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The Empathy Trap and How to Avoid Falling For It

Empathy is what makes us human. It’s an ability to understand, genuinely feel and recognize another’s particular situation. Perhaps, more importantly, empathy is being compelled to help that person.

However, when a loved one is struggling with addiction, our empathetic reaction to help may cause more harm than good. Worse, our emotions may lead us into an empathy trap that actually fuels the addiction.

What is an Empathy Trap?

Simply put, an empathy trap is when our empathy turns into enabling. For example, a family member isn’t able to pay the rent, so we give them money. However, we may know or suspect — in the bottom of our hearts — the money isn’t actually for rent. We felt empathy due to their financially situation, but our empathy was actually created by the manipulation of this emotion.

Double Standards of Empathy

Although addiction has many ugly faces — abuse, depression, personality changes —nothing seems more common than addiction’s ability to manipulate. In broad terms, manipulation is playing a person’s own emotions against them, and empathy is emotionally fertile ground to manipulate. Unfortunately, the addict may not fully recognize their manipulative patterns.

According to many studies, addiction begins to dull the brain’s ability to feel empathy. In other words, as our empathy is manipulated, an addict’s ability to empathize with us — and recognize their own manipulation — slowly deteriorates. It’s essential to understand this double standard of one-way empathy, which is a victimization of our emotions, to avoid an empathy trap.

How to Avoid the Empathy Trap

Addicts do deserve our help and our empathy — to a point. Empathy is to be human, and we must try to help our loved ones recover. However, every time we fall into an empathy trap, we feed the addiction and embolden the manipulation. These three practices can help our emotions from being victimized.

  • See the Addiction: Addiction is commonly met with denial by loved ones. Through denial, we’re able to continue offering emotional, financial or physical help without hesitation. As we do this, we’re actually living inside the empathy trap. Not until we assert our recognition of the situation, can we climb out.
  • Stop Enabling: Empathy is not enabling. Although we may continue to care, we must not allow our empathy to become a victim of manipulation. This could be as simple as beginning to say “No.” Once we recognize the addiction, we’re better equipped to approach situations more emotionally mindful.
  • Tough Love: Tough love can be defined as a seemingly uncaring way to care for another. Tough love can be a difficult yet necessary step to help the addict and protect ourselves, as our empathy trap may be merely continuing a relationship. For someone to seek help from their addiction, they may need to actually believe that they’ve lost empathy from others.
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