Developing Empathy and Compassion in Recovery

By Elizabeth Rosselle

When we first get sober, the only thing we’re typically thinking about is the fact that we can no longer drink alcohol or use drugs. And, fair enough. We should absolutely be hyper-focused on just staying sober for the first month or so. Having said this, most of us will likely need to learn how to behave like actual sentient beings at some point in our recovery. We live amongst other humans on this big and beautiful blue planet of ours, so eventually, we need to know how to have empathy and compassion for others if we want to enjoy life sober. 

While none of this may sound like rocket science, addicts and alcoholics who are in active addiction tend to be quite selfish, statistically speaking. Our primary motives generally revolve around getting drunk, getting high, and essentially having our own needs met at all times above all else. Again, this is a generalization, but the personality type of the standard drug addict or alcoholic is, well, pretty much that of a bog-standard drug addict or alcoholic. In short, we’re pretty predictable. 

The thing about these predictable personality traits that exist within most addicts and alcoholics is that they’ve helped people to understand how addiction operates. And, when we know how addiction operates, we can also learn how to recover, meanwhile discovering who we are when we’re being our most vulnerable and authentic selves. 

What does it mean to develop empathy and compassion in recovery?

  • We have the ability to understand others. This is an important trait to acquire in recovery because it helps us show up for life and, most importantly, for other people in ways that we weren’t able to in active addiction. As a result, we’re able to get along with people, including family and friends, which brings us to the next point.
  • Our relationships improve. If we’ve been abusing drugs or alcohol, chances are we’ve severed many relationships. Empathy helps us repair these relationships by learning how to step into other people’s shoes in an effort to understand how they feel. This means a lot to people.
  • Our communication improves. When we start to make an effort to understand how others feel, there are generally fewer misunderstandings. Again, it’s not rocket science, but it works. 
  • It prevents self-obsession. Self-obsession is where we lived in active addiction (most of us, at least). Remaining in a self-obsessed headspace is a surefire way to slow our growth in recovery. Developing empathy and compassion gets us out of our own heads. This is where we grow. 
  • It helps us understand ourselves better. Sometimes it’s hard for us to identify our own emotions, particularly when we’re newly sober and accustomed to dismissing our feelings. These feelings can be much easier to identify in others because we’re witnessing them from a new perspective. In time, this can help us learn how to identify our own feelings better. 
  • It makes us more open-minded and less judgemental. It’s much harder to judge others if we can learn to identify with their feelings and feel genuine compassion for them. Again, putting ourselves in others’ shoes is a powerful way to connect with people and when we can connect with others, we have no real reason to judge them. 

Developing emotional sobriety to start understanding others

  • Use your imagination to try and understand what another person is experiencing when they’re sharing their feelings or thoughts with you. 
  • Stop thinking about what you’re going to say when someone else is talking and focus on only listening to them instead. 
  • Go into conversations with an open mind. Set aside your judgments, personal beliefs, opinions, and prejudices. Remember, you’re not there to judge. You’re there to understand. 
  • Keep in mind that it’s impossible to fully understand what someone is going through. Just listen and do your best to empathize with them. 
  • Don’t feel the need to approve or disapprove of someone’s thoughts or actions. Just try to understand them without judgment.  
  • Silence is sometimes best. Every now and then, the best thing to do is to simply listen and not say anything at all. Sometimes, all the other person may want from you is a compassionate hug. 

At the end of the day, living a full and meaningful life in recovery is so much more exciting than living in active addiction which, ultimately, is boring and predictable. And, when we can learn how to have compassion and empathy, we have the opportunity to interact with everyone else in big and beautiful ways. It means that our whole world opens up which enables us to have a much more positive outlook on life. 

Kembali Recovery Center can Help

If you or someone you love struggles with addiction or would like to learn more about life in recovery, Kembali Recovery Center can help. Contact us to learn more about our facility and our recovery program. You never have to do this alone. 

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