Effective Communication Skills in Recovery

When considering the manner in which you communicate, there will need to be some immediate changes made. This includes every single one of you — no matter how well you think you communicate currently. Once you develop these skills, once you have implemented these changes, you will have removed a major obstacle along your permanent recovery path — as the implications of altering your communication style impact a great many areas that influence your values (currently, that influence is negative; soon, it will be positive). The goal for today will be to learn how to communicate in a manner that reflects self-respect, honesty, integrity and an overall healthy identity. These changes may not feel comfortable at first…so what. Push through the discomfort and you will be rewarded with a major step forward in your recovery.

There are several areas of communication that we will explore: self-talk, online behavior (chats and discussion boards), social situations, communication with therapists, sharing with significant others/family/friends, trigger situations (i.e. learning to say "no" to acting out compulsively). But first, a little background: For most, learning to communicate in a healthy, positive way comes naturally for those who have been raised in a healthy, nurturing environment. With a solid foundation of values, people are free to communicate openly without having to worry about exposing their "secret" selves. This openness is not usually the case for those who have struggled with sexually compulsive behavior. For us, our ability to communicate has often been significantly diminished by our attempts to hide our behavior — including the guilt, shame, embarrassment and other such consequences of that behavior (e.g. prison, affairs, lack of accomplishment, unfulfilled potential, etc.).

This is not to suggest that people with addictions cannot communicate. In most cases, it is quite the opposite. Their adeptness at communication is what allows them to continue on with their "other life" without their secrets ever being detected. Their spouses never know, their friends, co-workers. It is their communication skills, and their ability to "say all the right things" and "act normal" around others that lead to their double life. Eventually though, it all catches up to them and they are faced with a potentially catastrophic situation.

Romantically compulsive people frequently have the ability to "communicate" on levels that others simply cannot match. They frown upon small talk, and believe it is a waste of time in social settings — preferring instead for deep, meaningful conversations. With small talk, they realize that there is no possibility for an "instant connection" to those they are talking with. It is instead a slow, drawn out process that they feel completely uncomfortable with. It is too unpredictable. Too stressful. They are no longer in complete control of the conversation. While they are engaged in deep conversation, romantically compulsive people have a phenomenal ability to remember all of the lies (both past and current), and to naturally steer the conversations away from topics that might threaten to expose those lies. This occurs as a result of the trance-like state they put themselves in — a state that just can't be reached when engaged in superficial conversation.

Eventually, when superficial conversations can not be maintained for even the shortest while without extreme discomfort being felt — say, in a long-term addiction where all but the most basic values have been eroded — social isolation tends to set in.

And group conversations? Forget it. The sexual/romantic addict is a master at remembering exactly what story he/she is telling, why he/she is telling it, "planning ahead" for the impact of the story, and measuring the outcome of the story. At the same time, he/she is also calculating past stories with this person, and setting them up for future conversations. Part of their extraordinary ability to communicate with an individual is in their ability to read a person's body language and subtle inflections. This is impossible in a group setting. There are simply too many distractions to allow the trance-like state needed for his/her preferred type of meaningful communication.

There is significantly more to the roles of communication in sex/love addiction. Including the reasons behind romantic stalking, voyeurism and other "fantasy-oriented" social behaviors. These will be discussed on an individual basis depending on your own specific past. Let us turn our thoughts to several different areas of communication to consider, and what changes must be made to your own communication style. Emphasizing that once more: …what changes MUST BE MADE…to your own communication style.

Communication in Recovery

There is a phenomenon in early recovery, where many people feel compelled to share every last detail of their compulsive behavior — to unload all of the secrets that have burdened them for so long. And while this may feel wonderful at first, it frequently is a source for much regret and shame later in recovery. Keep in mind, you cannot un-ring a bell. So the people you choose to share your past with, should be chosen with great care. When you err, err on the side of sharing too little information — with everyone but your therapist. The following offers a few guidelines with what to communicate to others regarding your past:

Areas of Communication

Self Talk

We all talk to ourselves. It's the "inner voice" that helps us interpret the things we perceive. For an addict, this voice usually filters everything through guilt, shame, helplessness, hopelessness, failure, weakness, etc. Those are all destructive filters that eat away at your values. This needs to change. Hopefully, the change began when you let go of guilt and shame earlier in the workshop. Realistically, letting go of such a perception is sometimes easier said than done. You now need to make a real effort (and for most of you who have already let go, and are proceeding with forgiveness in your heart, the following skills will help you solidify that decision) to let go. We are no longer dealing with "the foundation", but have come to the point in our lives where it is time to take action. The actions to take regarding self-talk are:

