Updated July 2021.
I call these three emotional states the “Devil’s Triangle of Triggers.” We can’t handle them on our own, and they’ll often send you looking for porn before you know what hit you.
Trigger 1: Helplessness
Tom is so frustrated he is about to rip the pillow in my office in half. “I’m doing everything I can to earn my wife’s trust back. I am killing myself to look for ways to show her I love her–that I don’t want to hurt her.”
“Every time I look in my wife’s eyes I see the pain I caused. I don’t know what else to do!” Tom’s eyes are bloodshot, and the veins on his neck are bulging.
I met Tom right there, matching his intensity, “You are so frustrated that you can’t see straight. You can’t do anything right now to fix it or to make the pain go away.”
Tom’s eyes lock in mine–we are on the same wavelength and we know it. The tension in the room is thick.
With my next few words, Tom’s whole countenance drops as he realizes what was really driving him over the cliff. “You feel helpless to get her to trust you, or take away her pain.”
With that one word, helpless, Tom fell back into the couch like he had been shot.
The first of the “Devil’s Triangle of Triggers” is helplessness.
We will do almost anything to get away from feeling helpless. Try twice as hard, give up because you know you will lose, find a way to numb out. You get the idea.
Porn comes calling–offering an escape from feeling helpless.
Trigger 2: Hopelessness
Luis slumps down on the couch. “I did it again. I promised myself, my wife, and my men’s group that I was done with pornography. I’ll never get away from this stuff. She will never trust me again.”
“I can’t imagine living this way forever,” his voice trailed off as he stared into space, “it’s depressing.”
The second culprit is hopelessness.
Hopelessness says that things will never change because they can’t change. Hopelessness says that you can try as hard as you want, as long as you want, and you will end up in the same place. Despair. Free-fall. Frozen. Overwhelmed. Guys use these words to describe what is happening inside of them when they feel hopeless.
You can see the 2,000 pound boulder on Luis’ back. Hopelessness is crushing. Porn whispers in his ear–offering to numb the pain.
Hopelessness still takes a back seat to trigger three.
Trigger 3: Worthlessness
Knees on his elbows and his head in his hands, Andrew sighs. “I keep hurting my wife. I am a great provider, I coach my kids’ baseball teams. I teach Sunday School. I keep getting promoted at work,” he pauses, “but I keep going back to this stuff.”
Then it comes out. “What is wrong with me?” Andrew’s eyes bulge. His horrified expression begs for an answer to the question. In that moment, Andrew feels worthless.
You could also say shame–it’s the same thing. Shame says, “I am bad,” versus, “I did something bad.” Shame says, “There is nothing good in here–so I better hide, I better cover up.”
Shame and worthlessness are toxic emotions. In that moment there is no escape. The judge, jury, and executioner have all spoken.
If you already feel worthless, it is easier to go back to porn. That is what worthless or bad people do. At least it will feel good for a few moments, or so you tell yourself.
Related article: Shame’s Massive Role in Porn Use
So there you have it: helpless, hopeless, and worthless. The Devil’s Triangle of Triggers.
What to Do When You’re in the Devil’s Triangle of Triggers
For guys who try to break free from pornography, these triggers are typically at the heart of every relapse. Any one of these is enough to send you over the edge. Combine two or all three of them and it becomes utterly consuming.
Paul wrote in Romans 7:15, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Does this sound familiar to you? And he wrote most of the New Testament.
When the Devil’s Triangle of Triggers shows up, your first inclination is to isolate. Unfortunately, this has the same effect as throwing water on a grease fire. It makes things worse, not better.
The best thing you can do when you find yourself in the middle of the Devil’s Triangle is connect with someone. Not hook up with a woman. Not talk with another dude about football. Talk with someone you know and trust, and tell them what you are thinking and feeling. (Yes, I just used the “F” word for guys.)
Here’s why you need to do this: simply acknowledging your thoughts and feelings to another person actually calms these feelings. It regulates them.
Your brain releases oxytocin–the same hormone released during sex (smaller amount) when you connect in this way. This calms the brain down and pulls you out of free fall.
Just telling someone–not even problem solving–is a powerful antidote for the Devil’s Triangle.
I can’t tell you how often men come back into my office after actually trying this. They doubted me, told me it isn’t their style. Former soldiers, hard driving businessmen, engineers, all of them. They are all shocked at how well this works.
I beg you, I dare you to try this.
A lot of people have lost their lives in the Devil’s Triangle. Don’t be a statistic–pick up that “500 lb phone”–reach out to someone and see what happens.
Related: Trigger Alert! What’s Yours?