Ask an Expert: Am I Addicted to Porn?

By Lance Dodes 02/19/15
Today's question is on the difference between liking porn a lot and being addicted to it.
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How do I know whether I am a sex/porn addict or if I just like porn a lot? I watch it all the time." - Seth

 

Lance Dodes:  This question is part of a broader issue: If I do something a lot - or even if I do it too much for my own good - does that mean I have an addiction?  Fortunately, the answer is "No." That's because addictions aren't the only reason for doing things too much. We all take some actions because we like them, even if we know they're harmful in the long run.  Eating sugary food is an example. The immediate pleasure overrules our judgment. But this behavior will probably change depending on growth and circumstances. If the doctor tells you that you've developed Type 2 diabetes, you will probably cut out eating junk food, no matter how much you enjoyed it.

Another reason for overdoing is habit. We sometimes call addictions "habits" but true habits are very different - they are simply automatic actions we no longer need to think about. Putting your shoes in the same spot each night or checking your email first thing each morning are examples. If we had to think about all the actions we perform automatically we'd have little time for anything else. The important part of habits is that they have no deeper psychological meaning. They are not compelled activities, driven by emotional need or serving an emotional purpose. For that reason, they are pretty easy to stop, once you've made up your mind to do so.

But addictions are precisely the opposite. They are compelled actions, driven by emotional needs and serving an emotional purpose. For those reasons, they are very difficult to stop, even if you want to.

This brings us back to your question. Seth, you're wise to want to know the answer, and you can go a long way to figuring it out by running an experiment. You first need to make a firm decision to not watch pornography for a significant period of time, say, two weeks. If you have been watching just for pleasure, this will be a loss but you should be able to do it.  

The same applies to watching as a habit.  You might find yourself automatically linking to a favorite porn website, but you will be able to stop before you get there if this is just habit.

But, if you cannot keep to your decision, then you will have discovered that your behavior is driven by stronger factors. In that case, I recommend that you keep track of each occasion that you think of watching pornography, and focus on what just happened in your life, or what feeling you just had, prior to the pornography thought. If you have a true addiction, you will notice that there is always something that stressed you - made you feel frustrated or overwhelmed or helpless. I described a variety of examples of this in my second book, Breaking Addiction, and you might find it helpful to take a look at those. If you have a true addiction, you will also find that you are quite angry at being deprived of your behavior, even though you are the one depriving yourself. That anger arises because you are preventing not just the behavior, but the emotional solution which the behavior serves.  If you discover that you do have a true addiction, it would be wise for you to address it quickly.

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Lance Dodes, MD, has been Director of the substance abuse treatment unit of Harvard’s McLean Hospital, Director of the alcoholism treatment unit at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and Director of the Boston Center for Problem Gambling. His books, The Heart of Addiction, Breaking Addiction: A 7-Step Handbook for Ending Any Addiction and The Sober Truth, have been described as revolutionary advances in understanding how addictions work.   Full Bio.

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