BY Matt W. Sandford, LMHC
Sometimes folks come to me and we are working on something and inevitably their past comes up. It could be about some kind of mistreatment or abuse or of some dysfunction in their past environment. And there is of course the “stuff” inside us that relates to our experience of our parents and family. And pretty often we end up landing on a person’s young adult life choices, including sexual promiscuousness. Most feel a sense of shame and guilt about those choices and don’t want to talk about it. So, I thought maybe it would help if I were to write about it and provide some insight into how to approach these past issues.
I was reading recently about the prophet Jeremiah in the Old Testament of the Bible. There is a section in which he observes a potter working on making a pot. He forms a pot, but it collapses due to some weakness in the structure. But instead of the potter throwing it away and starting with new clay, he picks up the pieces and mashes them together and begins anew. God then explains to him that this is what he wants to do with his chosen people, Israel. I believe it is a fitting illustration and application for this issue of past sexual misdeeds and how God can and wants to restore us too. Let me start with four of the most common approaches to dealing with past promiscuity and then I’ll offer four healthier ways to deal with it.
- Burying It
Some folks deal with their past sexual behaviors and the guilt connected with them by putting the past behind them. This means that they chose to push aside their feelings and angst about it, and decide that if they forget about it and leave it in the past that it will not bother them in the present. This is an unwise and unproductive approach. We cannot learn and grow from a past that we won’t acknowledge. We cannot heal from something we will not grieve. And we cannot be remade if we will not own our brokenness.
- Shaming It
On the other hand, some folks get caught in the pit of self pity, never allowing themselves to move from their past sins. They have taken their mistakes and poor choices and concluded that these have defined their identity. Maybe they felt dirty or used? And maybe no one ever told them that our choices are a result of who we are at that time, but they don’t determine who we ultimately are or who we will be?
- Embracing It
Unfortunately, there are some who end up getting sucked into the sexual trap. They may discover that they can use sex to manipulate others and feel powerful or gain prestige or financial gain. Some find that indulging in promiscuous sex feeds something in their damaged ego or in a confused way makes them feel desirable. For others, they take the shame they feel and combat it by joining with it. They decide that if being “dirty” is who they are (in their mind), then they will be the best they can be at it.
- Rationalize It
Our culture and media these days strongly support this approach. Here the plan is to eradicate the feelings of guilt and shame by redefining morality. We (and the culture) say that promiscuous sex is not sinful or unhealthy, but just the opposite. It is wise and healthy and normal and fun. It is the best way to find a partner, and the best way to satisfy yourself, and on and on. This approach is really not much different than the burying it approach from number one, except for the concept of safety in numbers. Maybe if everyone tries to believe it together it will become true. Good luck with that!
Now how about some ways to grow, heal, and truly be free from your past?
Somewhere between burying it and shaming it lies the healthy approach. We need to stop pretending that our past is irrelevant, or doesn’t affect us. We carry around the past inside us, and often it just won’t stay in the past. On the other hand, the past does not control us or define us. The healthy perspective is in the middle, that is, acknowledging the reality of poor choices and the negative results of those without giving them more power or importance than they actually have in our lives.
- Feel It and Grieve It
Looking at it will bring the pain to the surface. Don’t run from that. Let it come. See how your choices have hurt yourself and others. See your foolishness, your neediness, your selfishness. There is much to gain from looking in the mirror – objectively. This is not about self pity or beating up on yourself. There may also be plenty to look at in terms of how you were taken advantage of, manipulated or fooled. The point is to permit yourself to feel all your feelings, without judging yourself for having them. Then grieving can happen. Not processing our pain keeps it around, and we stay stuck in it (even if we aren’t aware of it). Allowing it to come to the surface and then to feel it and process it – means we can then move through it and let go of it.
- Understand it
Either within the grieving process or sometime afterwards, we then need to make sense of it. This can be tough work. It is another level of looking at ourselves. This level involves the question of how did I come to make these choices? How was I influenced or conditioned to pursue fulfillment or relationship in this way? What does sex mean to me? Was there a pattern to the type of person I gravitated to, or the type of situation or experience? What did that mean to me? And how can I seek to meet that needs or those needs in healthier ways and have healthier relationships?
- Be renewed
Finally, we can move on. And moving on means that we have grieved and we have grown. We have integrated our past and our poor choices and wounds into our psyches, and we are more of a whole person. We can now live differently, making healthier choices. We likely now understand ourselves better and that helps us to have a clearer sense of who we are and what we want and what direction to go in life.
To really go through this process isn’t simple or easy. And sometimes it may be best to go through this journey with a counselor. But I think you can see that it holds the promise of renewal and deeper satisfaction in life.
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Matt Sandford is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and has been counseling for 8 years. Previously he worked in student ministry for 14 years, including two years in China. He has been married for 21 years and he and his wife are raising twins.