1) Every negative self-thought must be challenged. Every time. Prepare yourself to be looking for negative thoughts and when they occur, explore them thoroughly. For example, I am sitting at my computer and accidentally click on a site that has porn. Though my plan calls for me to immediately click off of that site, and type in one of my alternate "safe" sites, I realize that I stared at the pictures for a few minutes before clicking away. This led to thoughts of guilt, frustration and shame. I hated myself for being weak. I hated myself for knowing that underneath it all, that monster still lives. After realizing how destructive these thoughts were, and how out of balance they were with all of the progress that I have made, I quickly praised myself for all of the progress I have made, read my list of reality statements (we will be creating these later), and felt good that I had successfully recognized that I was faced with a potentially destructive situation, and learned from it, rather than let it set me back.

2) Create a list of five important affirmations (positive statements) about you, your life and/or your long-term goals. Whether you believe in affirmations or not is not an issue. Do this. And every morning for the next forty-four days, read this list to yourself before you leave the house. If you feel silly, then feel silly. If you think it is a waste of time, then so be it, but do it anyway. You will be developing a new way of communicating with yourself that will later be altered to reflect a more natural approach.

Online Communication

Your on-line communication must also follow a certain pattern. Whether your communication is through e-mail, discussion boards or live chat, for the next forty-four days, ensure that what you say meets the following criteria:

1) When discussing your destructive behavior, talk in terms of how that behavior is changing, not how bad it was at one point in your life.

2) When discussing other people's behavior, stick to facts, personal insights and maintain a "growth-oriented" focus. Ask questions that bring out other's values.

3) In all cases, get to know the people, rather than their addiction. In return, share yourself, not your addiction.

4) When you talk of slips, talk in terms of what you have done since that slip to continue your personal growth. There is nothing wrong with "slipping", as that sometimes cannot be helped in early recovery; there is, however, something wrong in accepting that slip and not actively learning from it so that the potential for future slips decreases. That is your responsibility. If you recognize that you have slipped, recognize also that you have a responsibility to use that slip as an opportunity to grow further.

5) Limit your "online conversations" to no more than thirty minutes per day (the exception to this is when you have established "real life" friends/family who you communicate with via online. But for all relationships developed "online", excluding what is expected in the daily lessons, limit your online communication to no more than thirty minutes/day for the next forty-four days.

6) Finally, in all situations where any of your boundaries are being jeopardized, walk away. End the conversation. Politely, but firmly. You are the only person that is responsible for monitoring yourself. For managing the changes that are taking place. Do not trust anyone else to do this.

Significant Others/Family/Friends

Regarding communication with a spouse (or family member/close friend), there are a lot of variables that need to be taken into consideration. Your relationship with that person, for one. Contrary to what may seem logical, and contrary to what your spouse may believe…absolute honesty is not always the best policy for developing communication skills. It is not in your best interest, nor is it in the best interest of the relationship. Not when behaviors that include the possible destruction of the relationship (or your self-esteem) are involved.

That is not to say that lying (or avoidance) is the goal either, it is not. But it is possible to be honest, and share only what you feel comfortable sharing while maintaining your pride and dignity. It involves requesting time to grow, respect for your privacy, and to pursue your sincere desire to change your life. Those who care for you will want nothing less. Never forget this. You have the right to put this lifestyle behind you, and nobody has the right to stop you. But it is up to you to communicate that right to others. If you allow guilt to make you feel like you are less worthy, you will not succeed in recovery. Granted, in some extreme situations, the consequences felt by others will be lifelong; and you may be held responsible for your past actions, but there is no better true show of remorse than a complete recovery. You will be working with your coach to examine ways of communicating with people who are asking questions that you may not feel comfortable answering.

Therapist

When considering what to say to your therapist, the answer is simple: everything. Let your therapist be the one place that you open up your vault of secrets and clean out your entire closet. Until you do this, it will be a matter of playing games to see if your therapist can put together a puzzle with a bunch of missing pieces. That is not in your best interest. If you are seeing a therapist, share everything and everything with him/her…and let true therapy begin. If the therapist is any good, they will know what to do with the information. If the therapist is not, you will have saved years of wasted time.

