3 Ways to Build Empathy in Recovery

Empathy is a useful trait to have in recovery. It helps you support others and get out of your own head. It makes you more willing and eager to be of service. Empathy for the people you’ve hurt helps you make amends by showing people you understand what you put them through. Empathy also helps you let go of resentments and anger, as you can better appreciate other people’s perspectives. Most people have some degree of innate empathy. For example, few people can see someone get seriously injured without wincing. Sometimes when we are preoccupied with our own problems–like addiction, for example–our capacity for empathy atrophies a little. Fortunately, there are some ways to become more empathetic.

Listen. The simplest way to build empathy is to listen to others and try to imagine what they are going through. Meetings are the perfect place to practice. Instead of just waiting to talk, listen to the speakers and try to imagine what they experienced. Since many people have had similar experiences with addiction, this shouldn’t be too much of a stretch. Maybe someone has had it a little worse than you, but you can easily see how your life might have gone that way. Listen and try to understand rather than judge.

Make service a habit. Service is an important part of 12-step programs, but it doesn’t have to stop there. In daily life, see if there are small ways you can help people out. This has two major benefits. First, it gets you to consider what other people experience, what they might need, and how you might help. It’s very difficult to help someone out without anticipating their needs at some level, even if he’s just trying to leave the building as you’re walking in. Looking for ways to help gets you in the habit of taking someone else’s perspective.

Second, it gets you out of your own head. It’s normal to go through life wanting everything to be as convenient as possible, but few things are as convenient as possible. Taking a view that includes other people’s perspectives allows you to be less disturbed by these inconveniences. You might even be able to help things go more smoothly rather than causing more friction.

Practice loving-kindness meditation. This is a Buddhist idea, but in essence it’s a simple sort of visualization. Think of someone you’re close to–a best friend, a sibling, a mentor–and notice the feelings of warmth and gratitude that arise when you think of that person. Then, think of someone you like, but aren’t as close to, like a more casual friend, and try to extend the same feelings toward that person. Then do the same thing with a stranger you don’t’ feel anything about. If this goes well, try to extend warm feelings to someone you find irritating or challenging. This exercise is like weightlifting for empathy. It’s easy to feel empathy for people we like and hard to feel empathy for people we strongly disagree with, so don’t feel too bad if you can’t feel warmth for someone you dislike at first.

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