“Empathy” is different than “sympathy”
It’s true; there is a difference between empathy and sympathy. Let’s look at the basic definitions of these two words.
“Empathy is the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”
“Sympathy is the sharing of another’s emotions, especially of sorrow or anguish; pity; compassion.”
The difference is subtle. A person can feel empathy when they are able to identify with the life experience of another, while a person can feel sympathy when they find themselves sharing in another’s sorrow or anguish. Let’s take the case of a good friend whose parent dies suddenly. You can sympathize with your friend’s loss; however, if you have never experienced the loss of a parent you cannot empathize with such a loss as you have never felt this pain.
An interventionist brings empathy to the intervention process
If you have a family member who suffers from the disease of addiction, then chances are you have considered an intervention. Often family members feel frustration when dealing with their loved one, as they cannot understand why they just can’t quit. The truth is addiction is a family disease, but it is not unusual for this disease to “skip” a generation or two, which means that parents and grandparents of the addicted person cannot empathize with their loved one’s experience, feelings, or thoughts. This inability to empathize can make for a difficult family dynamic. The parents and extended family members can feel sadness for their loved one’s situation, but they struggle to identify with the situation.
An interventionist can assist a family to successfully steer the addict/alcoholic (often suffering from co-occurring disorders) to drug and alcohol treatment, because more than likely the interventionist’s life story includes ongoing recovery from the disease of addiction. The interventionist brings empathy to the intervention process, while the family members may only be able to feel sympathy for their loved one.
An interventionist is therefore a mediator and necessary component to getting the loved one into a suitable drug and alcohol treatment program. Often, this is too great of a feat for the family and loved ones to do on their own because they are too emotionally involved with and impacted by the addict’s behaviors and despair. Interventionists provide knowledge where there is confusion, clarity where there is fog, solution where there is dismay and hope where there is despair.
Empathy plays a role in Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon
One can experience the miracle of empathy when they are introduced to a 12-Step program like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Al-Anon. The person suffering from the disease of addiction often has trouble feeling empathetic; however, becoming involved in AA can help a person feel safe with the knowledge that they are receiving empathetic support from their fellow AA members. As the Twelfth Steps says: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” Part of the message is expressing empathy.
According to Al-Anon: “after attending Al Anon meetings, they [family members] begin to understand how much they have in common with everyone affected by someone else’s drinking, regardless of the specific details of their personal situation.” The commonality experienced in an Al-Anon meeting is a form of empathy.
Can you teach people to be empathetic?
So, can you teach people to be empathetic? You might think the quick answer to this question is a resounding “NO!” But maybe the truth is you can teach people to recognize that they do share a common bond with those suffering from diseases, including mental health disorders. Sometimes we are very capable of hiding our life experiences and avoiding empathy.
Just this week the Medford Mail Tribune (Medford, OR) published an article on a new training program being offered to members of the Medford Police Department to learn how to respond to a mentally ill person in crisis. As one police lieutenant offered: “Mental illness is a medical condition. It’s like diabetes. If I had diabetes, no one would think it was my fault.” The article, An Exercise In Empathy went on to say:
“The issue of mental illness hits home within all aspects of the community, Whipple said. There are officers with autistic children, parents who have Alzheimer’s, and siblings struggling with depression or other disorders, he said, adding he’s pleased with the changes, and eager to begin the training process.”
Also this week, we came across a really beautiful video produced by the Cleveland Clinic: Empathy
If you are having trouble viewing the video, you can watch it here.
Like many challenges in life, you were not meant to face the disease of addiction alone –
an intervention is part of the road map to how you can spark help and hope for you and the one suffering from alcoholism and addiction through initiating an
intervention and drug treatment.