14 minute read

Porn and the Elephant

Last Updated: July 29, 2021

Lisa Eldred

Lisa Eldred is the Educational Content Strategist at Covenant Eyes, and has 10 years of experience in researching and writing about porn addiction and recovery. She has authored numerous blog posts and ebooks, including More Than Single, Hobbies and Habits, and New Fruit, which was co-authored with Crystal Renaud Day. Her writing about faith and fandoms can be found at Love Thy Nerd.

Recently, some front-line workers who fight against pornography addictions have noticed how some unique factors, which are seemingly disconnected from porn, have helped contribute to successfully quitting porn.

Two people stand out. The first is Jay Stringer, a licensed mental health counselor, ordained minister, and frequent Covenant Eyes blog contributor. In his years of counseling men and women for unwanted sexual behaviors, including pornography use, he started noticing trends among his patients, linking certain childhood traumas or certain life states to certain types of pornography. He recently commissioned a large-scale study of porn users which largely confirmed his own personal findings.

While the results of Stringer’s study are still being evaluated, he did tell a group of Covenant Eyes employees that one big recurring factor in porn use was a sense of purposelessness. Porn users often see themselves as failures, they have unmet needs, they feel guilty and overwhelmed. They’re frequently stuck in dead-end jobs without hope of upward mobility. In short, they didn’t know who they were or where they were going in life, and that drove them to porn to soothe themselves.

Meanwhile, Alexander Rhodes, founder and manager of the online recovery organization NoFap, noticed a related trend. By studying data gathered informally from NoFap’s users, he found that those who were most successful in abstaining from porn included other activities—sports, hobbies, etc.—as part of their recovery process.

The Elephant Exercise

A simple exercise will demonstrate why this works. Take a moment to look at this picture of an elephant. Study its features for a minute or two, until you can close your eyes and envision it.

Now take out your phone and set a timer for two minutes. In these two minutes, I want you to do one thing: don’t think about the elephant.

hobbies and habits elephant

Don’t think about it.

Don’t think about its long trunk, its tusks, its ears, its saggy skin.

Don’t ask yourself whether it lives in a zoo, or if it has any family.

Don’t think about the elephant.

For two whole minutes, don’t think about the elephant.

Were you successful?

If the answer was no, why not? If the answer was yes, why?

Chances are good, if you had trouble not thinking about the elephant, it’s because you were fixating on the task. Maybe you even repeated the phrase “Don’t think about the elephant” to yourself multiple times.

But if you were successful, it’s probably because you didn’t think about the task much at all. Maybe you were thinking about your dinner plans, or a movie you recently saw. Maybe you even started out thinking about the elephant, but then allowed your train of thought to wander to other zoo animals.

Finding Freedom by Changing Our Focus

Often, when we decide to quit porn we fixate on it, making it harder for ourselves to resist. We may believe that mentally thinking, “No, don’t go there! Don’t click that,” will help us resist the temptation, and in the heat of the moment, it may help. But in the end, when we focus all of our willpower on NOT doing something, it ironically makes it harder to resist that thing… and at the same time it makes it harder to resist other temptations as well.

This was confirmed in research conducted by social psychologist Daniel Wegner in the 1980s. He asked one group of participants not to think of a white bear for five minutes, and ring a bell if they did, then to think about white bears for another five minutes, again ringing the bell when they thought about it. He then compared the results to a group of participants who were only asked to think about the white bear. Lea Wineman explains,

“At that point, the participants thought of a white bear even more often than a different group of participants, who had been told from the beginning to think of white bears. The results suggested that suppressing the thought for the first five minutes caused it to “rebound” even more prominently into the participants’ minds later.”

So where does this leave us?

Rather than simply not thinking about pornography anymore, the better option is to think about something else instead.

The emphasis there is “think about something else.” Aristotle once postulated that “Nature abhors a vacuum.” It’s true of human nature as well. It’s not possible to simply think of nothing, and if we’re not proactive about choosing what to think about instead, we may actually wind up thinking about worse things.

Jesus illustrates this in a parable in Matthew 12:43-45:

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.”

Jesus’ focus is on the evil spirit… but what’s the man’s role in all of this? Notice that the house is empty when the spirit returns to it. It’s as if the man kicked a terrible roommate out of his apartment, but he never took the roommate’s name off the lease or changed the locks. He never filled the emptied room. And the man went on a business trip and didn’t leave a house sitter, and when he came home the roommate had returned and had added seven of his freeloading friends to the lease.

Many people treat pornography similarly. They quit cold-turkey for a while, but they never find something to fill the void left by porn, and they eventually either return to porn or turn to a different vice.