Trigger Situations

There are social situations, especially involving romantic addictions, where the communication style will trigger the need to act out. It is important to recognize these triggers and practice in advance how you will handle them. For years, whenever a woman would tell me how special I was, I would develop a compulsion to sleep with them. Whether I was attracted to them or not, I felt their loneliness and pain, and wanted desperately to make them feel better. Once I recognized this, it only became a matter of learning how to communicate my feelings in a way that reflected both my compassion for them, and my respect for myself. It was only a matter of learning how to say it. We will be working with some of the more common communication triggers that people face.


Learning to communicate effectively is a skill. Anyone can master it, but you must first know where to begin. For the sex/love addict, this is that beginning:

Troubleshooting

There are five communicative trouble areas commonly found in those struggling with compulsive sexual and/or romantic behavior. Some may find that all apply to them, others merely one or two.

Shyness — Everyone knows what it means to be shy, but only those who suffer from shyness can know how excruciatingly painful this affliction can be. Whether learned or genetic, shyness often begins at an early age, disrupting the development of healthy patterns of communication. Like most skills, the earlier the onset, the greater the disruption. Left unchecked, shyness can infiltrate just about every value in that person's life. The consequences can range from isolation to promiscuity; from fantasy to obsession; from depression to apathy.

Perfectionism — Another communicative problem that some addicts face is that of perfectionism. The need to always say exactly the right thing, or to forever act within the bounds of a particular image. Ironically, this image often parallels their very weaknesses — that of being socially adept. To perfectionists, the pressure to always have the right answer, the right anecdote, the right witty come-back, or the most compelling question — all while maintaining a facade of natural ease — makes regular involvement in social situations intolerable. Their social skills have diminished to the point of performance, rather than a forum for open communication. A performance for which there is no room for mistakes. Often, the perfectionist will guide the conversations to ready-made topics — topics where he/she can be seen as having extreme intelligence, intuition and/or depth (e.g. religion, morality, meaning, death).

Shame — While we have gone over shame previously, in terms of communication, shame paralyzes a person's ability to communicate effectively. Effective communication requires each member of the interaction to listen to what is being said and respond to what is being said with their own honest thoughts. The initial dialogue is spontaneous, as are the patterns of response. Shame forces the addict to look ahead. To someone struggling with addiction, a successful conversation is not when there has been an increase in knowledge, values or opinions, but rather, success is seen when a conversation has been completed and there were no hints given towards revealing their shameful secrets. Often, those who hold onto shame become quite adept at avoiding conversations altogether, or in implementing other techniques for avoiding potential intrusions into their "other world" (e.g. humor, intellectualization).

Dishonesty — Closely associated with shame, those who use dishonesty as part of their protective barrier, do so at the expense of their own value development. Often, lies are created to protect the shame that lives within; other times, lies are created to compensate for a perceived lack of value. Still other times, lies are nothing more than a step in the addict's attempt to manipulate their target. Whatever the reason, the consequences are the same: an absence of long-term intimate relationships; an absence of self-respect; and an enormous amount of energy that is spent to avoid detection. What this means specifically to conversations, is that a person who routinely uses dishonesty in their communication style, has a tendency to avoid large groups (too many chances of being caught); an avoidance of repeat conversations; and a lack of opportunity to receive accurate feedback from others.

Confession — The final communicative problem is one that is surprisingly common in addiction, and mentioned earlier in the lesson: that of telling everyone everything about their addiction. Akin to the lack of boundaries found in the addictive behaviors themselves, there also exists a lack of boundaries in communicating with others. This may be characterized by someone who tells their co-worker intimate details of their recovery; by someone who reveals problematic issues on a first date; or by someone who martyrs their issues as evidence of their sincerity to recover. Such a "confession" not only blocks the paths of communication, but often offends those on the receiving end. To the addict, it may "feel good" to confess such burdens to others, but confessing to the wrong people, or at the wrong times can stimulate further isolation, humiliation and shame.

These five concepts are by no means inclusive of all the issues related to communication problems involving someone struggling with a sex/love addiction, but they are common, and can all be eradicated. Recognizing their presence in your own style of communication is the first step. The next is to learn the appropriate boundaries in regards to what to say, how to say it, and to whom. The intention is not to pre-program your responses, but to create a set of rules for which spontaneous interaction — and thus, effective communication — may occur.

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