Why Empathy is Important to Addiction Treatment

Put simply, empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes, or to understand their emotional state. It is the foundation of all successful relationships, whether personal or professional. If you cannot imagine how another person is feeling in a given situation, you are at a significant disadvantage and may not behave appropriately towards them. Unfortunately, this crucial skill is stunted by ongoing substance use. Empathy is a vital component of recovery and must be cultivated by both clients and addiction treatment professionals.

Empathy and Therapy

One of the most impactful factors in primary addiction treatment is the quality of counselors provided by your rehab facility. These individuals can make or break a person’s path to recovery. While professional experience, treatment modalities and credentials contribute to one’s overall experience, a therapist’s empathetic abilities may be the most important piece of the puzzle. In fact, one study published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors asserts that low therapist empathy can be toxic to client success rates.

“High-empathy counselors appear to have higher success rates regardless of theoretical orientation. Low-empathy and confrontational counseling, in contrast, has been associated with higher drop-out and relapse rates, weaker therapeutic alliance and less client change.” – Theresa B. Moyers and William R. Miller, study authors.

Authors Moyers and Miller explain that historically, the inverse of empathetic coaching was utilized in addiction treatment. A therapeutic approach defined as low-empathy confrontational counseling used to be the accepted or “essential” standard for those addressing substance use disorders. Sadly, because of the cultural attitudes surrounding addiction, tactics such as shaming, demeaning, shouting and “attack therapy” were commonplace not so long ago. Today, centers understand that this approach would qualify as malpractice and has no place in the delicate process of treatment. Instead, much greater success is seen when empathy is made a priority in client care.

The study authors go on to prescribe a high-empathy approach to therapeutic care, with emphasis on particular listening skills and evidence-based practices and training of counselors. They also assert that empathy may exert a larger influence in addiction treatment than it does in general psychotherapy sessions, making this a high priority in treatment centers worldwide.

Friends and Family

Empathy is also an essential skill of friends and family members with an addicted loved one. No matter where that individual is in the recovery process, it is vital that they be treated with respect and care. Because of the stigma of addiction, many people may be tempted to judge and moralize when dealing with an addicted loved one – instead, they need to find empathy for that person.

Responses such as frustration, venting and sharp remarks to someone struggling with a substance use disorder can serve to push them further away, or encourage them to keep their secrets more closely. They miss the key issue in the situation: the person isn’t the problem. The problem is the problem. By attending programs like Al-Anon or seeking support groups, in addition to speaking frankly and educating oneself on the subject of addiction, friends and family members may begin to cultivate their own sense of empathy.

Developing Empathy in Recovery

Finally, the addict themselves must foster an empathetic approach to their dealings with others. Addiction is a chronic disease that changes the chemistry of the brain, and with it, an individual’s priorities. This focuses all mental resources on finding and using one’s drug of choice and forces a pattern of selfish behavior. It is nearly impossible to remember the needs of children, parents, siblings, co-workers or friends while in the throes of a substance use disorder. Once a person has entered addiction treatment, they need to re-learn how to see things from another person’s point of view.

There are countless rewards to cultivating empathy. It allows addicts to repair relationships that were torn apart by a lack of mutual understanding, increase communication levels, reduce apathy and help others in a time of need. By increasing compassion for others, addicts create a positive outlook that can contribute to lasting recovery.

Luckily, empathy is a behavior that can be learned and practiced. With enough dedication, anyone can open themselves up to a deeper understanding of others. Some empathy development techniques include:

  • – Wait until the other person has finished speaking to formulate your response, instead of planning what you’ll say as they are talking.
  • – Work with a therapist to more fully understand your own feelings. Those in active addiction typically lose the ability to identify their own emotions, which can inhibit their ability to cultivate empathy for others.
  • – Try not to judge while others are speaking. Instead, be open to their opinions and remain neutral.
  • – Imagine how the other person may feel in a given situation before you respond to them.
  • – Understand that you do not have to agree with everything someone believes or does, but you can still empathize with their position.

Create Compassion for Yourself and Others

For more than 50 years, Cumberland Heights has helped men and women on the path to recovery. We understand the confusion, anger and shame associated with the disease of addiction, but we also know that there is a way out. Our individualized care plans are supported by life-affirming principles, and we are always standing by to help. Call 800-646-9998 or contact us online to learn more about our approach to addiction treatment.