The Value of Compassion in Addiction Treatment and Recovery
Different people think of different attributes when it comes to addiction recovery. Some people may think of discipline or self-control. Others may think of social connection or spirituality.
One attribute that is critical for everyone involved--treatment professionals, family and friends, and people with substance use disorders--is compassion. Compassion plays a vital role at every stage of recovery for the following reasons.
Addiction Is Fueled by Pain
The most important thing to understand about addiction is that most of the time, it’s fueled by pain. Most people who struggle with substance use have some kind of trauma in their past, whether it was childhood abuse, neglect, domestic abuse, sexual assault, or some other traumatic event. The pain of trauma can last years, perhaps even your whole life. Many people use drugs and alcohol as a way to escape the pain in their own heads.
Typically, addiction treatment professionals are well aware of this, often from firsthand experience. Their compassion for people feeling that pain is what inspired them to work in this field. However, it’s also critical for family and friends to understand this. Seeing the pain behind addiction can be hard at times, especially since addictive behavior negatively affects family and friends.
For example, it can be hard to have compassion for someone when you feel like that person is manipulating, deceiving, or otherwise taking advantage of you. Addictive behavior can seem like the height of self-involvement, especially when the pain is buried beneath aggressive or secretive behavior. As challenging as it might be at times, family and friends have to remember their loved one is acting that way because they are hurting. Compassion, not criticism or judgment, is typically what helps the most in the end.
Compassion for Yourself Is Critical
It’s also crucial for anyone with a substance use disorder to develop compassion for themselves. People with substance use issues can often be extremely compassionate towards others and extremely harsh on themselves. This is especially true for people with co-occurring conditions like major depression and anxiety disorders. If you struggle with addiction, you are probably no stranger to self-critical thoughts.
You may think things like, “Why am I like this? Why can’t I stop? What’s wrong with me?” Often, the self-criticism goes much deeper than that and precedes substance use by years. You may feel a deep sense of shame or worthlessness. If you pay attention, you’ll probably notice that you say all kinds of nasty things to yourself, probably things other people have said to you and you accepted as true.
Perhaps worst of all, you may feel like flagellating yourself in this way will inspire you to be better. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. It’s almost impossible to make positive changes from a place of shame and hopelessness. A much better approach is to work on being more compassionate and supportive toward yourself. Try talking to yourself the way you would talk to your best friend. Accept that we all make mistakes and know that even your really bad blunders don’t make you a failure or a horrible person; they just make you human.
Compassion Brings People Together
Finding a sense of social connection is an important part of addiction recovery. It gives you a sense of purpose and accountability, whereas loneliness, isolation, and alienation typically lead to depression, anxiety, and hopelessness. Connection makes you feel better about life and keeps you focused on recovery. Few attributes are as good for fostering social connection as compassion.
People like to know that you care if they are hurting and want to help. When you have compassion, you listen and try to understand rather than make judgments or just wait for your turn to talk. When you are part of a group that values compassion, you know you can talk to each other and rely on each other.
Compassion for others makes you happier.
One thing people are often surprised to discover about compassion is that it makes you happier. Too often, we get caught up chasing our own happiness and, as a result, end up feeling dissatisfied and miserable.
We may think of caring for others as an obligation or a burden, but in fact, it’s one of the best ways to boost your own happiness. There are even a number of scientific studies showing that participants who work on increasing their feeling of compassion through metta, or loving-kindness, meditation, report a long-term increase in positive emotions.
How to Develop Compassion
Nearly all of us have some baseline of compassion already. We wince when we see someone get hurt, we want to protect small animals, and we feel bad when we hurt people we care about. The main thing is to build on the compassion you already feel. Remind yourself periodically that you want the people close to you to be happy and safe and help when you can.
However, the real challenge is feeling compassion for people we don’t get along with or particularly dislike. Inevitably, there will be some of these people in your family, at work, in your therapy group, or at your 12-Step meeting. The key here is to recognize what you have in common. You both want to be happy and feel like you matter.
You both have suffered pain and disappointments. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that behavior that seems obnoxious to you is usually caused by some kind of pain or insecurity. Being able to understand that pain and wanting to relieve it is what compassion is all about.
Compassion is critical at every phase of addiction recovery. No one recovers alone; everyone needs love and support. Compassion for yourself is always the place to start and sometimes this is the hardest to nurture. Compassion for others builds strong social connections.
At The Foundry, compassion is one of our guiding principles. We know that recovery from addiction is first and foremost a process of healing and our caring staff uses a variety of evidence based treatments to help our clients heal. To learn more about our treatment programs, call us today at (844) 955-1066.