The highjacking of empathy

6f79c6d9bb66e692634944888e8da6b6I was going to go out and train for a marathon, maybe run a few miles… but the high temp forecast here in the Pacific Northwest is hovering around the ridiculously freakin’ hot level (100 degrees), so I will stay safely inside and work, blog, and paint. Seriously though, you know I was kidding about the running part, right?


I have this crazy aversion to exercise. When I went looking for the above on one of my Pinterest boards, I also ran across this, posted specially for CF (just kidding, I WILL get to the yoga studio…)


I do love to laugh and I have heard that is good for me too. Probably not a replacement for exercise (shrugs shoulders).

Back to the weather. My favorite warm weather would be more in the 75 and sunny range, like Santa Barbara weather. Santa Barbara is my dream retirement location, beautiful, temperate, and close to the ocean. Too bad it’s so darn expensive there. I lived in Phoenix and although they say the weather is perfect something like nine months of the year, I say poppycock. It’s too damn hot nine months of the year. We all get to have our opinions. Isn’t that great!

Speaking of opinions, everyone knows this blog of mine is really just that right? It is about my experiences and the opinions I have developed from those life experiences. I understand if people don’t believe in addiction, or don’t believe specifically in sex addiction. I am not ignorant or naive. I also know that most people have not lived with a sex addict. It so happens that I very unfortunately have. I have lived with him for 31 years actually. My blog pretty much chronicles the pain I have experienced since I found out he is a sex addict. I don’t have all the answers, obviously. I have read books and articles and all that, but I stopped that quite some time ago. Now I try to live in the moment with my husband. He is desperately hanging on to our relationship for dear life, and I still experience very dark moments on many days. We know its a process not a destination. Even though I talk periodically on this blog about the hurt others cause with their words, it is generally not the words of people questioning sex addiction that hurt. Those may frustrate and confound me, but they also give me the opportunity to get up on that pulpit of mine that I so love. I obviously don’t want to insinuate I know anything about anyone else’s life. I really just write about mine and I have found that some people find solace here. That solace comes from knowing someone else is living the same nightmare you are. Others talk about how my perspective on my experience with sex addiction has opened their eyes to something they never thought about before. That happens with me all the time on other blogs. It’s a good thing, in my opinion. What hurts is when others don’t understand the pain betrayed spouses go through when they are cheated on. Pain caused by two people, their spouse and the other person. I know everyone is in pain and we all have stories and we all do the best we can not to hurt other people. I do believe wives generally get a bad wrap because even though many times we are innocent victims completely unaware of what is being perpetrated on us, we are being blamed and lied about. That fucking hurts. It feels like knives being stabbed into the most sensitive spots on our body. When people insinuate we just need to “get over it” and we can’t, we feel terrible. We don’t understand why anyone would do this to us and then after the fact, why anyone would blame us. I know I am not perfect, but I did not cause my husband’s cheating or his addiction and I can’t just get over it. I will get over it, I am getting over it, but it will be on my own time. So, in case I wasn’t clear… comments about sex addiction, per se, do not hurt me. Comments that insinuate I am to blame or that I can just manage the pain and destruction without a proper period of mourning and healing, that hurts.

Anyway, what I really intended to write today was my reply to a comment on ‘A hornet’s nest’ by tryinghard:

OK can someone explain to me what the difference is between a person who compartmentalizes their actions and someone who lacks empathy? Isn’t, easily and habitually, compartmentalizing nothing but a manifestation of a person who lacks empathy?

In my understanding it is the lack of an ability to empathize that allows people to compartmentalize.

Not judging or arguing or trying to parse words. Just trying to figure out the logic, LOL if there is any??? Would love to hear someone’s understanding on this subject.

I think we throw around terms and possibly get offended but someone’s else’s experience with those terms. I’ve never been around an addict of any sort, well ok I am kind of addicted to nice bags :), so I have no perceived or solid educated understanding of addiction. If you believe BE is an addict that’s good enough for me. I’m learning here just as I learn from a lot of blogs. If I want real empirical psychological analysis I know where to get that. In the meantime I learn so much from my other members of this horrible infidelity alliance.

I will be the first to respond, although I hope others also reply as tryinghard has not just asked for my opinion, but for “someone to explain the difference” and I hope others share their opinions.

Tryinghard says “In my understanding it is the lack of an ability to empathize that allows people to compartmentalize.” I actually think it is the other way around.

Google defines compartmentalization thusly:

Compartmentalization is an unconscious psychological defense mechanism used to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person’s having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves.

In my husband, I think it is the necessity (driven by his addiction) to compartmentalize (disconnect from his conflicting values and emotions) that allowed him to temporarily block his empathy. We know that extreme narcissists lack empathy. Narcissists and addicts are two different things, although I am sure some people are both. My husband actually is not a narcissist. His mother is. What do I base this on? Well, with his mother it is purely my opinion after her being in my life for 30+ years. Because she is a narcissist, she would never allow herself to be evaluated in any psychological way, and she blames all things on others. I give her the narcissist label in order to try and make sense of her behavior. I could merely call her a mean, hard, controlling, unloving, entitled bitch, but the truth is, I do believe she is a narcissist, no doubt exacerbated by her own childhood wounds. She has an inflated self image. She is obsessed with money and power and control, she believes she is better than others, she requires excessive attention and stroking, she acts entitled, she exploits others and has a complete lack of empathy, she lies obsessively, she is arrogant and abusive. My husband on the other hand, and in my observation lacks most of those undesirable characteristics and he has been evaluated by three separate clinical psychologists and been given hours and hours of written tests as well as in person evaluation and has been given the same diagnosis by all three. He is not a narcissist. He is a sex addict.

