Using Empathy To Treat Addiction

Empathy sets a solid foundation for many of our relationships throughout life – whether with family, friends, or even colleagues. It also plays an essential role as you continue on the path to long-term recovery and sobriety.

At its root, empathy is described as being able to understand and relate to the emotions of others. It bridges the gap between what you’ve learned in a treatment setting and how to recover relationships that may have been hurt during your addiction.  

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

Throughout the recovery process, you may experience a wide variety of emotions that leave you feeling vulnerable and exposed. Although learning to express empathy may initially seem challenging, it can be built upon over time as you continue to heal from your addiction.

Paid Advertising. We receive advertising fees from purchases through BetterHelp links.

Online Addiction Counseling

Get professional help from an online addiction and mental health counselor from BetterHelp.

Get Matched
Begin Therapy
  • Personalized Matching Process
  • Easy Online Scheduling
  • 30,000+ Licensed Therapists


The Role Of Empathy In Therapy

Over time, drug and alcohol abuse may cause you to struggle with empathy. The longer you feed your addiction, the harder it seems to mend relationships damaged by conflict, emotional abuse, and lack of compassion stemming from a lack of empathy.

Leaving behind the self-centered thoughts often shaped by addiction may seem like a tough battle to win. But with the help of an addiction counselor and a commitment to changing your life for the better, you can return to emotional stability. A comprehensive recovery program that involves group or individual therapy will offer a supportive environment to guide you in overcoming years of habitual, unhealthy responses.

The first step in working on empathy is to become aware of your emotions beyond the surface. Rather than ignoring how someone else is feeling, try to see life through their eyes. You can start by talking to peers from your treatment center about their addiction experiences. Take this opportunity to offer support and practice empathetic listening when communicating with them. You can mirror these types of conversations as other situations may arise.

Benefits Of Empathy During Treatment

Empathy is a fundamental tool in living a fulfilling life. It helps the self-healing process and leads you to happy, healthy dialogues. 

While each person has different takeaways from recovery, applying empathy during treatment may help you:

  • Avoid repeating bad habits and negative thoughts.
  • Improve communication skills, leading to less conflict.
  • Gain a deeper understanding and level of compassion.
  • Eliminate selfish acts and being wrapped in your own wants.
  • Listen compassionately, rather than make rash judgments.

Finding The Right Therapist

One of most important qualities when looking for a therapist is their ability to actively listen and understand your feelings – without putting words in your mouth. A therapist should be sensitive to addiction recovery rather than using the “tough love” theory. 

You want an open-minded person…you can tell if they are really thinking about your needs and who you are as a person, or if they are just trying to sell you a product.

- Dr. Gourguechon, Chicago psychiatrist and psychoanalyst and past-president of the American Psychoanalytic Association

Finding the right match when looking for a therapist is extremely important – after all, you will be working together with this person on a number of personal goals. When choosing a therapist, consider the following:

  • Review their experience in helping treat those in addiction recovery. Someone with a focus on addiction will be able to give you more insight in regards to your feelings.
  • Ask about types of treatment available. Some therapists may focus primarily on 1 method of treatment, while others will mix various methods tailored to your needs.
  • Determine your level of comfortability in working with a therapist. Ensure you can be open and honest with this person and not conceal information.
  • Consider if the therapist listens to your thoughts and feelings. If they understand your issue, they’ll be able to better provide ways to improve your current state of mind.
  • Decide if you feel safe when talking to the therapist. Counseling may bring up painful memories, but you should always feel safe when going through challenging times.

After several sessions with a therapist, you should know if it’s the right fit. Also understand that there’s no shortcut in the road to recovery; be patient with your progress. Achieving a healthier mindset will give you the strength you need to stay sober.

Last Updated:


Addiction Center

Photo of Addiction Center
  • Since 2014, Addiction Center has been an informational web guide for those who are struggling with substance use disorders and co-occurring behavioral and mental health disorders. All content included on Addiction Center is created by our team of researchers and journalists. Our articles are fact-based and sourced from relevant publications, government agencies and medical journals.

  • More from Addiction Center