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Empathy Important for Drug & Substance Abuse Counselors

Approximately 24.6 million people ages 12 and older in the United States – about 9.4% of the population – took an illicit substance in the month prior to a 2013 study released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Those figures, the most recently available from the federal government, cast light on the severity of the drug abuse problem in the U.S. While law enforcement officers serve on the frontlines in the battle against drugs, substance abuse counselors find themselves in the trenches.

These professionals work directly with individuals to help them overcome addictions and reclaim their lives. Those who choose to pursue this career path are likely to find taking an empathetic approach to treating drug addictions can help achieve desired results.

An Overview of Substance Abuse Counseling

Substance abuse counseling is meant to assist clients in achieving and maintaining abstinence from chemicals considered addictive and behaviors that drive their use. Its secondary goal is to help clients recover from damage done to their lives due to chemical use and addictive behaviors.

Addiction counseling seeks to achieve its goals by helping clients address the symptoms of their addictions. Counselors also delve into related areas of impaired functioning. The typical model is meant to involve a time-limited approach that relies on a 12-step ideology to focus on behavior change and self-help participation.

The process generally begins by helping the person acknowledge the presence of a problem and the irrational thinking that promotes the addiction. The person is meant to take responsibility for his or her actions and work through a recovery program with the help of a counselor or therapist.

Why Empathy Matters in Counseling

Empathy is the ability to understand and identify with another person’s feelings, motives or situation. Unlike sympathy, which involves feeling sorry for a person, empathy enables a clinician to understand a situation from a client’s perspective.

Empathy tends to reduce conflict, as well as improve communication and relationships, among other benefits. Its role in substance abuse counseling is built into the motivational intervention known as the FRAMES approach.

This approach calls for counselors to help clients by making sure the following treatment components are provided to clients:

  • Feedback – Counselors assess the client’s patterns of substance use and other related problems and provides feedback related to the client’s personal risk or impairment
  • Responsibility – Individuals must be responsible for making behavior changes
  • Advice – Counselors are urged make suggestions, rather than tell clients what they need to do
  • Menu – A self-directed list of change options and alternatives offered to a client
  • Empathic Counseling – Counselors employ reflective listening to show a client understanding, respect and warmth
  • Self-Efficacy – Counselors should empower clients with optimism to promote behavior change

Empathy is an excellent skill for both counselors and clients to learn. Counselors may, for example, use empathy to better understand their clients while seeking out the best methods to promote change.

Clients, too, can benefit from employing empathy to better understand the reactions of those around them. This skill may also help clients mend personal and professional relationships damaged by substance abuse.

Empathy without agreement is also an important skill for counselors and clients to know, as it involves understanding a point of view without necessarily agreeing with it. The overall goal of employing empathy in substance abuse counseling is to facilitate effective, healthy dialogue. Empathy without agreement can bridge a gap between opposing views while keeping communication flowing.

Developing Empathy

Empathy is a skill people can learn and develop over the course of time. It does require drawing on the imagination to gain insight into a person’s feelings. Counselors must set aside personal beliefs and opinions to better understand what a person is saying.

These tips can facilitate the development of empathy:

  • Be self-aware of issues that may impede the ability to empathize with others, such as personal problems that may cloud perspective.
  • Be mindful that approving thoughts, actions and behaviors is not necessary to empathize.
  • Understand that it is not possible to fully understand what another person is feeling or going through.
  • Practice empathetic listening by setting aside personal thoughts and focusing on the speaker rather than personal response.
  • Know that an immediate response isn’t required and that sometimes nothing needs to be said at all to demonstrate empathy.

Individuals who wish to dedicate their lives to helping others overcome addiction are likely to find empathy plays a very big role in the recovery process.

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