Empathy and Addiction

As I continue to explore my life, my personality and my emotions I uncover areas that require further thought or that are especially relevant to my addiction and recovery. This week, the topics of empathy and human connections has been what has stood out and I’ve spent some time thinking about it.

To me, empathy means being mindful of the feelings of others and also then acting on this knowledge in a selfless way. These are two things I am not very good at.

Empathy has stood out to me this week as my therapist pointed out how it relates to one of the acknowledged types of sex addictions – attachment-induced addiction. This is one of three types of addiction explored by Paula Hall in her book Understanding and Treating Sex Addiction. I never felt it really applied to me but through revisiting and considering my childhood I’ve started to change that opinion.

Essentially, the theory goes that the attachment-induced addict has struggled to build grounded, meaningful connections with others, often due to a lack of bonding or affection from parents or others close during early years, and has sought solace in addiction, where the acting out has provided a false yet temporarily-soothing connection to compensate for the lack of true connections in the addict’s real life.

I’ve always regarded myself as someone who is comfortable spending time on my own. I’ve taken pride in the fact that I don’t feel the social pressure to always be part of a group. The flip-side, now I think of it, is that perhaps I’ve said this as a way of explaining/justifying the difficulty I’ve had in being really close with others. I’ve always been on the outskirts of the groups my friends are in – never a solid members of any social circle. I’ve always known I don’t have one group of close friends and that I just hover around the edges of multiple social circles, and the result is that I haven’t really succeeded in establishing a strong friendship with many people in my life. In fact, I’d go so far to say that I don’t really have any close friends these days. One or two who I have a close friendship with when we meet up, but that’s only a few times a year! If I died tomorrow, I think it would be a while before any of my friends noticed, as we just aren’t that close or in touch any more.

I can see, then, how I may have actually been using porn to compensate for this (and by using it only making the problem worse – vicious circle). It isn’t difficult to see the link between having a lack of meaningful connections with others and using porn to soothe and provide temporary relief from this reality. In a fascinating article by Johann Hari posted in The Huffington Post only a week ago, he states “So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.“. His argument is that in his view (and he has some examples to back this up), addictions aren’t the result purely of a chemical or habitual need; but are in fact symptoms of a deeper lack of connection with other human beings. The article really hit home for me.

So if I make a hypothesis that part of my addiction has been as a way to compensate for a lack of connections in my life and for a lack of emotional attachment as a child, how has this happened? There are a few examples that resonate on this level to me, e.g. I had a pretty formal relationship with my parents who were extremely averse to showing any form of emotion, and I was sent to public boarding school when I was 8 until 18. I can see how this may have contributed to me being a bit ‘pent up’, not getting the love and affection that is ‘recommended’, and becoming overly independent to compensate, ensuring I was protected by not opening myself up too much. I’m still figuring this part of my life out so I won’t dwell further on it.

So, back to empathy. I feel that practicing empathy is a great way for me to start to put right the imbalance in human connection in my life. I’m not going to suddenly start building great friendships overnight, or even knowing how to be empathic without at least some hard work, but I can start with small steps. Send some birthday cards. Give my wife a massage when she wants one even if I don’t want to. Be more pro-active in offering help rather than waiting to be asked. Do things that are purely for others at the expense of my own desires, for a greater reward. Think about what others are going through and how they’re feeling when I meet with them, not just about myself.

Funnily enough I’ve always felt I am quite selfish, which my wife really disagrees with, but maybe selfish isn’t the right word – I’m just lacking in the levels of empathy that most of us have – being a bit too self-involved because I haven’t learnt very well how to open up to people and put them first. So this is something I’m really going to focus on this year. Being empathic.

Apologies for the slightly chaotic structure of this post. As you may be able to tell, I’m still trying to consider all these aspects of my life and figure how they are related to each other and what I need to do about it to improve my life and strengthen my recovery.

8 thoughts on “Empathy and Addiction

  1. Really relate to a lot of what you’ve written here. I also have few meaningful social connections these days, although was much more social in my youth.

    1. I find it hard to tell whether I have few meaningful social connections because I’ve spent so long looking at porn, or I look at porn because I have few meaningful social connections. I think it is a bit of both – I found porn soothes and allowed me to avoid worrying about things lacking in my life, but by using it that only made the problem worse. Classic addiction symptoms I suppose.

  2. Reblogged this on Dhammic Writer and commented:
    I don’t normally reblog other people’s stuff here, but I related to this post over at healing my brain so much I wanted to link to it here.

  3. I appreciate your articulate self-awareness and proactivity in understanding your addiction (reading, blogging, SAA, etc.). I am trying to heal from years of being married to a sex addict (with added bonus of “intimacy anorexia), whose addiction progressed from porn to prostitution. Your words touch a nerve with me. I wish my husband were motivated enough to at least try and do as much as you’re doing to fight the fight. He is a loner as well. As I go through my recovery, I spend less time trying to understand him and his issues but I’m drawn to your blog. Reading your posts, I am inspired an sad at the same time.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I follow your blog too so I have been reading your updates over the months, with sadness of the pain addiction has caused you. It has often served as a warning to me of how the negative consequences and harm caused by the addiction can escalate if not dealt with, and I suppose I feel lucky that I have started the recovery process before further harm has been caused to those I love.

      I think it is really positive that you are dealing with your situation constructively and you should be proud of yourself – it must be really hard. Blogging, talking to friends etc are healthy ways of dealing with this which is great. You come across as a sensitive and considerate person and I’m sure you have a joyful and fulfilling life ahead of you 🙂

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