Your Symptoms Are Your Greatest Teachers: The Problems You are Trying to Annihilate Are Actually Teaching You Something Profound

I judged my compulsive struggle with pornography, until I realized what it actually meant. I avoided my anger, before it hit an intolerable level, leading me to see the sacredness of its presence. Or my sexuality and what my desires illuminated. Or my sadness. And my fear. The list could go on.

Pushing away these “problems” were the actual problem. Denial. Splitting. Rationalizing. Comparing. Deflecting. Projecting. Regardless of the defense, it is an act that vilifies some aspect of us in which we do not want. Or we despise it. Hate it. Label it demonic or attribute it to some evil force. Another way to maneuver through the unwanted issue is to draw up some Divine reason for why it exists. Maybe it is my burden to bear. God must be teaching me a lesson or humbling me. So on and so forth. 

One can conclude from all of these approaches that we have great difficulty in grappling with our struggles. They become forces of torment, one’s in which we, in moments, violently castrate from ourselves. The attempt to annihilate it indicates the degree of judgment, fear and discomfort we experience with carrying such “issues”. 

What if it is the exact opposite of how we are to treat these components? In all the energy we spend exorcising these parts of ourselves, only to increase their haunting presence, instead we could be learning from them, allowing these “issues” to be the greatest teachers. What if embracing them was more healing and transformative than any effort to ostracize them away from ourselves?

In my past, and what I would experience in my faith community, were strenuous efforts to eradicate the problem, instead of embracing its presence, welcoming the opportunity to learn from this “sage”. Sadly, this would not happen. Behavioral and cognitive actions were the only instruments to dealing with any struggle. Judgment imbued in questions, which only led to the heart closing up, instead of opening and healing. Distracting one’s self or thinking about how the other person’s pain to stop our actions or praying or devoting more to some cause seemed to be the only help.

But it never got “rid” of the problem. It just intensified their existence. They were actions that perpetuated avoidance, instead of drawing upon them for guidance. Clearly, we knew very little how invaluable and meaningful these struggles really were and are. 

These “problems” are the voices that we attempt to silence, much like the brave ones that challenge the systemic toxicities that exist within humanity. Such voices are calling us to look at the actual problems and address them. However, the terror of facing and acknowledging what actually is the issue (which leads to rupture) is far greater than snuffing out those voices and living in denial, continuing to live in some self-constructed security that convinces us that everything is ok.

So, those symptomatic voices within yourself that manifest in your behavior is not a haunting force, but instead a beacon of light, calling you to look within.

Let me be more concrete.


How Pornography Brought Me Closer to My Heart

I wrote a while ago on pornography and I provocatively titled it, “How Pornography Can Draw Us Closer to Our Hearts”. This writing was inspired by my own experiences which shaped my judgements on porn’s existence. I assessed the destructiveness of pornography’s presence in this world because of my own personal unresolved issues. 

However, the issue was not in pornography itself, but in my clandestine engagement of it. It was the hiding that created the compulsion or “addictive” tendency, not the outlet itself. But the reasons I was engaging with pornography were communicating something that judgment and shame prevented me from seeing.

Now, let me first say that there is pornography out there that is unwaveringly destructive and harmful, displaying sex in a toxically distorted way. Violent, abusive, destructive, coercive, degrading forms veer far from what the sexual experience is made to be; which, is enjoyable, mutual, intimate, playful, sensual, and connected. And I believe that such toxicity needs to be addressed, but not in the ways we (society, faith communities) have gone about doing so.

But bringing it back to an individual level, one may learn more from exploring this pull towards viewing pornography than to strenuously guard themselves against it. The act of forbidding something only draws us to it with greater intensity. Even the act of forbidding deserves an honest look. Why do we go to great lengths to make something illicit, which creates more of a draw to turn back to it? What are we avoiding by doing so? Is there another way to address the problem that greatly reduces if not eliminates its force in our lives?

I believe so, but it will take a shift in perspective and a bold commitment to embrace its presence in our life in order for change to happen. 

Keeping it personal, earlier this year, my 12-year “abstinence” with pornography came to end. The return back to it was at first riddled with shame. What had I done? I ruined 12 years of commitment. I felt this wave of disorientation come over me. It was overwhelming and a fog of disillusionment set in. All this judgment swelled up within me and I could feel myself beginning to slip into realms of self-hatred.

