First, self-pity, stemming from jealousy and comparing myself to others, was my fundamental problem. Before D-day, if I told myself to avoid porn or available women, sooner or later I forgot my commitment to avoid them, lost my resolve, and wandered back to them.
I’ll digress briefly to explain two parts of my thinking that could seem contradictory if oversimplified. On one hand, every time I cheated I arrived at that action through a series of conscious decisions. I said to myself, “I deserve these experiences.” I did not say to myself, “I did not mean to cheat.” On the other hand, there were two brief moments when I told myself I would stop cheating. One was after my first affair with an AP. The other was after we moved away from a land full of prostitutes. Each of these two times, I briefly said to myself, “I will stop doing that.” When I stepped away from the time and place of those particular sins, I got a little bit fuller perspective on the costs. Each time, however, in the months that followed, in the face of my self-pity, I again made a series of conscious and selfish decisions that set me on a path toward cheating.
My failure was due to focusing on the wrong thing. Porn and sex were symptoms for me. Self-pity was the disease. Now I have identified it, I understand its dangers, and I focus on overcoming it.
Second, I should identify my vulnerabilities. What things make me feel self-pity? It seems like the last time I was drawn in by self-pity I had seen, read, or heard something from a magazine, movie, television show, video, or other people’s conversation that tempted me to compare my pre-marital sexual history to that of other people. That’s usually, if not always, how it happened. Someone — be it a real person in my life, or even a person on television — said something that reminded me that I had been unhappy about my pre-marital sex life.
I can’t prevent that from happening. I can, however, control my reaction to it. The easiest and most successful strategy I have used in that regard is basically to change the channel in my mind. Instead of repeating to myself how much I wished my pre-marital sex life had been better, I can go talk to my wife, kids, or just about anyone about something else, something positive, or at least something unrelated. That helps. The last time I remember that I really struggled with this self-pity was a time when I was alone for several hours, not working, not exercising, and not socializing. Re-directing my thoughts can help with that.
Third, of course I need to eliminate the source of the self-pity: my previous view that God owed me something. I need to remind myself that the past is the past, the present could pass me by if I fail to act, and the future can only be better if I make it better.
Fourth, counting my blessings is a reminder that I have a lot to lose by focusing on self-pity. Now I remember to tell myself, when tempted by self-pity, that I am very lucky to have my wife and kids and that I could lose them by dwelling on self-pity.
Fifth, I need new ways of feeling OK about myself. Before D-day I struggled to find reasons to feel happy about myself. I thought maybe I would like myself if I had been more successful sexually as a single man. That thinking led to disaster. I thought I might like myself if other people liked or admired me. That was hit-and-miss and quite subjective. I thought I might like myself if I got promotions or kudos at work. That was also hit-and-miss and it led to my wife feeling I chose my work instead of her. I thought I might like myself if I continued to improve my health and fitness. That does help a little. But, it seems dangerous to have so many self-esteem eggs in that one basket.
Since D-day, I’ve tried to broaden my ways of finding something good in myself. I can now also try to like myself for successes — however small — in terms of integrity, self-discovery, doing good deeds for my wife and kids, good ideas about society, insightful observations, and taking care of my family. It does help to have more reasons to like myself.
I’m not sure that any one of these reasons, by itself, would be a healthy place to gamble my entire self-esteem. But, it’s certainly healthier than having the majority of my self-esteem depend only on my view of my sexual history, my job, my popularity, and fitness, the way it did before D-day. So now if I start feeling low about myself on account of my pre-marital sexual history, a disappointment at work, or whatever, I can balance that out by recalling something better about myself in other areas such as, for example, integrity, insight, support to family, or other things.
Sixth, I now have permission from my first counselor, Phil, to stop comparing my sexual history to that of others. He said it was a sick obsession. I know this requires some explanation. Before D-day TL had told me that it was sick and wrong for me to compare my sexual history to hers or anyone else’s. Even if I did, it’s nothing that should have made me feel bad. I should not have used it as a measure of my self-esteem. I suspected she was right. But, another part of me was afraid she was wrong about that. After all, television, movies, literature, peers, celebrities, and so many other sources said or did things that made me think a man should measure his self-worth by his sexual conquests.
After D-day, we talked with Phil about how I compared my sexual history to TL’s and became mired in jealousy, self-pity, and feelings of inferiority. Phil quickly and matter-of-factly said, “That’s sick. That’s a sick obsession.” To me, that was a watershed moment, an important lesson, and a touchstone I can continue to use. Phil’s not a genius and I’m not an idiot. But, somehow, Phil being a credentialed professional and a disinterested third-party gave me great faith in those words when he said them. I had wanted, for years, to believe those words. I was grateful to hear them from someone who was male, trained as a counselor, and not personally related to our situation. The sick obsessions were the focus of my self-pity. Mastering the sick obsessions was the key to mastering the self-pity. Being confident that they were just sick obsessions helped, a lot.
Seventh, I’m trying to learn to like myself. One of the deeper reasons for the sick obsessions and the self-esteem crisis was that I didn’t really like myself in some ways. Since I was a child I did not like myself. I liked some things about myself and some things about life. But, there were a few nagging things I did not like. I’ve been working on learning to be OK with myself. That includes focusing on the things I do like, changing the things I can change, and learning new ways to view the things I did not like. This approach helps me stop comparing myself to others and stop succumbing to jealousy.
A final useful strategy to stop comparing myself to others and thus stop feeling self-pity is to look at where I learned that behavior in the first place. I learned it from my mother. She still does those things. Before D-day and therapy, I didn’t even realize that I had internalized those behaviors that are so frustrating in my mother. She’s still unhappy, largely due to those behaviors. Looking at her bad example in that light is a frightening reminder that I can and must reject self-pity.