One person even told us he saved his marriage after he successfully quit porn, only to lose it in the end because, as he told us, “I never replaced porn with something else.”

If we want to find lasting freedom from pornography, simply quitting porn won’t be enough. We need to find community, and change our environment (not just the paint on the wall, but things like what we have on in the background for noise), and train ourselves to new habits.


The article was excerpted from our book Hobbies and Habits.

The following is excerpted from our upcoming book Hobbies and Habits. Download the free ebook now!The following is excerpted from our upcoming book Hobbies and Habits. Download the free ebook now!SaveSave

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  • Comments on: Porn and the Elephant
    1. Stephen Bauer on

      Thank you for the reminders! One of the things we talk about in my 12 step group is “white knuckling.” It doesn’t work most of the time. I spent many hours a day with my addiction so I try to fill my time with “positive” sobriety. It get my mind off of my addiction. I try to not have temptations around (visual temptations). The longer I am in sobriety the more I prove to myself that I can live without this. Some days it is hard but “using” is not the answer. It would just cause guilt and shame like it always did. It never really, really satisfied. I thought it did but never long term– a short fix that resulted in longer shame and guilt.

      I benefit from having a couple of men who I can be totally honest with. They pray for me and we are accountable with each other. I voluntarily hold myself accountable. I am totally honest–hold nothing back because I am only as sick as my secrets. I am enjoying sobriety with porn now for over 10 years. I love Psalm 50:15–Help me Jesus ! (: It is never too late to start.

      Steve in Ohio

      Reply
      • Chris McKenna on

        Wow, Steve! Your testimony is powerful. Don’t be surprised if I reach out to you to elaborate more. We love a great story!

        Warmly,
        Chris

    2. Lazarus Kioko on

      An interesting read. Very insightful. I can also add that reading through these blogs and sharing about them can also be quite a good hobby and way to kill the temptation. Thank you to Covenant Eyes. I’m sincerely grateful.

      Reply
    3. Okere Chinomso on

      Hi guys, Amazing write up. But question is how do one find this community that can take your thoughts away from porn/sex???
      A friend has been advising me to become more active with Church, but to be honest, I regularly attend church but I see church folks as religious folks. People don’t want you disturbing them about weaknesses. Folks more interested in testimonies than in weaknesses. Kinda find comfort in one’s soul and pray the day God leads a solution to one. Convenant Eyes really rolling out beautiful articles. But I wonder how long I can hold on.

      Reply
      • Dan James on

        Serving isn’t about the “religious people” in the church. We are only accountable for our actions. None of us are perfect. All we can do is walk the journey with others and try be more like Jesus everyday. Find a church that has Celebrate Recovery.

      • Mike O'Neal on

        Okere,
        Great honesty/candor in your comments. Maybe you are not in the “right” church, and maybe you haven’t heard about the Conquer Series” by Kingdomworks. The right church, from my experience, is one that teaches and preaches the entire counsel of God and has vibrant men and women’s ministries. We have a Conquer Group in our church. Check out Conquer Series on line. It’s focus is on deliverance from sexual sin/porn.

      • Dre on

        The Church I attend has a system where you can get together in community groups. If you don’t have that option maybe you can move churches or if you have people around you that you can be completely honest with and that will encourage you with prayer and scripture that will work too but doing it alone is near impossible

      • John on

        Okere,

        People ABSOLUTELY DO want you “disturbing them” about weaknesses. It’s through the confession and acknowledgement of weakness that we find grace to overcome. God has seen fit to ordain this grace to happen in community. You’ve never heard a powerful and honest testimony that didn’t involve some level of vulnerability amd and honesty on the part of a weak person. Weaknesses and testimonies are NOT two opposing things, but two sides to the same coin.

      • Becky on

        Maybe online support can fill in until you find a group of like-minded local church-goers? Your pastor may have ideas about support in the local community, or a trusted counselor (one who recognizes the dangers of porn and sexual addiction). God bless you.

      • Nate on

        Okere,
        If you are anything like I was, I started looking at porn when I was 12, I was addicted for 22 years. The community being talked about here is one that you either find, or you start. I am a pastor, I had to go to a trusted friend and say point blank; I need you to mail me to a wall on a weekly basis, get in my face and ask me what’s going on in my thought life. If you don’t have anyone in your church that you can call on, ask your pastor who they would recomend. You are not alone in the struggle. If your pastor doesn’t have anyone ask me! I will help in any way I can! As to the getting the mind off it, what do you like (besides the obvious answer of sex😉) what is your hobby? Explore that deeply. There isn’t a blanket answer for anyone, but asking God to give you a way out he will answer!

