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The Importance of Empathy in Recovery

Addicts are often characterized, somewhat unfairly, as selfish. While some addicts may be selfish, with or without addiction, it’s generally more accurate to say that the addiction becomes a priority and everyone suffers for it, including the addict. Addiction makes people oblivious to the pain it inflicts on others. Part of recovery from addiction is recovering the ability to understand how your actions affect others.

In addition to the addiction becoming a priority, the drug itself can make empathy more difficult. No one takes drugs with the goal of feeling more pain. Everyone wants to feel less pain. Your brain doesn’t actually distinguish very well between physical and emotional pain, including emotional pain caused by witnessing others suffer. The drug dampens your ability to empathize.

This can persist for a while after detox. Many people report they can’t feel normal emotions for months after quitting. Either the emotions and sensations are all jumbled, or they feel nothing at all. This is a problem in itself as it can drain motivation, make decisions more difficult, and lead to depression and possible relapse.

It’s also a problem because normal experience of emotions is necessary for empathy, which is an important aspect of recovery. Empathy is what allows you to understand how your actions affect others. It’s what allows you to start repairing damaged relationships and rebuild the social support you need to stay in recovery. It’s also what allows you to support fellow recovering addicts.

Learning empathy is often difficult. It requires not only a willingness to experience someone else’s feelings, but also the ability to feel and acknowledge your own. Quite often, the circumstances that lead to addiction–abuse, trauma, isolation–also cut us off from our own feelings of fear, hurt, or anger. It can be hard to feel and acknowledge these emotions, but if you can’t feel your own emotions, you can’t feel other’s either.

There are two ideal places to start developing empathy: counselling and group therapy. A good therapist can help you acknowledge what you’re feeling and process it constructively. Group therapy is a good place to practice looking at things from someone else’s perspective because some people there will have had experiences similar to your own. With a little practice, you can expand that empathy to more and more people.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, Gardens Wellness Center can help. We offer detox in a supportive environment. Our counsellors and therapists can help you develop a plan of treatment that’s best for you. Call us today at 844-828-1050 or email us at to learn more.