How Empathy & Understanding are Better Responses to Addiction than Judgment & Moralizing

by Daniel D. Maurer

I’m going into my sixth year of continuous sobriety. Do you know one aspect I’ve discovered about myself?

It’s easy for me to get on my high horse about addiction.

I don’t relish revealing this to you—I would like you to think that since I’ve “been there”, I am much more empathetic in my response toward others’ struggles with learning how to live without drugs or alcohol. I suppose my eventual response I give to family, friends—even to the way our society shapes policy with regard to addiction—ultimately communicates compassion and understanding. At least I hope so.

But it’s not my kneejerk reaction.

I still fight with an overactive ego that seems to be on steroids, pumping iron in the background of my subconscious. I like to think that I’m better than other people, that the addiction I’ve overcome can never resurface, that my past is past and I’m a great guy. And I hear the messages bubbling up from who-knows-where:

• Why can’t she just get her act together? I mean, it’s been ten years already!

• This guy hasn’t hit bottom yet; there’s nothing I can do for him.

• Just quit drinking—things will improve! It’s not that big of a deal.

• Trevor! You know that keeping your dealer’s number on your phone isn’t a good idea. Idiot!!

Here’s the thing: these thoughts are complete bullshit. Mostly because if I were to say them out loud, the response invariably would be more pushback from the people I want to help in the first place.

Because that’s exactly how I reacted before I got sober with people who cared about me but only moralized and judged me.

The fact is judgment or moralizing to alcoholics or addicts in active addiction is the least effective method to bring change. Instead, understanding addiction and finding empathy for the person hold greater value. We need first to flesh out the reasons why one reaction is superior to the other to understand fully.

Empathy vs. Sympathy

People sometimes think that empathy and sympathy are the same things. They’re not. Sympathy simply acknowledges another person’s hardships and struggles. Instead, empathy is understanding what a person is thinking or feeling, because you’ve experienced it yourself, or at least you can put yourself in his or her shoes.

Here’s an example:


“You sure smoke a lot of pot. You want to quit and it’s an uphill battle.”


“I know it’s not easy to quit smoking pot because I remember how carefree it made me feel—I didn’t want to give it up.”

If the difference seems subtle, it’s because it is. The contrast between sympathy and empathy becomes clearer when you understand that empathy objectifies the problem, while sympathy objectifies the person.

When we objectify people, we reduce them to the “other” (i.e. “Sucks to be you.”) When we objectify the problem and genuinely strive to place ourselves in that person’s situation through understanding, we connect with them on an emotional level.

Dr. Brené Brown said it best in a TED Talk: “Empathy fuels connection . . . sympathy drives disconnection.” The following animated video explains the difference quite well.

So why is sympathy such a bad thing? Because it gives an easy path to judgment!

Sympathy: The Sure Path to Judgment, Moralizing, and “Tough Love”

Sympathy objectifies the person and essentially turns them into their problem.

The problem with problems is that they suck.

Take addiction: the person you once knew is now stealing, not showing up for work, driving drunk, spending all their money on drugs, destroying their health, etc. etc. It’s very easy when you see these problems manifest themselves in a person’s life to have an emotional response. I mean, who wouldn’t? You care about them and they’re destroying themselves!

However, emotional responses often lead to judging and moralizing the person for their problem instead of understanding addiction for what it really is—a brain illness that affects a person’s behavior.

Moralizing (commenting on problems with an unfounded air of superiority and lack of understanding) and judgment or “tough love” don’t work with addicts and alcoholics very well. Mostly because it’s part of what makes us addicts and alcoholics in the first place.

Why Judgment and Moralizing Don’t Work with Addiction

People suffering from the substance-use disorder are often stubborn and strong-willed. We don’t want to admit defeat and we certainly don’t want you telling us that we’re leading our lives the wrong way. Despite all the deleterious consequences drugs or alcohol cause, they seem to be doing something for us and we don’t want to give them up.

I recall one time when I was still in active addiction: my wife had come home after work and I was totally sloshed. Since I was blacked out I don’t remember most of the conversation, but I do recollect her smashing the dishes and screaming at me. Looking back, I can’t blame her—I had said I would quit drinking dozens of times, and there I was . . . drunk. Again.Her response was “natural.” The problem with her reaction was it only encouraged me to double down with my secrets.

This experience is common with parents, relatives, or friends of someone we know who is suffering from a substance addiction: the yelling, the screaming, the pleading, the promises or threats . . . they seem to go nowhere. Sometimes, the problem seems only to get worse.

Sympathy places the problem as an issue the “other” needs to deal with. It’s easy to react emotionally with all the frustration addiction offers.

Does that mean we don’t try to help? Not at all. It also means that the consequences associated with addiction are real and we shouldn’t be shy about laying down the law. However, we need to react in empathy for the very real struggle addiction is.

Why Empathy and Understanding Do Work

Empathy is the act of understanding a problem so wholly, that we ourselves experience the thoughts and emotions that the other person is dealing with.

Empathy is hard. It takes work. You need to authentically listen and relate.

Even if you haven’t experienced how horrible addiction can be (and how wonderful drug or alcohol use can seem), you can understand.

First, addiction is a disease of an organ in the human body; namely, the brain. Second, that the use of addictive chemicals hijacks a person’s decision-making abilities. And last, the following little tidbit, which encapsulates the whole point I’m making in this post:

The person is never the problem. The problem is the problem.

Empathy and understanding work for addiction, not because they are a non-intervening, permissive attitude. Quite the opposite in fact: knowing just how difficult it is to give up something you love (drugs and alcohol) makes the person who is addicted realize that you’re willing to understand, to relate.

When I finally got sober, my wife began attending Al-Anon and started to become healthier for herself. She also attended the family program at the treatment center I was attending. It helped her finally understand the struggle I was going through. She didn’t become permissive or stop caring, but her response was grounded in empathy instead of pity or anger.

Alongside the addiction treatment I got, I believe the work we both did ultimately saved our marriage. Today, I’m still sober. Empathy works because it’s real compassion grounded in understanding.

If you or a loved one are struggling with an addiction and need treatment, we would love to talk with you and see how we can help you. PLEASE CALL (855) 430-9426. Our counselors are available to answer your questions.

Daniel D. Maurer is a freelance writer openly living in long-term recovery. He is the author of Sobriety: A Graphic Novel, a Hazelden Publishing, youth and young adult recovery resource. He lives with his family in Saint Paul, Minnesota. For more information on Dan and his work, see:

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