      • Alex Duarte on

        Hey Okere,

        With God’s help you will and I mean you will overcome this! I am a youth pastor in Sydney and I totally understand about people not wanting to be disturbed with our brokenness, I hear that all the time! I still am very vocal about my porn addiction however. I have realized that each time I share about it and bring that darkness into the light most might be disturbed but there are always a few who come up later and share with me that they struggle too. I am more concerned about those few than keeping everyone else in this state of “everything is fine, I don’t have any problems that need God’s fixing”. I would encourage you, not to be afraid to bring those things into the light. I do agree with your friend about church, only because I believe that community=clarity in your life. Also maybe just start with a small group, instead of just church on Sunday where you can share these deeper things and others will do the same. We are all broken and in need of Jesus love, forgiveness and life. Know that Jesus loves you and has already forgiven all your brokenness. I see and hear you brother, and so does God. Don’t lose heart! You are not alone in the fight, let me know if you need anything! God bless you brother.

        – Alex

      • Stephen Enjaian on

        Okere,

        The idea being expressed here is a sound one. “Finding community, changing our environment, and training ourselves to new habits,” can be good and helpful changes. But I would go further.

        Paul wrote, “walk by the Spirit, and you will not fulfill the desire of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). Paul’s accent is not on avoiding sin, but on walking by the Spirit. That implies that we need to be very clear about how to “walk by the Spirit.” Staying in step with the Holy Spirit, paying attention to what He is doing, being conscious of Him through each day, these are essential to not living in the flesh. In fact, for a Christian, living as if without the Spirit is the essence of living in the flesh.

        As you have noted, merely attending church or finding community is not helpful if that church or community is not cultivating a rich experience of the Spirit in its members. As one who is experiencing victory by the Spirit, I am currently helping to cultivate a Spirit-conscious community in the church where I am a member. If you are interested, I can share what I am learning.

      • John on

        See if there is a local Celebrate Recovery group

      • Jason Bolster on

        Great comment about testimonies vs weaknesses.

      • Tracy A. on

        Wondering how long you can hold on, you definitely would benefit in realizing the power of the Atonement and pray for it to cover you and give you strength. I have real life experience to testify it works above expectation. You can put this in the search box on lds.org and be encouraged much. I personally love audiobooks on Deseret Bookshelf Plus to keep my mind active on the great books to choose there. I can share my account with 3 more people, reach out to me if that has appeal.

      • Kay Bruner on

        Walter, you might look for a therapist or a recovery group in your area. Those are great places to find the support you need.

      • paul on

        It may come down to just finding a good church with folks who are genuinely excited to meet you and have you join them in the journey of discipleship. Whereabouts do you live? Maybe someone on here knows of a good solid church with vibrant believers who will welcome you into real life community where you can be helped in your weaknesses and help others in theres.

    4. alex on

      I like this one Lisa. It’s a good eye-opener.
      Thanks.

      Reply
    5. Andy on

      This is absolutely correct.

      What helped me overcome my porn addiction is the beauty of the music and the iconography of the Orthodox Church.

      In C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, a man on the road from Hell to Heaven is being sidetracked by the lizard of lust. An angel asks him if he can kill the lizard. The man says yes and the angel does so, but afterward, the lizard of lust is resurrected as the horse of desire that the man can now ride to Heaven.

      I think that lust is a distraction from true aesthetic beauty. Thoughts of looking at porn will pass if you contemplate icons and listen to the Gregorian Chant.

      (The Christian YouTuber Jonathan Pageau has been instrumental in setting me on the path toward Him.)

      Reply
    6. Robert on

      I started out by reading scriptures like 1 Corinthians 10:13, which is helpful regarding the process of resisting sinful habits. But then the Lord stopped me and had me focus first on scriptures similar to Luke 10:27, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’ ”

      When I seek to love God with all that I am, and to love people as He commands us, He started a work of true repentance in me. I used to be addicted to porn, even as a Christian. But my desire to please God far outweighs those foolish pleasures, and I found that I cannot continue to indulge in porn and truly love God. Hopefully this will be a benefit to some.

      Reply
      • Kay Bruner on

        Robert, I think you have found the absolute key to true recovery.

        I would just include the reminder to receive love for yourself as well. God, neighbor, you: all included in one circle of boundless, eternal Love.

        When we find that, we find The Way.

        It sounds so simple, but it is profoundly true.

