- Empathy refers to an individual’s ability to perceive and understand the internal experiences of someone else.
- Empathy can be thwarted by evaluative opinions, moral judgements, stereotypes, personal biases, and stigma.
- We can develop empathy for those with addiction by self-reflecting, listening to understand, and spending time with those with addiction.
What is empathy?
Empathy is a multifaceted construct which, at its core, refers to an individual’s ability to perceive and understand the internal experiences of someone else. Some popular definitions of empathy include:
- “Feeling with another person” (Schwartz & Sweezy, 2020, p.53)
- “An active interest in and effort to understand the other’s internal perspective, to see the world through her or his eyes” (Miller & Rollnick, 2013, p. 18)
- “The ability to sense the inner mental life of another person—knowing who that person is” (Nakazawa, 2015, p. 171)
Empathy, therefore, involves understanding another person’s perspective and emotional experiences in such a way as to accurately peer into their reality.
How do we empathize?
So how are we neurologically equipped to resonate with the internal experience of another person? The answer may lie within the mirror neuron system in our brains (although more conclusive evidence with human subjects is needed). In a serendipitous experiment with monkeys conducted in the 1990s, Italian neuroscientists discovered brain structures that perceive and reflect the experience of others, thus labeled, mirror neurons (Siegel, 2012).
Trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk noted that mirror neurons begin functioning at birth and are “the brain-to-brain links that give us our capacity for empathy” (2014, p. 113). Indeed, it is proposed that “firing among mirror neurons and related areas creates a neural image of the mental state of another person” (Siegel, 2012, p. 165). Thus, burgeoning evidence suggests that human beings are neurologically wired to empathize with others by sensing and reflecting their internal states.
The power of empathy
Each of us can attest to the magnitude of the experience of being fully known by another person. In those rare moments, it is as if we are sharing consciousness with another human being who is not passing judgement or offering solutions; instead, they are merely joining us in our lived experience and thereby assuring us that we are not alone. Indeed, the act of extending empathy is thought to be therapeutic in and of itself.
Carl Rogers, a prominent psychological theorist (and the father of person-centered counseling), noted that when individuals are hurting, the most valuable gift we can give them is empathy, or a deep understanding of their internal world (1980). Rogers also identified empathy as one of the six core conditions necessary to facilitate change in the counseling relationship and it continues to stand as a vital ingredient to effective therapy.
Empathy in addictions work
Although empathy is necessary in all counseling relationships, it is particularly essential in clinical work with addictions. In light of the stigma, misinformation, and judgment that shrouds addiction in our society, it is likely that individuals with substance use disorders rarely (if ever) experience accurate empathy.
We must ask, why can empathy be difficult to experience for those with addiction? Again, we turn to the words of Carl Rogers who said, “The highest expression of empathy is accepting and nonjudgmental. This is true because it is impossible to be accurately perceptive of another’s inner world if you have formed an evaluative opinion of that person” (1980, p. 153-154). Thus, empathy can be thwarted by our own internalized biases and judgments regarding those who struggle with addiction.
Consider the myriad of evaluative opinions circulating throughout society about addiction, all of which serve to block our ability to extend empathy. Moreover, the general lack of accurate information about addiction makes it challenging for individuals to correctly perceive the inner experiences of those with substance use disorders (e.g., the experience of not wanting to use a drug but feeling as though one has to use it to survive, the power of cravings, the despair that comes from acting in ways that are counter to one’s personal goals and values, the existential questions such as “why me?”, the self-loathing, the weariness, the crafty nature of rationalization and justification as mechanisms to continue use). Rather than correct, unbiased knowledge, misinformation about addiction is commonplace and stifles our capacity to empathize.
So, what can we do?
There are several things we can do to increase our empathy for individuals with addiction and extend this powerful gift to those with substance use disorders.
- Start with self-reflection. What biases, stereotypes, moral judgments, or preconceived notions do you hold about addiction? From where do these beliefs stem (societal messages, childhood experiences, the media, public opinion, etc.)? Is it possible that other perspectives and realities exist? Take time to tease apart your personal reactions from the reality of living with addiction.
- Listen to understand, not evaluate. There are ample books, documentaries, podcasts, and blogs that document the experience of those with addiction. It is easier than ever to access these accounts. The challenge, however, is to keep your evaluative opinions at bay, and merely seek to understand the experience of others.
- Spend time with individuals with addiction. Almost all communities have support groups and recovery organizations for those with addiction. By becoming involved and partnering with these organizations, you have opportunities to destigmatize and humanize individuals with addiction. It’s hard to empathize with people you have never met, so find ways to get involved with those in your community with histories of addiction.
In sum, a little empathy can go a long way. Despite the many barriers to empathy for those with addiction, we can break through these obstacles by engaging in self-reflection, listening to understand, and spending time with those with addiction.
Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2013). Motivational interviewing: Helping people change (3rd ed). Guilford Press.
Nakazawa, D. J. (2015). Childhood disrupted: How your biography becomes your biology, and how you can heal. Atria.
Rogers, C. R. (1980). A way of being. Houghton Mifflin Company.
Rogers, C. R. (1961). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Houghton Mifflin Company.
Schwartz, R. C., & Sweezy, M. (2020). Internal family systems therapy (2nd ed.). Guilford.
Siegel, D. J. (2012). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.
van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.