Anyone who has watched their friends or family members escalate into active and chronic addiction remarks on one horrifying aspect of that person’s personality change. They don’t seem to care—at all—about who they hurt in their determination to maintain a high.
Society has asked this question for as long as alcohol and drugs have been abused. Why does the addict seem to be so selfish and self-centered that they can, seemingly with impunity, break the hearts of their parents, spouses, children, friends, and neighbors?
Most of us have experienced this loss of conscience with someone we love and have been hurt by their lack of concern for the welfare of those they previously pledged to love. What is it that creates this phenomenon?
Oxytocin and Serotonin: Empathy Chemicals
The brain chemicals oxytocin and serotonin are the creators of empathy—the ability for humans to relate to and feel others’ pain. These are what enable us to feel for a loved one experiencing a painful moment and experience a sense of warmth when we hug someone or even play with a pet. The production of these two chemicals, as triggered by our sense of sight, smell, sound, and other emotional cues are what makes us care.
Empathy gives us the ability to relate to others when they are ashamed, embarrassed, or hurt. It is the component that bonds people together in times of crisis and joy. It is our common thread of understanding and compassion.
How Addiction Takes Away Empathy
During substance abuse, the chemical processes that occur bypass the natural oxytocin and serotonin triggers. As the addiction takes, fewer and fewer experiences will release these hormones. The brain responds more frequently and powerfully to the only pleasurable stimulus it can now recognize, which is the substance.
Even then, the phenomenon of craving and relief begins to build up to what we call tolerance, meaning that greater amounts of the substance are required to give the addict the same feeling of well-being. As it escalates, the addicts’ ability to empathize with people he or she previously loved and cared about is further diminished. Soon, the connections and ability to care for people or things that were important to the addict are broken.
Can We Restore Empathy?
While their ability to connect and care may be broken, they’re never truly disconnected. In fact, many addicts become overly emotional regarding their behavior and have trouble feeling balanced. In recovery, the person with an addiction will aim to return to emotional, physical, and spiritual health. This includes restoring emotional bonds with loved ones, but in healthier ways that do not include shame, remorse, and guilt.
As the addict moves forward and leaves their addiction phase further into the past, reconnecting with others in healthy relationships becomes more and more possible.
In early recovery, here are 15 ways a person with an addiction can begin to regain their sense of empathy:
1. Being of service to other addicts and working to regain self-esteem and self-worth by helping others. Learn more about the wonders of volunteering.
2. Taking inventory of the damage they may have done during active addiction.
3. Making amends to those they hurt (Steps 4 and 9 of The 12-Steps)
4. Asking for help from someone who has reconnected with their loved ones. If they’re taking the 12-Steps, they can find a good sponsor.
5. Beginning to pay back any money owed, a tiny amount at a time, where necessary.
6. Becoming honest with others; trust is regained over long periods of time, by small steps, taken consistently.
7. Putting others’ needs before their own.
8. Learning to sit with their loved ones and listen to their needs, ideas, and dreams.
9. Becoming responsible to care for simple things such as a plant, a goldfish, a cat or dog, and growing relationships from that point to learn how to become less selfish.
10. Simple acts of kindness for strangers, such as opening doors for others and being available to assist others as needed whenever possible.
11. Consistently doing what they say they will do and when they say they will do those things.
12. Taking care of their environment and being responsible for simple tasks, such as making their bed each day, washing their dishes after each meal; increasing their own sense of self-esteem and self-worth and establishing consistent patterns of behavior that were destroyed by addiction.
13. Becoming financially and morally accountable for themselves. After all, no one can be held accountable by another person if they cannot be responsible for themselves. Trust begins in one’s own skin. These tips on better managing money in early recovery may help.
14. Maintaining abstinence, because the longer the addict stays away from the abused substance(s), the more stable his or her serotonin and oxytocin production will become.
15. Doing one thing every day for another, such as finding one simple task to perform to help a family member or friend, and not telling them about it. For example, buying flowers for his or her mother and leaving them in her home anonymously, or sending a thank you card to a friend who has been supportive.
As self-esteem and self-worth begin to grow in the addict, they are able to feel for others and empathy is re-established in their lives. In fact, many people are astonished at the lengths addicts in recovery will go to help each other. The supportive environment found in 12-Step groups is a great example of how empathy works after addiction. The unselfish devotion of these recovering addicts to overcome their own addiction and help other addicts do the same is a testimony to the hope of restoring one's sense of empathy through recovery.