Ultimately, addiction makes us very, very selfish. In fact, it’s not even selfishness so much as we become a slave to our substance addiction. Nothing else matters, and certainly, no one else matters. Even if we were well-balanced with our social skills prior to our substance use, when we are active in our addiction, we tend to lose all empathy. When we choose recovery, we have the opportunity to explore empathy in our lives.
Empathy is the capacity to understand how someone else feels, to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. A lot of people have problems “reading” other people’s feelings, so we can’t be disappointed in ourselves if it doesn’t come naturally. But it is something that most of us can learn if we make a concerted effort. Learning empathy is a skill that not only helps us in our own recovery, it helps us to be more compassionate towards our fellow human beings.
Make Eye Contact
If the eyes are the mirror to the soul, then we should really try looking in that mirror to understand what someone else is feeling. This can be so hard for so many people! It is not a skill that comes naturally to many of us. And sometimes, even if we try to make eye contact, the other person may not reciprocate. We can only control ourselves, though.
Making eye contact is a non-verbal gesture that indicates to the other person that we care about them. It also provides feedback to us and helps us to match them emotionally. When we make the effort, it is amazing at how much communication is possible without even using any words.
Give Your Full Attention
We as human beings tend to be a little selfish, and sometimes we can monopolize a conversation to make it about us. Empathy is about the other person, though, so we need to close our mouths and give our full and undivided attention when they are telling their story. Even if we feel like we have something important to add to their story, when someone else is sharing, we need to close our mouths and open our ears.
This can also be hard for those of us who are easily distracted. When someone else is talking, it is very important for us to remain focused and listen, even if they like to talk a lot. If for some reason, we get distracted, it is probably better to apologize and ask them to repeat from wherever we last remember than to keep pretending that we know what they said when we didn’t. Ideally, though, we find coping skills to pay attention the entire time.
Listen and Hear
There is a difference between listening to what someone is saying and actually hearing it. Listening means that we pay attention to them when they are saying the words. Hearing means that we understand what they are trying to communicate. Hearing is absolutely a next-level skill compared to just listening, but it is a big part of having empathy.
For example, imagine that we are in treatment and someone is sharing a story about their childhood, something traumatic that happened. If we merely listened, then we might be able to offer some details of the story back if asked. However, if we truly heard them, then we would be able to explain how the trauma made the person feel, too.
Put Yourself in Someone Else’s Shoes
This is the action part of having empathy. It is not actually literally putting our feet in someone else’s shoes, it is imagining being in their situation. It is the complex and advanced skill of setting ourselves, our thoughts, concerns, and distractions aside, and imagining what it would be like to be another human being.
What is happening to them? What is their past, and how is it affecting them now? How do they feel about what has happened or what is happening to them? Can we truly step outside ourselves and try to imagine how they are feeling?
Empathy isn’t the same as sympathy, where we feel sadness or pity for someone who is experiencing something that is a negative stressor. Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in their shoes in good times and in bad. To feel what they are feeling, no matter where they are on the emotional spectrum.
In order to have empathy, we must open our hearts to another human being and find compassion. We look in their eyes, read their facial expressions, their body language, and listen to their words to be able to understand what they are feeling, instead of how we feel. We set ourselves aside to put ourselves in their shoes.
Anyone can explore empathy when they enter recovery. Enlight can help you or a loved one develop the skills to be more compassionate and to develop empathy for others. Call us today at (805) 719-7954 to speak to one of our admissions experts.