This is a question that so many loved ones of addicts ask each other. And it can be a very difficult question to answer. As the wife of an addict, this is what I have learned along the way:
First, I needed to identify exactly what sympathy means and how it would affect both myself and my husband in this situation. Dictionary.com defines sympathy as, "feeling pity, sorrow, or compassion for the hardships that another person encounters".
I think we can all agree that compassion is important. Compassion fosters trust. This trust functions in a number of positive ways including that they can confide in you and know you truly have their best interest at heart. They can then trust that whatever positive action you suggest they take is a safe course for them.
Sorrow and pity, however, are another matter. While we are naturally going to feel sorrow regarding our loved one's addiction, that sorrow doesn't foster any positive action. Instead, it will create a feeling of helplessness in your addict that simply perpetuates the problem.
Then there is pity. If you pity your addict, it is far too easy to enable them to continue in their addiction. It chips away at your strength to really support them. And, as soon as they know that they have your pity, they see a tool they can use to continue manipulating you so you don't stand in their way of getting high.
With all of this in mind, it occurred to me that empathy might be a better choice than sympathy in this situation. Empathy fosters compassion while ditching the sorrow and pity that comes with sympathy. This is because empathy allows you to put yourself in the shoes of another, in this case, your addict, without sorrow and pity clouding your judgment.
Although empathy is often confused with sympathy, it is really a much greater gift than sympathy. If you can sincerely tell your addict, "I get it", then they will no longer feel alone with their problem. It enables them to feel much more positive towards your support, which leads to the idea that maybe they really could get sober, because they have a sincere partner in their journey.
Practicing empathy presents its own challenges, however. If you are not an addict and/or your addict's choices are hurtful to you, it can be difficult to express.
Here are five tips that will help you practice empathy so that you really can deliver that all-important support:
1. Do Not Rush Through Your Responses - Give your addict plenty of time to articulate their challenges. It is a process to identify these things, and it won't all come bubbling up at once. By the same token, allow yourself to fully absorb the information. Think before speaking, and imagine your response's effect.
2. Validate Your Addict's Feelings - Simply saying, "I understand" can give them the courage to continue identifying and sharing the emotions that led them to their addiction.
3. Remove Distractions - Turn off the TV and turn down the volume on your phone. Show your addict that you are giving them your undivided attention.
4. Body Language - Demonstrate your sincere interest by maintaining eye contact and giving an occasional nod to let them know you are still listening.
5. Show Respect - Let them know that you see a unique person with unlimited potential, not just an addict.
You see, it is not a question of choosing between sympathy and support. Instead, it is a matter of embracing empathy, which allows you to offer that all-important support.
The Anaheim Lighthouse is a modern and effective addiction treatment center in Southern California. To talk to us about addiction treatment programs at our affordable drug and alcohol rehab that fit your needs, call (844) 494-4939.