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Why Empathy Matters in Recovery

Whether you’re recovering from addiction or mental illness, empathy is a valuable skill to cultivate. It can improve the quality of your recovery and make you happier and more fulfilled. Here’s how.

Empathy gets you out of your own head.

When things are bad, it’s easy to ruminate on your problems, your mistakes, your character flaws, and everyone else’s flaws. It feels unfair to be afflicted with an addiction or a mental health problem. And really, it is unfair, but you’re not the only one unfairly afflicted. Paying more attention to what others are going through and trying to understand how they feel is a good way to distract yourself from ruminating and get some perspective on your own problems.

Empathy improves social connection.

Feeling isolated, even if you aren’t, is a risk factor for all kinds of bad things, including illness, depression, and addiction. On the other hand, feeling socially connected protects against those things. You feel less depressed when you spend time with friends and you are less likely to relapse when you have a strong sober network. Improving your empathy skills is a good way to make friends and make existing relationships stronger. People like to know that you care about what they think and feel. Listening to what your friends have to say and asking good questions lets them know you value the relationship.

Empathy connects you to something bigger.

While being stuck in your own head makes you feel isolated, being concerned with other people’s wellbeing, even people you aren’t particularly close to, can make you feel more connected to the world and give you a sense of purpose. This is what some people in 12-step programs think of as their higher power and that sense of greater meaning encourages them to stay sober.

Empathy reminds you that your problems aren’t only your problems.

When you’re struggling with addiction or mental illness, you might feel the worst of it, but chances are that other people struggle with you. Your friends and family don’t like to see you suffer and they certainly don’t like it when you make them suffer. Having more empathy for your loved ones can give you extra incentive to recover because you know they suffer with you.

As valuable as empathy is to recovering from addiction or mental illness, there are times when you might want to take it easy. Other people’s suffering can be overwhelming if you dwell on it. You always have to make sure you aren’t making yourself miserable for no reason.

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