The Curious Link between Addiction & Empathy

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Anita Stewart-Toi

In my practice as a Naturopath & Coach, I work mainly with women experiencing stress, anxiety and depression, and while I don’t market myself as an expert in addiction by any means I do notice addictive patterns of thought and behaviour in many of my clients. This ranges from mild substance abuse of recreational drugs, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, to addictions to food (sugar in particular), to exercise and over-spending.

We’ve all heard the term ‘addictive personality’, you probably have a family member whom brandishes it around about someone they know with a drinking or gambling problem. Personally, I’ve never liked this term and being a Wellness Coach interested in transformation I’m not satisfied with such a limiting description. It implies a fixed state, something one is born with and lumped with for life that provides a superficial reasoning for certain behavioural patterns.

I believe it’s far more helpful to acknowledge that every person with an issue of addiction is a complex layered human being with a variety of experiences that has culminated in the addictive behaviour. It’s also helpful to look for commonalities between them asking deeper questions such as ‘How do they handle stress?’ ‘How much and what type of support have they had?’ ‘Where is the connection in their lives?’ and ‘Why are they seeking an outside source to meet their needs when they know it is destructive?’

I wanted to share just one of these underlying commonalities that I’ve discovered both in my practice and within my own life experience where I have found a tendency towards addiction, and that is with people whom display high levels of empathy. But the caveat I wish to add is that I only see this with people whom have struggled in some way with their gift of empathy; either by misunderstanding that it is in-fact a gift or simply not knowing how to protect themselves in a world that doesn’t feel like it was built for them.

Author and speaker Elaine Aron is an expert in the ‘Highly Sensitive Person’ (HSP). She describes the HSP as someone whom is extra sensitive to stimuli such as loud noise, bright lights, strong tastes and smells, violence, crowds etc. These people often need more quiet time alone and have a rich inner life and were described as shy or sensitive children growing up. Reading her book many years ago was a game changer for me as I finally understood myself in the context of an HSP and not just someone who constantly struggled with many ordinary situations.

So, we have HSPs whom often have high levels of empathy but then we have Empaths and an Empath can be described as someone who actually takes on the energy of others, into their own physical being. They are highly sensitive too but even more so in the emotional realm and can literally feel the feelings of others around them.

An author whom has done some great work in this area is Dr. Judith Orloff and I know the concept will be sounding pretty wild to some of you. However, I assure you it happens because it happens to me regularly and has done my entire life! I often feel the energy of a client before they walk through my door. On one occasion, I had a busy working Mum come see me and she was sitting up straight and telling me that she was fine and coping well and just needed some vitamins or herbs to help her through her day but in my body was an undeniable fatigue. I knew that below the surface this woman could sleep for 3 weeks straight, she was bone tired. I knew it because I was fine 15 minutes prior to meeting her and I perked up again when she left but the level of fatigue she was hiding as she spoke to me was profound!

I’ve broken out in pimples the day after an acne case, I’ve developed a weird bruise from a blood disorder case and nearly vomited and passed out after working with someone who had just finished chemo. I know it sounds crazy but its real and several of the women I have worked with experience this too in lesser degrees. Some of the Empaths I know work in the healing professions as nurses, aged care workers, counselors or spiritual healers. It is particularly important to understand this concept as an Empath who works in a field where they are helping others as the tendency is to continually absorb energy without knowing how to process it.

Often what happens to an Empath is that they simply don’t know how to cope with this level of intensity and so they begin to find ways to dissociate and leave their bodies in an energetic sense. It feels too hard to be in the body feeling everything you are exposed to so the empath looks for ways to dissociate or numb the experience. This is where addiction can develop in people with this nature. The effects of too much alcohol, certain drugs, constant distraction via social media and overeating foods, particularly carbohydrates can induce an opioid-like numbing state that helps us not to feel so deeply. This may begin as a relatively harmless and unconscious method of self-protection but it can obviously lead to an unhealthy state that is difficult to change.

There is of course a much healthier way to cope with being a Highly Sensitive Person and an Empath and that is to become educated about what this means and how you can manage it effectively. Learning more about yourself and accepting your innate gifts will allow you to manage your energy in a way that doesn’t deplete. The world needs more empathy, more sensitivity and more love and understanding, this is your SUPERPOWER but you must know how to manage it first before you can help others.

It’s been a long learning curve for myself as a practitioner. I’ve heard the calling to serve others for a long time but it took some practice and roundabouts before I knew how to offer that without destroying myself in the process. I still trip up occasionally but I know my limits, my boundaries, what my own energy feels like compared to someone else’s and I know how to replenish myself regularly so that I can keep giving my best.

If this is something you can relate to or struggle with I’d love to hear from you.

Here are some great resources to start your journey into self-discovery




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