But something within me was not okay with this aftermath. I no longer wanted to live haunted and obstructed by shame. I wanted to get to the heart of what was really behind me viewing pornography.

The next day, still in the traumatic haze of shame, I went to the lake, finding a safe spot to emote. I felt this anger well up inside me that I displayed by throwing rocks and breaking sticks against trees. I argued with God and I felt anger towards the shame that was attempting to pull me into defeat and despair, then leaving me to tear myself apart, until reconciling all of this pain with another vow of committed avoidance. 

Yet, something was different in me. I knew that would no longer work, the unending tug-a-war between engaging in some “forbidden” act and then finding ways to avoid it, all fueled by judgment. 

So, I fought through, eventually articulating the truth behind looking at pornography, how my deepest desire was to be intimately connected with a woman and how pornography touched that desire quite strongly. I expressed my greatest longing to experience this in my own life, and that pornography was the blatant display of this need. 

It was a much needed and significant moment that led to another significant moment. When I stopped trying to vehemently push this “issue” away, I began to learn from it. No longer, was I drawn to the pornography I once looked at as a teenager. It was fascinating to see what I liked and what I did not. The authentic pleasure of a woman was quite exciting and satisfying. I was turned off by inauthentic or feigned displays of pleasure, men dominating women and the focus being solely on men’s pleasure. 

I only gravitated towards those that which displayed sex in an erotic, mutual, respectful, reciprocating, sensual and enjoyable way. When shame ruled over me, I could not see any of this, or why I turned to pornography in the first place. I was imprisoned by my impulses, which only led to burying this struggle further down. And hiding it, prevented me from learning.

My “addiction” in the past was not caused by pornography, but hiding and I hid it out of fear of loved one’s judgment. Sadly, when I did open up about it, I was judged, which inevitably caused me to not talk about it. I was alone in my struggle, and understanding my sexuality, including someone willing to inquire about my desires and what I look at. 

Without shame and judgment, pornography does not have a hold over me. I don’t ruminate on it, mentally attempting to push it out of existence, only for it to come back with vengeful force. Learning about my desires has led to embracing my sexuality and longings for intimate connection. I feel more connected to myself now than I ever have.

I am aware that it is a risk to share this, especially when the majority of the voice is to demonize and eradicate pornography. But it is an illusion to think that we will rid something just by treating the symptom, instead of the root. If you really want to invoke change, then you must be willing to travel further, beyond the symptom, into the actual reasons we act in the ways we act. I speculate that when we commit to this way of living, we will actually discover the true heart beneath the “monster”. 


Once You See, Everything Changes

This personal experience has changed everything for me, including the way I work with people in therapy. I hear the symptom and the ominous presence of shame and judgment in their words, and I lead them to look further than what they cannot see because of these oppositional forces. Whether it is pornography, an affair, anger, cutting, lying, OCD, etc. all of it is a signal of something more, the heart crying out to be seen and heard. 

It is a rewarding experience, to help others become authentically connected to themselves, to begin listening within and to learn from their struggles which teach them accurately about what is missing, what they fear, what they avoid, and the other impediments that stop them from truly living and being connected with all of life.  

Adding to that reward, specifically, is the enjoyment of helping men become connected to their sexuality. I hear the cries underneath the pain of men hungry to connect with their wives, but lost and terrified in knowing how to. 

One client of mine, believing that he looks at pornography because he is “horny” and likes the naked female form, confessed that he looks at women that specifically look like his wife. Why? Because he wants to be connected with her! However, there are impediments in the way of their connection that he experiences, of which he is not yet aware. His viewing of pornography is the expression of this deficiency and struggle. 

An affair indicates something similar, that there are contaminates within the intimate connection of two committed lovers. 

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is the attempt to deal with future pain, pain that stems from past hurt and trauma. It is the cries of rage and agony.

Anorexia is rage turned inward, rage towards loved ones that were highly controlling and critical. 

We must be willing to face our judgments of both our and other’s behaviors, because there is so much more going on underneath the surface. It is a hard and yet rewarding path to take, to begin to see the problems that exist in the world are beyond our initial presuppositions. These issues are teachers, guides and sages, beckoning us to listen, to listen to the voice that is crying out to be seen and heard and to be loved.  

May you begin to embrace your problem, not as some illicit, “sinful” act, but one that is mirroring an inner need that is longing to be acknowledged and cared for. And may that kind of embracing lead you do so in like for others that are hungry for an encounter with a love they have never experienced.