Managing Your Superpower [Part 2]: What Recovering Sex Addicts Can Learn from Mister Rogers

I don’t know about you, but I am fascinated by Fred Rogers! Something you may or may not find odd about my fascination is that until recently I only knew of Mister Rogers by name; I had never even seen a single episode of the classic children’s program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. If you’re curious as to how a middle-aged therapist from the plains of Oklahoma all of a sudden became mesmerized by the man known as Mister Rogers, then I would encourage you to read part one of this two-part series – What Mister Rogers Has in Common with Sex Addicts.

As outlined in the aforementioned article, I am convinced that Fred Rogers was an empath, which, in my opinion, means that he encompassed a superpower that left to its own devices, could be very hard to manage from day-to-day.  You may think that the superpower I speak of is empathy, which may be defined as “the ability to imagine oneself in the condition of another…”. While this is true, empaths experience empathy much differently than most people from my experience. It seems to me that most people have to be very intentional with their empathy.  It’s often a skill set that grows and develops over time in humans, but it is never mastered.  Empaths seem to come by empathy naturally; but not the type of empathy as defined above.  Empaths experience empathy with more intensity and regularity. The Collins English Dictionary defines it best – the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another’s feelings. For empaths like Fred Rogers, this is not just something they have to do from time to time as a healthy social and relational skill, it’s a way of life; and without proper management, it can be quite overwhelming. [check out Judith Orloff’s “Top 10 Traits of an Empath”]

As I established in part one, I believe that many people battling sex addiction share something in common with Mister Rogers – they, too, are empaths.  A major difference between Mister Rogers and sex addicts, is that Fred Rogers somehow figured out how to manage this superpower in a way that may have been considered odd by some, but effective nonetheless.  It is not uncommon for sex addicts to feel overwhelmed by their feelings, so in response they become exceptionally skilled at compartmentalizing.  They are so good at this that addicts and their partners are often resistant to the idea that sex addicts feel too much, because it often appears they feel too little if anything at all.  While it is true that not all sex addicts are empaths and the ones that are have to work diligently to reconnect with their empathic selves, feeling “too little” simply doesn’t fit from my experience in treating sex addicts.  Sex addicts often feel the suffering of the world around them.  Thus, when they do reconnect with their superpower, they need to learn to properly manage it.

What better person to learn how to manage this superpower than Fred Rogers?  If you really think about it, his program –  Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – was all about teaching children and adults how to manage feelings. Here are a few lessons that sex addicts can learn from Mister Rogers on their journey to reconnect with their inner-empath and manage the superpower that lies therein.

“Do you know what the most important thing in the world is to me right now? Talking on the telephone to Lloyd Vogel.”

Mister Rogers

Mister Rogers was fully present. In the 2019 major motion picture, It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Mister Rogers (portrayed by Tom Hanks) uttered those words during a telephone conversation with a journalist that had developed a reputation for being cynical and non-empathetic. They were barely into their conversation when Fred Rogers already had this jaded writer disarmed. But how? “What was his trick?“you might ask.  Well, there could be many reasons, but I believe it was a combination of Mister Rogers’ authenticity and presence.

Have you ever thought how important it is to us be seen?  Can you remember the last time you really felt seen and heard by another person?  Fred Rogers seemed to be the type of person that gave his complete undivided attention when engaging with any one individual or group.  I imagine he was the type of person that would have made you feel like you were the only two people in the world during the moments you spent with him. In doing so, he gave people a voice.  You likely have heard the classic George Berkeley quote that goes “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Well, let me ask it a different way, “If you are speaking your voice and no one is around to listen, did YOU make a sound?”  The obvious answer is “of course I made a sound because I would have heard myself speak.”  But, “making a sound” and “feeling heard” are two different things.  Fred Rogers was present in such a way that not only did people feel heard, they believed that they mattered to him.

Sex addicts are usually ill-equipped at this skill.  This makes sense given that they often manage their feelings by means of escape.  For most sex addicts, reality often hasn’t been very kind to them; thus, they use distance strategies as a way of survival.  Learning to be present in their full authentic selves completely goes against their natural instinct for survival.  Mister Rogers demonstrated throughout his life and his work the power of an authentic presence.  He shows us what it looks like to disarm and offer healing to another through the use of love and gentleness as opposed to force and violence.  The challenge posed by his method implies that only the unarmed can effectively disarm. This sets the context for healing.  Think of it this way. The lifeblood of a healthy relationship is vulnerability. Healing is found in vulnerability; and vulnerability begets more vulnerability.

“What about you, Tom? Did you have any special friends growing up?”