        Blessings on your journey of healing,
        Kay

    7. Brian James on

      Lust is not unmet needs, feeling guilty and being overwhelmed. Lust is not being driven by a lack of purpose; or being stuck in an unfulfilling job. God’s Word does not call it mental illness; not being responsible for our greedy pursuit of unrighteousness. God calls it sin; lawlessness (1 John 3:4), and we are guilty. Our problem is our nature (Ps 51:5); and our desires. “But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and entice by his own evil desire. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death (James 1:14-15). The solution is repentance; turning from sin and to the person of Christ. Then put-off being greedy and begin to do honest work with our hands; so that we may have something of godly value to share with those in need (Eph 4:28).

      Reply
    8. Trae on

      This is my first week on covenant eyes and my first comment. I had been struggling with this addiction since I was a little boy. I was sexually abused by a family member and my view and perception of sex was twisted at an early age. Since then, my relationships with women had been bare and grey. As I grew older my addiction began to take over my life and my relationships with family and friends. Today, I am happily married for over a year, but my addiction is still with me. I promised myself that I would stop watching porn when I got married but it didn’t happen. My wife one day asked me if I do that and I told her the truth. She was hurt and I was hurt as well. I finally told my mentor I needed more accountability and here I am. I pray this program and community will finally put a stop to this addiction. I have been sober from marijuana for two and a half years now and this is my next defeat.

      Reply
      • Kay Bruner on

        Hey there Trae,

        It sounds to me like you need therapy for the abuse you suffered as a child. While accountability and community are great, you’ve got deep pain that needs to be processed through with a professional. Please look for a therapist in your area who is experienced in treating sexual trauma.

        Peace to you,
        Kay

    9. Rodney on

      The elephant analogy is part of sport psychology. For example, the more you think about not hitting the golf ball into the trees, the more likely you are to hit it there. Whereas, the more you think about hitting it down the middle of the fairway, the more likely you are to hit it there.

      When it comes to porn, I have to admit that the more I think about not viewing porn, the more likely I am to view it. Ironically, even find reading articles like this one leads me to temptation as I’m thinking about not wanting to think about porn. So, even though I have CE on all my devices and have made it near impossible to view porn, I still want to.

      Hobbies and habits can be helpful and I have used these things as a help but they can only ever be a secondary thing. The first point of order is to get yourself right with God and your family. The sinfulness of porn needs to be dealt with so that the person is cleansed. The Holy Spirit needs to bring healing and God must reside in that person’s life. Prayer needs to be the primary weapon and support from a brother in the Lord is essential. I am reminded of Jesus’ words…

      Mat 12:43-45 “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. 45 Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.”

      The “house” must not be empty, we need the Holy Spirit to reside in us. Habits and hobbies can help and ought to be used but they can only be part of the solution and not the whole solution.

      Reply
    10. Jason Bolster on

      Great article except for the one essential unanswered question: Replace porn with what? I’ve heard people suggest a hobby. Hobbies are physical, earthly things. That in itself doesn’t mean that they are bad or useless, but addiction is spiritual and can only be overcome spiritually.

      Reply
      • Chris McKenna on

        Hi, Jason – I’ll say this, as a Christian, so I hope you know that I have great faith in the Gospel and its power. But, don’t over spiritualize your porn addiction. God gave us earthly things. They’re His. They can be used. For many, it’s just no possible to “pray it away.” It’s grace-driven (His part) effort (our part). Both! Read the ebook and I think you’ll find some amazing ideas.

        Chris

    11. Bob McAlindon on

      I thought I would share this so you know….there are two great things you can do first Get the Conquer Series
      DVD and study program from Dr. Ted Roberts on pornography. The second thing is his 2-5 years recovery program
      that starts with the 7-Pillars Study book that groups of men go through…it takes anywhere from 2- 5 years to break
      this cycle depending on how much porn addition you have been involved with-its a great program we are using it
      at our church and many men have been released from the chains of Satan and their additions. Check it out, I/we think
      its a must for every church if we plan to win the battle over this sin.

      Reply
      • Kay Bruner on

        Thanks for sharing, Bob.

    12. paul on

      This is such a great article. I would just add (by way of encouragement, not correction) that the New Testament completely teaches this concept. Anytime we are told to ‘Put off’ the old, we are also told to put on the new. Ephesians 4 is a great example of this. Put off the old self (V.22) Put on the new self… (v.24).
      Put away falsehood…(v. 25a)….Speak the truth…(v.25b)
      Let the thief no longer steal but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his hands…. (v. 28)
      Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up… (v.29)
      Let all bitterness…..be put away…(v. 31) Be kind to one another, tenderhearted….(v.32)

      We are never told to just stop doing something. God, in His kind grace, always tells us what to replace sinful patterns with. How encouraging this is! He tells us to stop thinking of the elephant, indeed. But He also gives us plenty of things to think about in it’s place! He is good.

      Reply

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