Does Empathy Help Enable an Addict?

November 17, 2021 | addiction treatment , recovery

Mastering and applying empathy is a powerful tool as a human being.

Empathy is the listener’s effort to hear the other person deeply, accurately, and non-judgmentally. Empathy involves skillful reflective listening that clarifies and amplifies the person’s own experiencing and meaning, without imposing the listener’s own material.”

– Carl Rogers.

Mastering and applying empathy is a powerful tool as a human being. It’s how you can connect with another person by using their own feelings and experiences to help you see things from their perspective. 

By thinking about the journey and decisions that led them to where they are now, you can better understand why they feel or do things the way they do. 

However clear the definition of empathy can be from one perspective, others can make it unclear if we should apply it when someone is struggling with addiction. 

For example, David Richo says, ” (an) empathetic presence involves listening to someone’s pain with what I call the five A’s: Attention, Acceptance, Appreciation, Affection, and Allowing.” 

Richo’s final A, allowing, is meant profoundly and doesn’t mean to enable one to make poor decisions such as using drugs or alcohol, but to allow them to feel pain. Even so, empathy does cause you to feel powerful emotions that may drive you, as a key component of an addict’s support system, to make poor decisions yourself. 

So, is being empathetic a wise thing to do when dealing with drug addicts? Does empathy enable addicts? These are both questions you will ask yourself, and we’re here to help you find the answers you need. 

Mastering and applying empathy is a powerful tool as a human being.

What is empathy?

To show empathy is to show and understand and care for a person’s disposition from their own standpoint. It means you’re taking the time to think about things from their perspective and not pass judgment from a position that is inconsiderate of where they’ve been, what they’ve experienced, and where they are. 

If you know someone struggling with addiction, being empathetic considers the substance’s hold on them. It is taking the time to understand how hard it can be to overcome something beyond your control and live with that through moments of doubt and triumph. You also consider what outside or internal influences can spike the desire to use. 

Even if you have never struggled with addiction, it’s applying what you know from your own unfortunate run-ins to imagine what they are going through. 

Is empathy the same as sympathy?

While they are closely related, there’s a difference between empathy and sympathy. 

As we know, empathy is understanding from the other person’s perspective. Sympathy is understanding from your own. 

In other words, sympathy is saying how you would feel if you were in their situation with your own history, while empathy is to imagine what it’s like actually to be them and face the issues they are. 

Does empathy enable addicts?

To be clear, to be empathetic is not to enable. However, empathizing can easily lead to enabling if you don’t keep yourself in check. 

For example, say you have a small get-together where you plan to have a few drinks, and an alcoholic is present. Being empathetic in this situation gives you the understanding of how bad they might want a drink. Empathy can quickly turn into enabling if you encourage them to drink because just one won’t hurt on special occasions. 

That’s quite a poor example as the right decisions to make are very clear. What if things aren’t so clear? 

Say you know an addict that’s been struggling more with a potential relapse than ever before. Perhaps there are work troubles, a relationship issue, or the passing of a loved one, leading to them using again. Though you promised that there would be consequences to them using again, you give them a free pass because of the circumstances. This is still a form of enabling. 

While it can seem harsh, it’s important to follow through on promises of consequences whenever a relapse occurs. 

It doesn’t mean you can’t feel for the person struggling with addiction, but you need to stand strong with their best interest in mind. That means no matter the situation. You shouldn’t allow them to use, cover it up, or pretend like it never happened. 

Can empathy lead former users to relapse?

While most of us are sure to avoid encouraging one to drink or use on rare occasions, as, in our first example, it can still happen if you’re not careful. 

Say you are close to someone struggling with alcoholism, and they are talking to you about a tough situation they are in. During the middle of the discussion, they say something like, “I could use a drink right now,” and you respond with, “I would too if I were you.” 

Though it seems subtle and insignificant, you can inadvertently send signals that you would be ok with them drinking in that situation. 

Is that to say you need to avoid being empathetic altogether? No. It just means you should be careful of when you apply empathy and how it impacts your own words or actions. 

This is why it’s important to know the difference between empathy and sympathy and when it’s appropriate to apply either. 

So, when is the right time to be empathetic or sympathetic? It ultimately boils down to when you’re making decisions. 

Though it can be hard to ignore how one is feeling based on their experiences, being sympathetic and offering advice or applying consequences based on what you know to be right or wrong from your perspective is how it should be. 

We understand that it can still be unclear, especially considering that not all situations are black and white, which is why it’s important that you still consider your best interests. 

Counseling for loved ones of addicts and those who serve as a part of one’s support system is another powerful tool that can help you maintain clarity in trying times.