Have You Fallen Into the Empathy Trap?

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Addicts do need our empathy, but only to a point. You can empathize with your loved one about what it’s like to struggle with a progressive disease like addiction or go through the stages of recovery. But you do not need to make excuses for why they use drugs or alcohol. By doing this, you’re only contributing to the problem and allowing the addiction to continue.

You may be wondering how you even got to this point. When your child was younger or you first met your spouse, you would have never imagined enabling this type of behavior. So what happened?

Couples Sharing EmotionPhoto Credit: FreeImages.com/FranciscoNavarro

For many people, it’s the empathy trap.

What is the Empathy Trap?

According to research, addiction decreases the brain’s ability to feel empathy. This means that as your loved one progresses through the stages of addiction, they stop empathizing with others. Instead, many addicts become manipulative and realize that these behaviors are what get them what they want: a free place to live, more cash to score drugs, somewhere to get high, etc.

The stronger the addiction becomes, the more control it has of the person. Your loved one is going to do what they need to do to continue their habit, and so they are more likely to leach onto people who are empathetic. This, in short, is the empathy trap.

Climbing Out of the Trap

If you have fallen into this trap, it’s important to get yourself out. Otherwise, you are feeding the addiction and allowing the manipulation to continue.

Of course you are not doing this for the wrong reasons. You are an empathetic person and don’t want to feel bad. (This is part of the trap.) But you must realize the consequences to your actions. Talking to a therapist can help.

In the meantime, here are some tips.

  • Admit the Addiction. By denying the addiction, both you and your loved one are living inside the trap. You will continue to offer financial and emotional help without ever confronting the true problem. See the addiction for what it is. It’s the first step.
  • Avoid Enabling. Do not confuse empathy with enablement. You can continue to care about your loved one without enabling their addiction. You must know when to say “no.”
  • Practice Tough Love. It’s not easy to practice tough love, but it is necessary when dealing with addicts. For many addicts, it’s not until they are given this tough love that they have some desire to quit using.

Family members of addicts need counseling, too. Speak with a professional about how you can better handle this situation and climb out from the empathy trap.