Mister Rogers

Mister Rogers made healthy use of his imagination. The above quote comes from a 1998 article in Esquire magazine authored by journalist, Tom Junod, called “Can You Say…Hero?”  This is the publication in which the recent feature film was based.  In the article, Fred Rogers is asking Tom Junod to tell him about his most special imaginary friend.  Mr. Junod proceeds to dialogue with Mr. Rogers about Old Rabbit. After reading this, I remember thinking about how awkward it must have been for Mr. Junod, a grown man, to be asked in a very sincere way about his childhood imaginary friend by another grown man.  It seemed strange, yet endearing.

How strange is it really? Can you imagine living in this world without the use of imagination? Books, television, movies, the entire entertainment industry, which is highly valued in our culture, is dependent on fantasy and the use of our imagination.  Think about the last book you got lost in, or the last movie that had you on the edge of your seat, or that one play that made you cry.  When we engage in such experiences, we know what we are seeing isn’t real, but it doesn’t feel that way.  To our hearts, it feels very real – not all that different from an imaginary friend.  Mister Rogers could have easily asked Mr. Junod about his favorite character in Lord of the Rings, or his feelings about what happened in chapter 27 of the Half-Blood Prince (….Harry Potter fans know what I’m talking about!!).  But he didn’t.  He wanted to know about something much more personal to Mr. Junod.  He wanted to know more about Old Rabbit.

As part of my fascination with Mister Rogers, I listened to a fantastic podcast about his life called Finding Fred. In this iHeartRadio production, I learned why puppets and imaginary friends were so important to Mister Rogers. In a nutshell, for various reasons, a young Fred Rogers found it difficult to make friends among his peers.  How lonely it must be for a child to go through life with no friends. Children are great survivors; and young Fred was no different.  Since he couldn’t make friends, he literally MADE his friends.  In fact, a couple of the characters you may have enjoyed from watching Mister Roger’s Neighborhood were actually young Fred’s childhood buddies. One of the most loveable of young Fred’s childhood comrades goes by the name of Daniel Tiger.

Sex addicts also use their imagination as a means for survival.  Famous basketball player, Shaquille O’Neal, in his autobiography appropriately named Shaq Uncut, discusses abusive treatment he experienced as a child. He also talks about how he would get lost in his imagination visualizing himself as someone important.  He even recalled a time in college when he would drive down the street pretending to talk on a fake car phone so other drivers would see how important he must be.

Utilizing the imagination as an effective tool for coping with trauma is simply a short-term solution constructed by your brain’s instinctual desire to keep you alive.  Unlike Fred Rogers and Shaquille O’Neal, sex addicts don’t stop with their imagination, they also utilize secrecy and shame as part of their formula for survival.  Shaq’s imagination helped him escape some very difficult realities he had endured in his childhood and young adulthood; but he ultimately utilized his imagination to help him advance to the NBA and will likely be known as the most powerful center to ever play the game.  Young Fred Rogers used his imagination to create for himself much needed friends.  His imagination and his make-believe friends led him to create a popular children’s program that spanned five decades where he impacted millions of children and families.

Mister Rogers and other icons, like Shaquille O’Neal, serve as great examples for sex addicts on how to use their imagination, as unorthodox as it may seem, in ways that spotlights identity, drives productivity, and encourages prosperity.  As a sex addiction therapist, I will never fault or shame my clients for using their imagination for reasons of survival.  I hope to teach them to not be afraid of their imagination, but to use it in a functional shame-free way that offers an avenue for effective coping strategies and the pursuit of dreams.

“There is no person in the whole world like you; and I like you just the way you are.”

Mister Rogers

Mister Rogers saw the world through the lens of compassion.  The above quote is quite profound, is it not? To think that there are seven billion people on this planet and there is only ONE like me? That’s almost as special as it gets! My mind can’t even fathom it.  The part that gets me the most about this quote is the second half – “…and I like you just the way you are.”  How many of us can honestly say that about every person we meet?

I believe Fred Rogers was sincere in this statement; but, allow me to address what I think he is saying and what he is not saying.  First of all, I don’t think Mister Rogers is saying that he can be friends with just anyone; but instead, he is saying that he can be friend-LY to just about everyone. Secondly, Mister Rogers isn’t saying that he never gets irritated or annoyed by people or that he doesn’t irritate or annoy other people. He is saying, however, that the experience of being the agitatOR or the agitatEE is okay because it is part of what makes us human.  Lastly, Mister Rogers isn’t suggesting that we avoid making changes in our lives in effort to make way for a healthier, happier existence; however, he is saying that who we are at our core is good… why wouldn’t anyone like that?

As a mastered, functional empath, Fred Rogers seemed to be exceptional at seeing past the bullshit and into the goodness of each and every individual he encountered.  If he were to encounter a sex addict, I have no doubt he’d use his x-ray vision to see through the armor of shame and deceit; he’d utilize his hulk-like strength to smash the barriers of denial; he’d use his sword of love to penetrate the heart to bring about life and healing; and he’d use his lasso of truth to reveal to you, the sex addict, who you really are – a good and valuable soul that is worth the trouble of saving.

