The Role of Empathy in Sobriety
Throughout our lives, empathy is a whetstone upon which many of our most significant relationships, from family to friends to colleagues, are built. In addiction recovery, empathy is also paramount for attaining and maintaining sobriety.
What Is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to understand others’ emotions and motives and relate to them on some level. In other words, it’s the ability to place yourself in another person’s shoes and imagine what it must be like to be that person.
Empathy does not require approval of all of a person’s statements, actions, or behaviors. A person can empathize with another and still disapprove of the very experience or emotion with which they empathize. An example of this is a recovered person empathizing with a person still in the throes of his or her habitual, addictive behaviors.
In the context of addiction treatment, empathy builds a bridge connecting what clients have learned during treatment with their efforts to restore relationships potentially damaged during the addiction.
Empathy Vs. Sympathy
Empathy is quite different from sympathy. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, sympathy is a feeling of caring about another person and his or her troubles, grief, misfortune, and so on.
As further explained in “Psychology Today,” to sympathize with another doesn’t require understanding or relating to the other’s experiences. Moreover, it distinctly lacks this quality, in contrast to empathy, which is defined by it. When you sympathize, you view a person’s situation from your own perspective, not, like empathy, from the other person’s. Sympathy yields feelings of pity and judgment, which are unhelpful in recovery and post-recovery settings; empathy, contrarily, yields feelings of connection and judgment-free understanding, which are helpful.
Empathy vs. Compassion
Empathy is also frequently confused with compassion. While both are feelings, compassion is more of a general attitude of caring for other people while empathy is a sense of being able to understand and relate to the specific experience of a particular person.
Empathy in Addiction
A review of research into empathy and addiction reported in “Drug and Alcohol Review” found that a lack of empathy can be associated with addiction at several stages and on several levels. It can be linked to the initiating, developing, and maintaining of substance use and addictive behavior. A lack of empathy even overrode other factors in terms of influence in the trajectories of substance use, including levels of social deviance, impulsivity, and interpersonal style. Inversely, several of the 37 studies examined found that empathy can have protective qualities against these behaviors.
Empathy in Addiction Recovery
While recovering from addiction, clients undoubtedly go through a range of emotions themselves, including many that leave them feeling exposed and vulnerable. At such a time, experiencing empathy for anyone else, let alone expressing it, can seem next to impossible.
Nevertheless, it is completely possible, if not necessary, to develop or rebuild empathy progressively as healing from the addiction progresses.
Addiction can make a person struggle with empathy. The further into their addiction they sink, the more alienated they may feel and become from other important people in their lives. They may take any number of actions and behaviors deriving from a deficit of empathy that harms these relationships, from an absence of compassion to personal conflict or outright emotional abuse. The longer and more intensely and extensively this goes on, the harder they may find it to heal and restore those relationships.
Addiction makes a person’s thoughts increasingly self-centered until both the addiction and self-centeredness consume them. This can make it seem like leaving behind either the addiction or the self-centeredness is a losing battle from the start.
Years of unhealthy responses to unwanted stimuli can lead to habitual behaviors like addiction, but, fortunately, the supportive environment of an evidence based treatment program combined with a firm commitment to improving their life can help a person regain emotional stability and, ultimately, restore empathy.
When you listen to someone empathetically, you make an effort to understand what that person is saying without jumping to any conclusions or rushing to judgment. To do this, you must look past the words the person is speaking to the subtle cues that reveal the speaker’s emotions beneath his or her words. It requires setting aside your own personal prejudices, beliefs, and opinions.
Clinicians often apply empathetic listening to build rapport and trust with clients and to elicit their greater openness and willingness to collaborate toward positive change.
First Steps Back to Empathy
In order to rebuild empathy within themselves, people must first become aware of their underlying emotions. Beneath the surface of everyone’s external reactions are deeper emotions that require examining in order to experience empathy again. Without engaging with, learning to understand, and confronting their emotions, how can people relate to the emotions and experiences of others?
