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The dictionary defines “empathy” as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” For the purposes of this article, “empathy” means a skill that is practiced as a means of understanding peers and their feelings, from their point of view—in contrast to “sympathy” which is mostly a matter of “feeling for” rather than with others, and often would rather solve others’ problems than help them find their own solutions.

Empathy and Addiction Recovery

In the context of addiction medicine, empathy is an important part of the individual-and-group-counseling aspects of treatment. Substance use disorder is a mental and physical illness, but includes a strong emotional component: nearly everyone with addiction also suffers from feelings of inadequacy and being misunderstood. Empathy counters these negative feelings by providing:

  • Opportunities to share one’s feelings without being judged or belittled (“There are people who don’t blame me for everything or insist I should snap out of it”)
  • Encouragement to see oneself as having something valuable to offer (“Maybe I’m not the hopeless case I thought”)
  • Connections with supportive peers who have struggled with similar addiction problems (“I’m not the only one after all”).

A recovering addiction patient who experiences—and has opportunities to exercise—empathy is being fueled with power to stay clean after resuming everyday life. Especially when friends, family, and employers are also empathetic, an understood patient has extra resistance to the temptation to relapse when confronted by old stresses.

Compassion After Relapse

That said, relapse can and does happen to many. Whether it was due to having a particularly bad day, becoming overconfident, or being caught off guard, it hurts to realize one has fallen back into the old toxic trap. Those to whom it happens are often ashamed to face their peers—another potential trap in the making. Anyone in a relapse situation needs active empathy more than ever, to:

  • Hear how others have had—and bounced back from—the same experience
  • Appreciate that setbacks don’t equal permanent failure or loss of acceptance
  • Get support in returning to the recovery track and taking steps to keep relapse from happening again.

An Avenue to Personal Growth

An important part of long-term recovery is growing in self-awareness, self-acceptance, long-term thinking, and the cultivation of one’s natural strengths. And an important part of such personal growth is having regular opportunities to both receive and give empathy—growing beyond the immaturity of being stubbornly independent on one hand, or needy and self-centered on the other.

The benefits of receiving empathy are noted above. The benefits of giving empathy include:

  • Practicing observation skills and ability to meet the needs of a situation
  • Experiencing the natural joys of making a positive contribution
  • Discovering the closeness of balanced give-and-take relationships (much more fulfilling than always getting one’s own way).

Practicing the Art of Empathy

If you have little experience with empathy and aren’t sure you’re capable of it (it may even be that your brain is naturally wired in ways that make empathy a special challenge), understand that empathy is a skill that can be learned and developed. Here are a few hints to that end:

  • Recognize that you don’t have to master the skill overnight, and that slow progress is still progress.
  • Get the help of a therapist in understanding your abilities and limits.
  • Listen when others speak! And listen to truly hear what they’re saying: avoid becoming fixated on points of agreement or disagreement.
  • Never prejudge anyone. Recognize that everyone has personal needs and valid points of concern.
  • Give yourself permission to understand others without necessarily having to agree with them.
  • Take care of your own physical health, and eliminate clutter and hurry from your life. Much lack of empathy is directly attributable to preoccupation with one’s own discomfort, including “have to finish” discomfort.
  • Learn to empathize with yourself as well. Give yourself permission to be only human, and learn to hear your body when it tells you it needs rest. Again, taking care of yourself can do much for your ability to empathize with others!

Find Your Support System for Lasting Recovery

Effective long-term recovery from addiction requires more than detox and individual therapy: a support network of peers is invaluable for staying on track, and your most empathetic peers are often those who have walked addiction-and-recovery roads similar to your own. At Hope by the Sea, we understand demographic as well as individual needs: that’s why we have programs specially designed for men, women, young adults, veterans, and other populations. Contact us today to get started on finding the program that best works for you. Hope Starts Here!