“Feeling good about ourselves is essential in our being able to love others.”

Mister Rogers

Mister Rogers was an advocate for self-care.  There is so much that can be learned from Mister Rogers when it comes to taking care of ourselves.  I’d venture to say that most people, including Fred Rogers, would agree that self-care, although necessary, is not a task easily mastered.  Here are a few lessons we can learn from the master himself.

  • Rituals. Developing a healthy ritual that is performed routinely is good for us.  On Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, every show begins with him entering the door, exchanging his coat for a sweater, then moving to the couch to change his shoes.  When we have rituals like these, it helps our brains transition from one state of existence to another.  Maybe Mister Rogers just came home from a hard day’s work and his clothing ritual helped his brain shift from work-mode to family-mode.
  • Mantras. I am a big fan of mantras.  I, myself, find that I repeat a lot of the same things over and over again in my personal life.  In my professional life, I like to share my mantras with my clients in effort to give them the words to help drive them forward.  Mister Rogers also seemed to find value in mantras. “Won’t you be my neighbor” is a mantra that even I knew; and I never even watched his show as a kid.  Mantras are good for us because they help us remember what is true and what is false, what is good and what is not-so good.  Mantras help us to quiet the noise around us and focus on our purpose in life or even the task at hand.
  • Exercise. According the 2018 documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and the 2019 major motion picture, “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Fred Rogers swam a mile every morning.  I think Fred Rogers knew he had a lot to offer the world and he had a responsibility to share it.  Being responsible with the vessel he occupied – his body – was important to him; and taking care of it was the first thing he did on any given day before he did anything else.  In other words, Fred Rogers loved others enough to love himself first.

There are so many other things we could talk about that would serve as evidence that Fred Rogers was an advocate for self-care.  These were just a few that stood out to me.

Self-care is another challenge for sex addicts.  Usually in the beginning stages of the development of addiction, the addict uses their drug of choice for enjoyment or even to “take the edge off.”  They discover that the drug works so well, they start using it routinely and ultimately become dependent on it. As this happens, shame enters stage left and becomes the lead character in this story.  Sex addicts usually feel an immense amount of shame.  Over the course of treatment, they often learn that that shame has deep roots, but on the surface it appears they are riddled with shame simply and solely because of the nature of their addiction.  This, in turn, leads them to feel like they are undeserving of anything good.

I think Fred Rogers understood something about love that a lot of people don’t – the best way to love another is to love yourself first. Although sex addicts have a hard time loving themselves, I believe them when they tell me how much they love the people that surround them – their spouses, children, parents, siblings, etc. – and they are tired of hurting them. My job then becomes and effort to try to help them see that the best way they can love the people around them is to learn to love themselves.  In fact, if Fred Rogers were alive today and he were to come to my office and meet the sex addicts I work with, he would truthfully tell them that “there is no one in the world like you; and I like you just the way you are.”  If sex addicts in treatment and recovery could learn to say those words to the person staring back at them in the mirror, and mean it, they just might find they have little to no use for their addict anymore.

I am grateful for the man commonly known as Mister Rogers.  His life serves a good model, in my opinion, for what it means to live as a healthy human being in this world.  This is true for sex addicts, too.  Allow me to close this article with the following letter:

Dear Sex Addict, Tortured Soul, Hidden Empath,

I know it is hard for you to see that you are not the sum of your actions.  Yes, your behavior likely has hurt people you care about; and it most definitely is not a sustainable way of life.  But, what you DID is not who you ARE.  As you work with your therapist, coach, or recovery team, I hope you can begin to see that you are a lot more like Mister Rogers than you realize today.  You will begin to recognize that you hurt; that you suffer; and not just the pain that has been inflicted upon you in the past. But, you feel the pain of others, too.  You’re often accused of seeing sex everywhere you turn; but the reality is that you likely see suffering everywhere you turn.  This world assuredly has not been very kind to you; and it continues to poke at your wounds every time you see it injure another living soul.  You may feel like it is too much to bear at times.  I believe Mister Rogers felt these things, too.  This keen awareness that I speak of is your superpower.  If you are not already, I hope you will take the necessary steps to learn to harness this power; learn to manage it; and then use it for the good of humanity.  Sadly, Fred Rogers was still human and he is gone from this world.  The question remains, “Will you pick up the torch?” because our world needs another Mister Rogers in it……and this time, why stop with one?

Start your journey. Stay the course. Godspeed.

Joshua Nichols is a licensed marital & family therapist and certified sex addiction therapist.  He is a co-owner of Family Solutions Counseling, a multi-therapist private practice group in the OKC metro area.  He is also a co-owner of nourishED, an intensive outpatient treatment center for those suffering from eating disorders.