When a reader writes in asking for help with her porn problem, the first thing I tell her to do is tell someone (other than me). In some cases, she has and has been met with rejection, ignorance, or had her struggle brushed off as being insignificant.
We are more likely to open up and share our stories when we know it is safe. The reason women e-mail me asking for help is because they know they can. (I can’t offer one-on-one help or counsel but for many women, knowing they are heard is comforting in and of itself).
When a woman takes a risk to start this conversation, it is just that- a risk. And there is a risk she won’t be heard, or, even worse, will be shamed for her struggle.
What should you do when that happens to you? Learning how to process through and handle those feelings of shame and rejection can actually help free you from the fear of sharing your story with others.
When you share your struggle, the reaction can span a wide variety of possibilities. You may be met with rejection or acceptance, grace or shame, wisdom or ignorance. We’re going to look at each of the negative possibilities, but first a few pointers to help steer the “confession conversation” in the right direction.
Choose Wisely Who You Tell
For some reason, many of us get this idea in our heads that everyone needs to know our struggle. We swing between two extremes: tell no one or essentially brag about it to everyone.
Here’s a secret: the world doesn’t need to know your business.
It’s tricky, because for many, the only way they hear about women struggling with porn is through people like myself who have gone public with our stories. But freedom isn’t found in “going public.” Many of us went public after finding freedom.
What you may not realize about me is that my private life is separate from the one here on the blog. I don’t go around introducing myself as the woman who used to watch porn. In real life, I’m known for basically anything other than this. If someone in my personal life needs this resource, then I share my story with them. Otherwise, if you were to run into me on the street, my struggle with pornography would be the last thing you would learn about me.
Tell people who need to know, and not everyone needs to know.
Your husband? Needs to know.
Your employer? Probably not.
The family you’re babysitting for? Probably not.
Your counselor? Yes.
Your class of students if you’re a teacher? No.
Your teacher if you’re a student? No.
Every member of your church? No.
The guy you just met for coffee? No.
Avoid turning your story into a shock and awe campaign for attention. It’s an intimate part of who you are and it’s ok to be discrete with it. You should tell somebody, but you don’t need to tell everybody. For more on finding a safe person, read this post here.
What to do when someone rejects your story.
First, it’s important to realize that people react poorly to situations they feel ill-equipped to handle. For instance, if you’re walking down the street and two guys are in a fist fight, more than likely you’re not going to jump in there. You’re going to stay a safe distance away and call someone else who can help (ie. the police). You’re not ignoring them; you’re just not inserting yourself into the situation because it won’t help.
Sometimes, when we share our stories, we share it with someone who doesn’t know what to do with it. Because women and pornography is still such an uncommon conversation, they don’t have a number on speed dial they can call. Every online search for help you’ve run is the exact same one they’re going to run, and they’re going to find little.
They’re going to feel helpless. Let’s face it, people don’t like feeling helpless.
That means a poor reaction to your story could have little to do with you. It might have everything to do with the receiver feeling uncomfortable or unsure.
We all respond to discomfort differently.
Downsizing the problem– You may recognize your problem as large and out of control, but someone else may see it as small and insignificant.
It’s a difference in perspective but also a management technique. The first step in tackling a big problem is to try to shrink it down. They may balk at words like “addiction” and tell you you are being dramatic. And, truth is, you might be. Many women who e-mail me talk about addiction but then follow it up with how they just spent six months with no porn. That’s not an addiction but it doesn’t mean the struggle is any less significant to the woman experiencing it! If someone tries to downsize or brush it off, don’t be dramatic, but do explain why this is so important to you. If they still don’t listen, they aren’t going to be able to help you.
Overreacting but not helping– You have come simply for help but now they seem to be going overboard, managing (micro-managing) your life.
Some people react to discomfort by trying to manage things around them, even if that’s you. You have shared your struggle with this person and, in absence of direction, they are going to do everything they can to fix this. In some cases, this is great. Some of us need a good motivation, but others don’t appreciate being micromanaged. It’s important to remember this is most likely done out of love. This person probably wants to help you. They just don’t know how. Give them direction. What exactly can they do to help you?
Doing nothing– You share your story hoping this person will help you, but then it’s like they vanish. You needed them, but they aren’t there.
This is something many of us do when we’re overwhelmed by a task ahead of us- we shut down. Again, if the person you told doesn’t know what to do or feels inadequate to help you, they may withdraw. This can also happen if you told someone and expected too much from them. Other commitments can pull people away, and you should not expect anyone to be available on demand 2/7.
When you share with someone, give them a plan for how they can help and ask them if they think they can do it. Allow them to put boundaries in place based on what they feel comfortable and know they can do. Don’t misinterpret healthy boundaries as rejection.
But then there are people who outright shame and reject you.
I feel like it’s important to note that this is rare. Often we interpret one of the response above as rejection or shame when it isn’t meant to be such.
However, there are cases where a person you tell will exploit your story, use it against you, or mock you for it. I experience this as well in both public and private spheres.
In cases where a person rejects you and your story, you have to remember what it is they are actually rejecting.
My family comes from very staunch religious roots. I wrote about my relationship with my mother in my book, Beggar’s Daughter. Over the years, that particular relationship has healed, but the conservative roots in other parts of my family still run deep. For that reason, most of my family doesn’t know of my book and has never read it. Yes, there are times I feel a bit like a secret agent.
For good reason.
Recently, some members of my extended family did find out about my story. Instead of saying anything to me about it (because they know that won’t end well), they chose to throw it in my mother’s face as an example of bad parenting. My story was used as a weapon to attempt to shame both my mother and myself.
“We just found out Jessica struggled with this…”
a) like it wasn’t in a book
b) like I don’t speak about it from stages around the world
c) like I haven’t been free for over ten years.
As far as they’re concerned, struggling with pornography as a teenager is just as bad as if I were binge watching it this morning. My mother has received numerous pieces of “Biblical” advice on how to be a better parent (even though I am now 33, married, and haven’t lived with her in over 5 years). It’s like time didn’t move on.
And that’s the thing with people who don’t understand grace: for them, time changes nothing.
The “shameful” part of my story is only part of my story. It may be pornography, lust, lying, cheating… we all have that “bad part” of our story. We all have the part of our story that makes us need grace.
Sometimes, you are going to run into (or be related to) people who are convinced that part is the only part of significance. They’ll try to convince you you can’t move on and you have to stay there or that you have to shut up about it and pretend it never happened.
When my family members throw my past in my mom’s face, when people try to judge me for my past, they are willfully choosing to ignore the most important part of the story.
I tell it; they just refuse to acknowledge it.
They aren’t rejecting me. They are rejecting grace.
That’s what shame is- a rejection of grace. And, frankly, that’s not my problem.
The same can be true for people in your life. If you share your story, ask for help and they try to treat you like you are beyond help, they are wrong. That’s a lie.
In those moments, it can absolutely hurt. It can be devastating. It can make you want to give up and not even try. But you have to remember, they aren’t rejecting you. They are rejecting grace and the change God wants to bring into your life. That’s on them. Not you.
Take time to heal, forgive (because there’s grace for them too), draw healthy boundaries for that relationship, and keep walking in grace. Keep pushing forward. Don’t let one person’s misunderstanding or poor view of grace convince you that you can’t find freedom.
It can be hard when it feels like you tell people over and over and keep getting “rejected.” But remember that what you see as rejection might actually be a person not knowing how to respond. Give them grace and try to help them help you. If it’s a case of someone rejecting and shaming you outright, remember they’re rejecting the potential of grace in your life, forgive, and move on.