Once clients become aware of the emotions underlying their choices and actions, they can then begin to practice experiencing the world through other people’s skin. Instead of ignoring others out of a sense of personal protection, they can allow their own vulnerability to guide them in understanding and relating to those people’s experiences.
One way to practice developing empathy is to share addiction experiences with other people in your drug rehab program. Practice offering support instead of seeking it. Listen unselfishly to what people share with you. As you continue building upon your empathy skills, you may find yourself duplicating this positive behavior with other people in other scenarios and settings.
Benefits of Empathy in Recovery
Recovery leaves everyone with different takeaways, but studies have conclusively found that incorporating the process of rebuilding empathy into clients’ treatment is associated with positive treatment outcomes.
According to the NCBI, empathy is one of the most desirable attributes in an addiction counselor, alongside friendliness, non-possessive warmth, affirmation, genuineness, and respect. The best clinicians are described as empathetic ones who desire to build relationships. It allows them to serve many key roles in a client’s recovery, such as:
• Holding a safe space in which clients may converse openly about their addictions and their struggles with them
• Guiding family members through the process of addiction recovery
• Helping clients build a post-treatment plan to avoid relapse
Empathy is one of the key reasons people who formerly struggled with addiction and successfully completed recovery often make the best addiction recovery counselors. Other reasons happen to be closely linked with empathy, such as personal experience with addiction and the credibility it confers, the ability to build trust and find meaning in their journey, and the living example of the limitless possibilities recovery might open for the client.
Empathy in an addiction counselor can help clients to:
• Avoid continuing to repeat patterns of negative thought and behavior
• Reduce conflict by improving communication skills
• Develop more compassion and a deeper understanding of it and its value
• Eliminate self-centered desires and actions
• Listen with compassion rather than judgment
By contrast, non-empathetic confrontation has been linked with increases in substance use, drop-out rates from drug detox programs and relapse. Low levels of empathy in an addiction recovery environment have also been linked to weaker alliances with addiction counselors and lower levels of change.
Empathy in Motivational Interviewing
Motivational interviewing is a technique known for helping empower people to facilitate change as they themselves define it and often a critical component of a 12-step program or other treatment program. In motivational interviewing, the level of empathy a therapist shows to a client is a critical quality.
Through the therapist’s sensitivity and responsiveness to the emotions and experiences clients express, the therapist can better guide the clients toward behaviors that align with their treatment goals and life desires. As the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found, empathy, as opposed to power and authority, is vital to building upon a client’s desire to change.
Empathy in Sobriety
Finally, in the addiction cycle, we come to sobriety: first addiction, then treatment, then post-treatment. In this post-treatment stage, recovering substance users might find that the people in their lives lack empathy for them. People who have recovered from addictions often find that just because they’ve recovered from their addiction it doesn’t mean the people in their lives have yet recovered. For that, these people may need empathy from the recovered person before they can find it in themselves to empathize with the recovered person.
A lack of support in their environment could lead a person to resort to familiar coping behaviors, like substance use. But by generating empathy for those lacking in empathy for them, recovered people can take the first steps toward rebuilding trust and fostering forgiveness and self-forgiveness in the relationship.
In order to achieve this, the recovered person may need to be cautious to avoid taking on the emotions another person feels toward him or her about the addiction and what became of the relationship as a result of it. The recovered person can feel empathy for the other person’s emotions and experiences without taking them on as his or her own. This, however, may take practice and patience.
In the post-treatment phase of a person’s recovery from addiction, maintaining physical sobriety requires developing emotional sobriety. This is the ability to feel your own feelings, and it requires developing feelings of empathy toward yourself. This allows them to better understand their own emotions and motives in experiencing and then overcoming addictive substance use behavior. Fortunately, empathy is also easier for people with emotional sobriety to develop, creating a self-feeding cycle in which one continues to build upon the other.
For empathetic assistance in achieving and maintaining your own sobriety or helping someone you care about to do the same, contact us at Granite Recovery Center to discuss our treatment program.