By Dr. Dean Aslinia

Helping a loved one struggling with a mental health illness or addiction can be a difficult challenge. Oftentimes, there is a huge rate of comorbidity (simultaneous presence of two conditions or diseases) when it comes to different types of addictions and mental health struggles. Similarly, the fine line of helping or enabling an individual is often the same, regardless of the type of illness or struggle.

Over the past decade, I have provided clinical counseling to many individuals and their families facing major life challenges such as overcoming substance, alcohol, or other process addictions. The theme that has emerged for me in working with these families is the presence of the enabling factor that ultimately hinders or completely derails the therapeutic or healing process. The typical scenario is one that a mother or a partner cannot endure seeing the suffering of their loved one taking place, and in an attempt to help their loved one, they inadvertently sabotage their healing journey.

The key foundational issue to understand and to educate these caretakers, is the difference between sympathy and empathy. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines sympathy in part as: “the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another”. With this notion, what happens for us, is that not only do we relate to our loved with in their moment of pain, but also that we enter into sharing their feelings with them. Anytime, you enter a zone of sharing a feeling, meaning actually feeling the pain, suffering, or distress, you lose any objective capacity to be able to help that individual. Because now, you are impacted by the same level of pain and in need of someone to help you with your negative emotional state. Conversely, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines empathy as: “the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it”. Simply put, empathy is the intellectual capacity to understand how someone feels. Notice with empathy, though you still cognitively fully relate and understand how miserable, and difficult of a position in which someone may be, you still maintain the objective space of not falling into your own emotional reactions.

In any helping profession, medical, mental health, crisis and first responders, etc… professionals are always taught how to practice empathy, meaning to intellectually understand someone’s pains. These professionals are always warned to be cautious of a sympathetic reaction. As that emotional reactivity could hinder their objective decision making and utilization of the most effective strategies, which may at the same time be the most difficult for the patient.

This is exactly what happens to a mother, who observes her son as he battled with withdrawal from his substance addiction. She sees him being in pain, screaming for help, and throwing himself around a room. Her heart as a mother, cannot help but to show sympathyfor her son. Thus, in an attempt to help him calm down, she provides him access to the same substance to which he is addicted.

If only she could realize that what her son needs at this crucial moment is not her sympathy, but rather her objective empathy. With empathy, she can fully relate to him intellectually and validate his suffering, and at the same time realize that the pain he endures is a part of the journey to healing. By recognizing that although he suffers now, if she practices some restraint and “tough love” to allow him to recognize his addiction, and allow him to suffer as a result of his own choices. Ultimately, he is an empowered individual, capable of self-determination and autonomy. He can choose to fight his illness and instead of enabling his negative behavioral cycles, she can choose to walk alongside him, support him, yet allow him to fully take in the pain, to learn from his life experiences and to become a more healthy individual.

In conclusion, recognize that helping and supporting your loved one is in fact allowing them to struggle in finding their choices, leading them to healing and recovery.

If you feel your loved one is in a position, where they are incapable of making decisions, it’s time to place them in a residential facility, and allow the medical or mental health professionals to help them.