We know. It’s difficult to get through to a loved one who is addicted. It’s hard to understand how this person you love and cared for could do this to themselves or to others. It’s hard to empathize with an addict and it’s also very necessary. Because you have to help an addict help themselves.

Empathy is one of the most valuable tools that friends, family and spouses have to help a loved one who is addicted.

Don’t Confuse Empathy with Sympathy

  • Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person.
  • Sympathy is the feelings of pity or sorrow for another person.

You can use empathy to help an addict but should refrain from using sympathy.

Analogy: Imagine that the addicted person in your live is in a hole. They are trapped there with no way out. A sympathetic person would walk by, see that person and feel sorrow for their situation. An empathetic person will jump in and boost that person out of the hole.

Empathy is one step from compassion, where action is taken to get them out of their situation while understanding their feelings [1].

Knowing what to say to a loved one who is addicted to drugs or alcohol is a lot easier when you can understand where they are coming from.

Empathy in Interventions

If you want to make an impact during an intervention for an addict, you must begin with empathy. To foster a positive change, you have to provide empathy, honesty, and acceptance [2]. This is the best way to help an addict.

Addiction treatment center counselors use the power of empathy to help addicts make positive changes in their lives.

Once you have empathized, told the truth and accepted the addict for who they are, faults included, you can move onto confrontation.

In counselling, the term therapeutic confrontation describes “the process by which a therapist provides direct, reality-oriented feedback to a client regarding the client’s own thoughts, feelings or behavior”.

Though this is best handled by a therapist, there is something that family members and loved ones can learn. Direct, truth and reality-oriented feedback is the most important part of any intervention. And beginning with empathy is the only way to get without shutting down the addict.

How to Have Empathy During Interventions

Empathy is an important tool for positive therapeutic interventions [3]

The most important thing to strive for during an intervention is a connection which you can achieve through empathy.

“The truth is, rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.” [4]

Put positive reminders in your notes to remember to be empathetic. Here are a few examples:

  • Don’t judge what you can’t understand.
  • Empathy is the opposite of anger.
  • Remember that they have love, strength and honesty within them, even if its buried.

Don’t Allow Empathy to Become Enabling

Empathy can still be strong, straight and true. To help an addict you have to use tough love, you have to get them to stop taking drugs or drinking alcohol.

You have to be strong for them. The best way to ensure you don’t confuse empathy with enabling is to create a strict set of rules and consequences and to follow them no matter the circumstances.

Think of it as a budget, or diet or schedule, if you don’t follow it completely, it is not effective.


[1]: Psychology Today: Empathy Vs Sympathy

[2]: William White Papers: The Use of Confrontation in Addiction Treatment History, Science, and Time for Change [PDF]

[3]: Psychosocial: Empathy in Psychosocial Intervention: a theoretical overview

[4]: Crisis Intervention Center: Empathy and Crisis Intervention: The Power of Human Connection

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