This guest blog post was provided by Toby LeBlanc, LPC.
The title of this entry was a “concept” at the Phoenix House of Austin where I worked for 3 years. We would try to teach drug dependent adolescents the purpose and power of empathy. Even though I am a huge proponent of empathy (I am a therapist after all), it took me a while to get why “understanding” is so important for a recovering person to experience.
Addiction is selfish disease. When we’re using our only focus is on ourselves and how we feel. As the cycle of drug use sucks us in, we become more and more distant from the needs and feelings of those we love. Distance produces hurt, resentment, and fear in the people invested in our lives. Empathy is a glue which can reconnect us emotionally to our loved ones and heal broken bonds. The feeling of understanding can be a blissful new beginning for a recovering addict and his/her relationships.
Empathy also gives addicts something instantly which could otherwise be very difficult to develop: perspective. With selfish addiction blinders we often can’t see our life falling apart around us even when those we love are screaming at us to stop. Once an addict tries on the perspective of another we can get an honest look in the mirror without the harshness of confrontation. An added benefit is a possible new way to see ourselves, our world, and maybe even our worth. If your view on things seems broken, trying on another’s could be an easy solution.
I’ve come to realize these are not even the biggest benefits of empathy in recovery. Empathy can give us great power over ourselves. Consider your answers to these questions:
How many times have you waited for someone to “get” what you’re trying to tell them before you calmed down?
How many times have you become angry when someone would not fulfill a need you have, especially when it is something you could be doing for yourself?
How much of your life do you spend angry at the world for not understanding you, but then it becomes an excuse to do something unhealthy?
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Empathy is the tool that allows you to circumnavigate these traps without getting stuck in powerlessness. When you attempt understanding with someone you immediately remove your selfish perspective. You are allowed to see what other factors could be coming to play in a dispute. From here you can see boundaries you did not know were there. The boundaries show who has responsibility for meeting the need in dispute. Needs often vary from physical (i.e. things or actions), mental (i.e. ideas or thoughts), and emotional (i.e. love and comfort). In my own empathy I often realize I have more responsibility than I thought for taking care of my own needs. I also often find out what pain I’ve caused while being so angry and not being mindful of others’ needs. Understanding the pain I’ve caused helps me further see what I’m responsible for. Our understanding makes us responsible for what is understood. Responsibility means you have control. By using empathy to gain perspective and understand your responsibility in a situation, you gain the ability to control your actions and your emotions. Isn’t controlling our internal world what made us use in the first place?