothesized criterion. Such defensiveness may be well-intentioned, but it extends suffering.

Addiction is learned behavior, and recovery is simply new learning. Our brain is not good at un-learning, so recovery means wiring in new habits to substitute for old ones. This is hard because sustainable new behaviors are less immediately rewarding than old ones. Without that surge of happy chemicals to pave neural pathways, it takes lots of repetition. But who wants to repeat a behavior that's not immediately rewarding?

Carving a new pathway through your jungle of neurons is as hard as slashing a new trail through the Amazon. You're less motivated to blaze a new trail if there's a super-highway nearby, even though that highway leads where you don’t want to go. And even if you do the hard work of slashing a new trail, the jungle grows over by the next day. You must repeat a new behavior every day for an extended time for the new trail in your neural jungle to establish itself. (My book Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin levels has the details.)

It's harder to persist with these trail-blazing efforts if you are told that you don’t really have a problem, or someone else should fix the problem, or this new trail won't work. Avoid the defensiveness that dilutes your energy and you'll have the new life you've longed for. You'll be glad you did!

More from Loretta G. Breuning Ph.D.
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