Why Empathy Matters: Helping Addicted Loved Ones
We've all heard that tough love is the way to go when trying to help someone who is struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, but is this always the best way to go?
While it's important to show tough love at times with someone who is dealing with addiction, it's also important to show empathy, where we try to understand someone’s feelings even if we don’t have them ourselves. Many people who are dealing with addiction are harboring deep feelings of shame and doubt in their ability to get well and may be dealing with lasting effects of past trauma.
As you work to help someone with an addiction, it's important to show them that you know they are not their addiction. The issue they're dealing with is no longer something that's within their control. While they may have chosen to try alcohol or drugs for the first time, the issue is now caused by chemicals in their brain, patterns of behavior, and automatic thoughts that may be difficult or impossible for them to break on their own.
When a person is struggling with addiction, there’s a good chance that they’re using drugs or alcohol to cope with something in their lives that they're struggling to bring to the surface. When they're met with judgment, they may feel guilty and ashamed and shut down even further. This can make it harder for them to reach out and get the help that they need.
By presenting yourself as someone who cares and as someone willing to talk without being judgemental, you're showing your loved one that you're an ally, and that you believe in their ability to get well. While they may not be ready to reach out for help at the moment, they'll know that you're a person they can turn to when it's time for them to turn their life around. You may be the only person in their corner who is continuing to meet them with positivity and understanding.
It's important to note that you can show empathy for someone without being an enabler. Listening to someone, showing them kindness, and helping them develop a plan to get well is different than allowing someone to take advantage of you.
Being a good friend and ally doesn't mean that you're loaning your friend money or fixing their problems for them - it simply means that you're continuing to see them as the human being that they are, rather than someone who has been labeled an addict.
When you talk to the person who is struggling with addiction, seek to understand what's happening. Be careful of your reactions, and don't try to do anything except understanding where they're coming from. Ask them questions as they talk to you, and make it clear that you're learning more about their situation without placing judgment on their choices.
Letting them know that you're there for them and ready to help them get well can be hard to do, especially when you've done so before and were not met with open arms. Telling them that they don't need to respond and that you just want them to know that you're around when they decide that it's time to get well can go a long way to let them know that they have options when they realize it's time to change and enter drug or alcohol rehab facilities.
If you're close with the friends and family members of the addicted person, talking with them about showing empathy can also be helpful. Forming a net of support around your loved one can help them to feel that they're able to reach out for assistance.
Many people who struggle with addiction continue using substances because they fear that they've lost their loved ones. They feel that using is better than the loneliness they might feel if they try to come out on the other side only to realize that there's no one left.
Talking with people who also care about the person you love, teaching them how to rally around your loved one without enabling, and creating a strong support system for them when they decide that it's time to get well can often make them realize that there is life on the other side of addiction.
If you're looking for tips about helping an addict, know that you're not alone. Reaching out for support through Al-Anon and other support groups can be a great way for you to get to know others who are going through the same struggles.
Supporting an addict can be lonely, and you must show yourself sympathy, love, and care as you express those emotions to the person you love who is in the throes of addiction.