Empathy and Compassion: Crossover Experiences That Cultivate Depth in Personal Healing

By Ken Wells - 06/24/2020


It has been my experience that the most impactful healing component in addressing addiction has been the cultivation of empathy and compassion. Each emphasize the importance of care for self and others. There is crossover with both components. Some think they are the same. Compassion and empathy are not magic bullets that end all suffering but they are a healing salve necessary for behavior transformation.

In the long term, these two attributes are more important than the length of your sobriety, whether you have completed the 12 steps or not, whether you have or are a sponsor or how much service you have rendered. All of these elements are crucial to recovery. Yet, empathy and compassion are of greatest importance. In my recovery practice these two companions have revolutionized my life. Professionally, as therapist, addicts who fail to cultivate sufficient compassion for self and others frequently relapse into old destructive behaviors. Many are able to avoid relapsing in their addiction. Yet, those same addicts who are known for their colorful recovery testimonies, service work and knowledge of the Big Book, continue to relapse in other intimacy disabling behaviors. I have heard the back story of suffering and pain of many who fit this category.

My observation is that what is often missing are these two cardinal ingredients of recovery that create integration within yourself by helping to separate your sense of self from your destructive behavior. Addict behavior must be separated from your sense of who you are. Our society is so prone to connect who we are with what we do. If you are a professional football player then that is who you are, when obviously it’s what you do not who you are. If you are diagnosed with diabetes- to be diabetic is a physical condition it is not the essence of who you are. If you act out in addiction, the behavior is what you have done, it is not who you are. It is an aberration.

Compassion and empathy help an addict listen to the irrational voice of addictive urge and translate craving into meeting the legitimate need underneath the urge in a healthy and productive way. If I resent and hate myself for being an addict then I will become deaf to the addictive voice and not understand how to meet the legitimate need in a healthy way. Employing empathy and self-compassion are necessary to sort out the addictive thought from the human need. These two powerful dynamics are not about going “soft” on yourself or giving yourself a pass, as if you are pampering a “poor baby” mentality. Rather, it’s like sitting in the middle of an intersection in New York City with a city bus barreling down on you. Immediately, you must get out of the way and then compassionately consider how you put yourself in this vulnerable place and what is the best way to care for yourself. It is not helpful to ream yourself out with self-criticism or vow to double down and never put yourself in that place again. Far too many addicts have been broken with this act of willfulness. You don’t beat yourself up to a better place.

A secret to serenity during the long journey of sobriety is to learn to bring yourself back to center when you stray from your values. This is true whether your stray is into high risk behavior or actual relapse. There is always guilt, shame and disappointment whenever you face the impact of relapse. The capacity to bring yourself back to center will require self-empathy and compassion. This behavioral development is often mistaken for excuse making and coddling addiction. Yet, when you look underneath the surface you begin to understand the depth and breadth of maturity that self-compassion and empathy require. While never accepting or minimizing the behavior, addicts must choose to love and accept themselves in the face of relapse and going against their values. This not a responsibility for the immature and faint of heart.

Cultivating self-empathy and compassion has been a painstaking journey for me. It was almost 30 years ago when I relapsed into addictive behavior. All the hangover feelings so common to this experience surrounded my life like a ghost grey thick fog. I hated myself and catastrophized about the future. I berated myself and my self-esteem descended into the basement. I was convinced I would never overcome my addiction struggle. Somehow I was able to muster the motion toward doing a “next right thing” action. I went to Ralph Earle’s office and ask if I could speak with him. He was a mentor and friend. Even though he was in the middle of a busy day, he took about 15 minutes to listen to my story of relapse. As I shared, the intensity of shame and self-disgust was apparent. He did not outline for me a detailed relapse recovery program or dig into the story surrounding my relapse. He simply remarked “you really are hard on yourself- why don’t you try forgiving and loving who you are and move forward”. At that time, this thought flowed over my body with healing warmth. It wasn’t the words or concept that provided powerful healing. It was the genuine challenge to not do more but to stop and love myself in the midst of failure. This felt like a warm healing salve covering my soul. Throughout the last 30 years in recovery, this seminal moment in recovery has anchored me in developing self-compassion and empathy that has helped to bring myself back to center countless number of times.

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