Aug 13, 2013 | By Tim Stoddart

Sympathy vs. Empathy

Relapse Prevention

It happens every once in a while….

In working a program of recovery and making sobriety an essential part of the life philosophy, people will take notice.  The notice that you receive is not necessarily going to be overt or obvious.  There will be times where people may ask or say something like this….

Yeah…um….I heard that you don’t drink/use drugs anymore…is that true?”

“I heard from a friend that you are in recovery, what’s it like?”

“I think it is great that you don’t use drugs or drink anymore…”

“So, you are a quitter, huh?”

As conversation starters or ice breakers they can be kind of awkward because once people know or hear that you are in recovery they may view you as somewhat of a curiosity and give you a bit of a sideways glance.  For the most part, people are curious about your experiences and what has changed for you because they probably haven’t experienced addiction either on a personal level or with a loved one or friend.

Others may feel a bit threatened because maybe they use (and maybe abuse) drugs and/or alcohol and feel that you may be invoking the soapbox preacher voice telling them the evil of their ways.  Some others, maybe out of trying to respect your space, may feel that drinking around you or talking it would make you uncomfortable (which in a lot of ways is totally understandable). Whatever the situation and however people put their spin on it, the fact that you are in recovery is planting seeds in the mind.

And there are others who may be struggling with addiction and looking for a way out of the mouth of madness.  In their eyes, you have what they want.  They may understand the work that must be put into recovery only on a basic working level, putting the work to get to a place of serenity is a more palatable path than the dead end street they are walking down.  You may get an email from them or an IM or maybe they see you in a social situation and muster up the courage to talk to you face to face.

When I speak with someone who is showing the wear and tear of addiction and are looking for help, I want to do all I can to provide the help and support they need.  I definitely have been in their shoes and have felt the weariness, unease, stress and pain.  I have felt what it is like to feel alone and being an orphan to your own soul.  It is a well-worn cliché, but the adage I don’t wish this on my worst enemy is dead on and totally accurate in this situation.

There is a part of me that wants to envelop that person in love and support and play a role in their healing and finding their way to a better place physically, mentally and spiritually.  I can definitely fell how palpable their yearning for a sober life.  However, as I feel the superhero start to envelop my soul and vision there is a part of me that throws up the stop sign and take pause.  There is a fine line between providing support and being consumed with trying to repair what is broken.

What is comes down to is understanding the difference between sympathy and empathy.  Both empathy and sympathy are feelings one has towards others and are examples of how human beings are able to be sensitive to the feelings of others.  However, there are differences between the two and knowing those differences is crucial in providing support to someone in recovery, especially the newcomer.

sympathy vs empathy

Sympathy can be defined as a tendency to help others in order to prevent or alleviate any suffering.  Helping others and being sensitive to their feelings is important, however those who are sympathetic to another’s situation may also feel pity and sorrow for that person.  The focus tends to be on the pain or misfortune itself.  There is a possibility that because pity or sorrow may be present, the person may feel inferior or disempowered.

Empathy is the ability not only to understand the feelings of another, but also the ability to share the feelings of another.  An easy way to describe empathy is the old saying you can put yourself in the other person’s shoes. As an empathetic person, we understand what someone is going through because we may share the same experiences.  Empathy is void of judgments and allows the innate parts of our sensitivity to feel out and understand the feelings of another.

In order to support and assist the newcomer in recovery, or the person already in recovery that may be struggling, an empathetic mindset is healthier and more productive in the long run.  In helping this person, we want to empower and find the strength within.  We want to use our experience and our sensitivity to give support and knowledge to those who struggle.  Ultimately, empathy shows that you have been there.

As stated before, sympathy tends to focus on the feeling itself and as a result there could be feelings of pity that can alienate because with pity there can be disempowerment.  In recovery, we know that we cannot take someone’s inventory and we cannot work someone’s program.  We can help the newly recovering person sharpen the sword to slay the beast but that person has to wield that sword.  Being sympathetic ultimately may undermine one’s recovery and do disservice to esteem.


Tim Powers – bald, tattooed, a business professional by day and rocker by night. Sober by the grace of God since the 8th of May in the year of our Lord 2003. Sharing my stories and myself in order to pay it forward. You can follow me @tpowersbass42


One response to “Sympathy vs. Empathy

  • Great article, Tim. I really enjoyed it and you clearly have helped others on the road to recovery.

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