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Empathy and Addiction: A Quest for Connection

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How is the individual to embrace an empathetic approach towards an individualized occurrence of addiction? Just as there are a variety of ways in how one might define empathy, there too is both a complex and chaotic understanding of addiction. Addiction is an emotionally charged experience for the world as a whole, which includes the individual as well. Our understanding of addiction, our emotional biases, our understanding of its existence, etc., provides a variety of interpretations that inevitably are discerned by the individual’s perceptual lens. Empathy is a term from which the meaning has broadened to a point of uncertainty. Here I am continuing a past discussion where I acknowledged empathy towards the individuals struggling with addiction from December 15, 2012 – Torment and Addiction: The Shadow Paradox. For clarity, McWilliams (1994) reminds us of the importance of empathy. When discussing addiction empathy is profound, where the other does not sympathize with, but unites in feeling with the individual. McWilliams stated:

“The term empathy has been watered down to virtual uselessness in recent times. Still there is no other existing word that gets at the quality of ‘feeling with’ rather than ‘feeling for’ that constitutes the original reason for distinguishing between empathy and sympathy…The capacity to feel emotionally what the” other is feeling (p. 12).

When I wrote A Struggle Towards Compassion – July 8, 2012, I had been thinking on how we as the individualized person might consider the individuals within the occurrence of addiction. I could not remove myself from the statement “when all poor are undeserving there is no need for public compassion” (Mooney, 2005, p. 140). I mention compassion as it allows for the consideration of another. I will write more on compassion in regard to self-compassion, yet for now I would like to briefly mention compassion for the addict who is struggling with the experience of compassion towards oneself. To be self-compassionate towards oneself is the consideration of oneself within personal suffering. It is from the difficulty that an individual found resolve in what had manifested into the governing addiction. “Self-compassion can be viewed as an emotional regulation strategy in which negative feelings are held in awareness with kindness and a sense of shared common humanity” (Wei, et. al., 2011, p. 193).

There is a great deal of torment surrounding addiction to block an empathetic approach; a blockade that within the structure of society, cultural reasoning, the constellation of complexes, and the projection of shadow content, one may toil with not only how, but what it is to empathize with an individual who is addicted. Empathy is an interpersonal understanding, referring “to the capacity to bring about in ourselves another’s affective states without actually placing ourselves in their situation” (Ravenscroft, 1998, p. 170). Though our theoretical understanding and perceptual lens for reasoning exists, empathy requires a gesture beyond such comforts. This notion of a gap between theory and experience will be discussed in a later writing after an aspect of empathy has been introduced here.

There is torment to be had for the addict and for those who have been caught within the perilous void of an addict’s life. We are all affected to a degree which may constellate complexes unknown to us, yet the intensity of the emotion may be unrelenting, a debilitating pain, a tension to cause ones sight to be biased; which is not to be judged but understood. Empathy in regard to the other, the addict, may be seen as “recognizing which of another agent’s thoughts are relevant in specific contexts…the practical ability of reenacting another person’s thoughts in one’s own mind” (Stueber, 2013, 3.2., para 3).

“Empathy might allow me to recognize that I would have acted in the same manner as somebody else. Yet it does not epistemically sanction the claim that anybody of a particular type or anybody who is in that type of situation will act in this manner” (Stueber, 2013, 3.2., para 1).

References

Kirby, M. (1987). A formalist theatre. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Lehrer, J. (2009). Unlocking the mysteries of the artistic mind. Psychology Today, 42(4), p. 72-77

Ravenscroft, I. (1998). What is it like to be someone else: Simulation and empathy. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Ltd

Rutgers, M. (2012). How to Do Things Without Theory. Administrative Theory & Praxis. 34(3), 457–461.

Stueber, K. (2013) Empathy, (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Retrieved from: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/empathy/

Wei, M., Liao, K., Ku, Y., and Shaffer, P. (2011). Attachment, Self-Compassion, Empathy, and Subjective Well-Being Among College Students and Community Adults. Journal of Personality 79(1), p. 191 – 121

© All Rights Reserved

Erik J. Welsh, PhD
- Author of The Addiction Complex

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