Empathy Isn’t Everything: Men Need Action
I hear a lot in recovery circles about empathy being the primary force in addiction recovery. About how loving, compassion keeps you sober.
The whole notion seems to have become a spiritual/recovery axiom wrapped in a clichéd quote at a meeting, or as a slick soundbite on a daytime TV expose into addiction and recovery.
In my experience at two years sober, the idea that empathy keeps you sober is true, but a half-truth, and a potentially dangerous one.
Don’t get me wrong; I think empathy and compassion are great virtues.
They are highly important factors in anyone’s recovery from addiction, and it’s no doubt that I myself got sober due to wise, caring empathetic people in those terror-stricken weeks during my rock bottom.
It is empathy and compassion that allows you to process the painful, guilt-inducing parts of your behaviour, helping you come to terms with the depths you sank to in active addiction.
Further still, the foundation of empathy and compassion is the antidote to the aggression of the untreated addict mind, the neurotic frenzied head that spins all manner of tales about yourself, your friends (and supposed enemies) and your life.
Having the security of other addicts to share your deepest fears and concerns with is life changing, however, to maintain that change, you need to take action.
Negative Life Narratives
When I look back at my own failed attempts to get sober before I ‘got it’, I can see that I did actually have the soft cushion of empathy, even though I would have said I did not.
There was empathy from therapists, friends, and even some family members. That could get me to stop at times, yet I still drank and used again eventually.
It wasn’t until I began looking deeply into myself that I could answer that question, yet essentially until I started taking responsibility for my feelings and the stories I tell myself, I was always damned to remain a victim with all the compassion I could want.
In recovery I’ve begun to see that while compassion was the opening for me to get honest, once I walked through that door, I still stayed in a place of victimhood.
I could tell my tragic tale to people and they’d feel sorry for me, and my ego would reinforce the most insidious of all tales: that I’m a victim.
If an addict is free to tell himself he’s a victim, then the result is the proverbial ‘poor me, poor me, pour me another drink’.
The turning point for me was being confronted by an experienced old war dog of a recovering alcoholic who heard my story, had compassion, and then asked: ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’
‘What am I going to do about it!?’ I remember thinking exasperatedly. ‘There’s nothing I can do! I’m the one who’s been wronged!’
Just the mere introduction of the idea I could do something if I was willing to take action planted a seed that has grown into long-term, stable recovery.
The notion that I have personal agency in the stories I tell others about my life, and how I process such stories with regard to my own vision of myself was deeply challenging.
However, in accepting that my addictions were tantamount to my own perceived victimhood, I had to start acknowledging that I’m not a victim to my surroundings, my life situation and my feelings.
Yet I felt that familiar old voice come creeping back, ‘If I don’t have my victim story, who even am I? I need to have some identity!’
The Identity of Pain
This desperation to have an identity showed me my pain defined me.
I wanted the world to see my pain, understand how I was wronged and take pity on me.
I felt that if the world saw that they’d feel sorry for me, respect me, treat my like a returning war hero.
But that never happened. In fact, I never got the attention I desired, and things got worse and worse as I felt more alienated from people, and less trusting of them on a visceral level.
‘I was abused, I was beaten, I was forced to take drugs before I was an adult, my father abandoned me!’ The voice went on and on, until I was ready to finally question it and ask, ‘But does this victim mentality, even if it’s true, really serve me?’
And there’s the rub.
For me, the sacrificing of my victim identity opened me up to take action, it released me from defining myself with painful experiences, and planted me in the present, at the whim of what is in present reality.
In welcoming in reality as it is, before I could define it with my victim story, I was freed.
At this juncture, I was left with a choice: Begin life afresh or stay in the victim mentality.
Only an addict in long-term recovery knows how his addiction starts in his mind and uses stories to convince him to drink.
That’s the most chronic manifestation of alcoholism.
The physical withdrawals are terrifying and can kill you in a brutal manner, but after a few weeks you’re through that, then its years with the alcoholic mind and the alcoholic mind loves to tell you you’re the victim of life.
In taking action, you steer clear of the victim mentality one day at a time.
How to take action
Action takes many forms, but all of them involve connecting with other people, telling the truth the best you can, living in reality and living by a code.
12-step groups are great for this, therapy is helpful, martial arts groups are excellent too, with the principles, camaraderie and authenticity found therein a powerful force in a recovering man’s heart and soul.
What has proved vitally important to pretty much every recovering addict I know, however, is a spiritual life.
This doesn’t mean to say you have to believe in God per se, yet meditation, journaling, walks in nature and gratitude for being and some form of respectful worship to the power of life outside of your conception of self is vital.
Such acts connect you with a power larger than yourself. They tell your inner victim it is not needed as the present state of being is what and where you truly are, and that all else is just stories.
Empathy and Action
So herein you can see how empathy is effective in helping an addict open himself up, but to make that opening up meaningful, empathy needs to be combined with action.
This isn’t a new idea.
Empathy and action are a reconceptualization of older spiritual truths: Yin and Yang/mercy and justice, and so forth.
Where one element opens the soul, the other manifests that energy into reality, and in addiction recovery, this is a pattern that needs to be consistently repeated:
Confront an obstacle/perceived problem, find compassion and empathy, and then take consistent and disciplined action.
Perhaps even more important is the ability to show empathy to someone else, being mindful however that you do not let them slip away into the chaos of self-centred sentimentalism, knowing that while empathy is a necessary starting point, it must eventually mature into action.