“Anything that is human is mentionable; and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.” – Fred Rogers
I have a confession to make – although I am very familiar with the cultural icon, Mister Rogers, I didn’t exactly grow up watching Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, which aired from 1968-2001. I had never even seen an episode until recently. So, if you are wondering why I would be writing an article with Mister Rogers as a central theme, trust me, I am just as surprised as you are, maybe even more.
A few weeks ago, my wife’s birthday made its annual debut. In celebration of this fine day, I had already made plans to take her and the kids out to dinner. I asked her that if I could get a babysitter, would she also want to go to a movie? I wasn’t surprised that she jumped at the opportunity; we’ve always enjoyed watching a good story on the big screen. Later that day, she texted me that she wanted to see, “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” a biographical film based upon the real-life friendship of Fred Rogers (i.e., Mister Rogers) and Tom Junod – a journalist whose profile piece he wrote on Fred Rogers for Esquire inspired the movie.
In all honesty, I was a bit disappointed that this was the movie she wanted to see. I was kind of hoping for something that was a little more action-packed; but, since it was her birthday, I didn’t pout or complain. I ordered us the tickets and off to the cinema we went. It didn’t take long, maybe 10 or 15 minutes, before I leaned over toward my wife in the theater and whispered, “This movie is awesome!”
When I came out of that movie theater, I walked out a Mister Rogers fan! Since that time, I have read about Mister Rogers, watched several clips of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, engaged in quite a few conversations with older, more seasoned fans, and even listened to an entire podcast series devoted to him called “Finding Fred” hosted by best-selling author, Carvell Wallace. I am now trying to figure out how to incorporate his work in my therapy practice.
A Tortured Soul
Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Fred Rogers was quite amazing! Big surprise, huh? Hanks clearly depicts Rogers as an empath – a man deeply connected to the world around him, particularly with those that are suffering. He deeply cared for the lost and wounded. He felt drawn to them, like a magnet looking for right piece of metal. As I watched the life of Mister Rogers unfold on the big screen, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Mister Rogers was a tortured soul – a person tormented on a daily basis by the pain and suffering of the world; a person that simply feels too much. Oddly enough, I have often found myself saying the exact same thing about sex addicts in recovery. That connection is what inspired me to write this piece.
It feels weird coupling “Mister Rogers” and “Sex Addict” in the same sentence, much less the same story, right? Well, that is our shame and preconceived notions telling us that sex addicts are selfish, disgusting, and defective people. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The sex addicts I have worked with over the years are some of the best people on this planet in my opinion. I know many of my colleagues would attest to the same. They not only are your physicians, teachers, ministers, etc., they are also your brothers/sisters, mentors, best friends, and even your spouse. They are good people; but they are people that are hurting nonetheless.
“Hurt people, hurt people.” – Rick Warren
Sex addicts have been understandably labeled as non-empathetic, unfeeling, hard-hearted, and a number of other adjectives that suggest they are ill-equipped in the world of emotional connection. It’s true that most sex addicts do have trouble empathizing with others. I actually refer to empathy as “the sex addict’s Everest.” After all, sex addiction is commonly referred to as an attachment disorder. So it comes as no surprise that empathizing with others is quite the learning curve for sex addicts, but it is achievable nonetheless. The struggle here is not that sex addicts are emotionally stunted. Emotionally ill-equipped, yes, but being emotion-LESS or not having the ability to feel the emotion of others couldn’t be further from the truth. I think it is quite the opposite. You see, many sex addicts, similar to Fred Rogers, seemed to have this supernatural ability to deeply feel the suffering of the world. The difference between a sex addict and Fred Rogers is that Fred Rogers figured out how to appropriately manage this superpower; whereas, sex addicts learn to put their feelings in a box, duct tape it shut, and shove it all the way to the back of the shelf with the hope of never seeing it again. In short, sex addicts become expert compartmentalizers. They become so good at this, that over time they become emotionally illiterate to the point that trying to identify and describe their feelings would be like searching for a needle in a haystack. In fact, without working a recovery plan, I’d put my money on the needle.
Nothing Shy of a Superpower
When I am visiting with addicts about this phenomenon, I often refer to the ability to feel suffering as deeply as they do as the closest thing we have to superpower. In today’s world, we are fascinated with “superheroes.” Fictional heroes such as James Bond and Rocky Balboa seemed to have taken a back seat to comic book heroes, such as, Spiderman and Wonder Woman; and why wouldn’t they? After all, 007 may be the world’s most magnificent and untouchable spy, and the Italian Stallion can pack one helluva punch; but, Spider-Man and Wonder Woman have super powers!
Although Mister Rogers, sex addicts, and other empaths can’t fly or shoot laser beams from their eyes, they often do feel pain in ways that others can’t understand. I don’t think we are going to see that type of superpower in any upcoming Marvel movies, but the ability to feel the energy of suffering to the depths that they often do is nothing shy of a superpower in my book. The problem is that sex addicts, unlike Mister Rogers, tend to have a hard time managing those feelings without the help of a substance; but not just any substance – one that has the ability to open the flood gates of dopamine which creates quite the numbing affect. In fact, out of all the reward centers in our brain, there is no greater natural reward center than that of our sexual brain. For the sex addict it’s “Goodbye pain and suffering; hello momentary peace and tranquility.”
“If you cope with your darkness in darkness, you will likely do dark things to cope with it.” – Joshua Nichols
So, as it turns out, a lot of sex addicts, similar to Fred Rogers, experience suffering very deeply. Although they both use their imagination as a primary coping mechanism, sex addicts aren’t openly and honestly utilizing puppets and public servitude to manage those feelings; instead, fueled by shame and trauma, they venture into the darkest corner of the soul where they find secrecy and deceit. That kind of detachment combine with their genitals and a taste of the forbidden….well, let’s say it makes one amazing, yet, often devastating cocktail. Mister Rogers, however, wouldn’t be judgmental about this; my guess is that he would desire to help these tortured souls find peace and healing. He would want them to overcome their demons and learn to find joy and create harmony in their lives. You know why? Well, it’s quite simple. They deserve to be happy; and they deserve to be loved. Although Mister Rogers isn’t powerful enough to make anyone happy, he was exceptional at sharing his love.
As a sex addiction therapist, I don’t just want to therapize my clients. I also want them to experience from me a person that truly cares for them. I want to be someone that sees past all the smoke and mirrors and directly into the good that I believe them to be. I want to be a calm and nurturing presence that shows them a side of humanity that, although imperfect, doesn’t tear down, destroy, or abandon. I want them to know I see them and that they matter to me. I could never guarantee that I would be able to help them learn to do this for themselves, although that would be a goal; but maybe I could give them a taste of something that transcends addiction, trauma, and loss – LOVE!
I hope you found Part 1 of Managing Your Superpower interesting and maybe even enlightening. Stay tuned for Part 2 – What Recovering Sex Addicts Can Learn from Mister Rogers – where we look at the practices of Fred Rogers that may have made his life more manageable.
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.