Below is the definition of addiction I connect with (taken from a mental health website, I can’t remember which one as I copied this definition months ago):

Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.

Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.

It is my understanding that there are basically two different categories of addiction: substance-related (tobacco, alcohol, drugs) and behavioral or process addictions (gambling, food, sex, internet, video game, work) and that multiple addictions, both substance and behavioral) can and often occur in the same individual because the underlying pathology is a brain disease and the drug is the coping method or reward, if you will, that the individual uses to medicate themselves. (Brain Development Addiction).

This is my favorite blurb on addiction and empathy. The author, David Sack, MD, works for one of the big addiction recovery conglomerates and the page is filled with ads and he has appeared on television numerous times, but his words ring true for me and my experience with Blue Eyes. I will link the actual website (Empathy hijacked by addiction), but I will also copy the text here:

When you walk into a 12-Step meeting, one of the first things you may see is a sign that says, “We Care.” Though short and seemingly insignificant, this message highlights one of the components of 12-Step recovery that makes the program so effective: empathy.

What Is Empathy?

In its broadest sense, empathy is central to what it means to be fully human. It allows us to tune into how someone else is feeling and gives us insights into the thoughts, emotions and behaviors of other people.

Why do we have empathy? We know that empathy is associated with morality, altruism, pro-social behavior and cooperation. As humans evolved into tribes and larger social groups, empathy was a way of building social cohesion by helping us understand and sympathize with other people’s emotional states. It made us want to take care of them and treat them well, while allowing us to feel good about cooperating with one another.

Empathy is critical to moral development. If you don’t care about another person’s feelings, you’re not going to behave in a moral way to them. And probably the truest definition of evil is a lack of empathy. People can do horrible things to other people if they lack empathy.

Lack of Empathy Tied to Substance Abuse

One of the principal complaints of the family members and loved ones of addicts is that the addicted individual no longer cares. They have become completely self-consumed and lost all regard for other people’s thoughts and feelings, even the people they care about most.

Research shows this observation is a fairly accurate description of what happens during addiction. Although their true self still cares deeply for loved ones, their ability to care has been taken hostage by the disease of addiction.

There is a lot of evidence that empathy is impaired in substance abuse. Research shows that callous and unemotional children are at greater risk for conduct disorder, antisocial personality disorder and substance abuse. When these behaviors manifest early in life, they are significant risk factors for ultimately developing problems with alcohol and drugs.

Alcoholics face unique empathy deficits, often struggling to identify even their own feelings, let alone the feelings of other people. A psychological syndrome called alexithymia, which is the inability to identify and describe one’s own feelings, occurs in almost 40% of alcoholics, compared with only 5% to 7% of the general population.

In studies of alcoholics who have gone through detoxification or drug rehab, empathy is significantly lower than control groups. This means that in the acute period following detoxification, alcoholics are less empathic than other people.

Which Came First: Addiction or Lack of Empathy?

Is this loss of empathy that we see in alcoholism and other drug addictions a temporary state of being or a personality trait? Is it a response to becoming addicted or was it there before?

Many people would say that a diagnosis of alcohol dependence and other substance use disorders is intrinsically characterized by impaired capacity for empathy. In other words, lack of empathy is the result of alcoholism and drug addiction.

Why do people struggling with drug addiction seem to care less? First, as drugs become more and more important, the addict is less able to respect the feelings of others because their brain only wants one thing: more drugs. Their entire emotional state becomes focused on getting and using drugs.

Second, drugs create a pseudo-empathic experience among drug users. Although addicts have impaired abilities to relate to other people, they bond with one another in a unique way when getting high. Even though they are not really emotionally in touch with their fellow drug users, they have an experience of being closer to them as a result of sharing the experience of being high. In this kind of pseudo-empathic experience, drug users share a high but are not really in a relationship emotionally or psychologically.

And finally, empathy for others seems to suffer particularly as drug cravings and withdrawal dominate the addict’s emotional state. As they become more and more focused on trying to control the physical symptoms of withdrawal and the psychological cravings, their ability to relate to other people diminishes.

So which came first: addiction or lack of empathy? Research points in both directions. There is a great deal of evidence from studies of children who later become alcoholics that loss of empathy in many cases precedes drug use. There’s also evidence that this loss of empathy is made worse by becoming dependent on alcohol and other drugs.

Rebuilding Empathy Through Fellowship

Regardless of which came first, there is undeniable evidence that lack of empathy is tied to addiction. Just as addiction takes away an individual’s capacity for empathy, that capacity must be restored for successful long-term recovery.

This is where 12-Step programs and group therapy become essential components of a recovery program. Empathy is a skill that can be re-learned through education and hands-on application. Support groups provide regular opportunities for recovering addicts to hear each other’s stories and begin offering support and feedback.

In a safe and supportive environment, people in recovery can get honest about what the disease of addiction has taken from them and lay the groundwork to get it back. The process begins with empathy for oneself, forgiving the wrongs they committed while addicted to drugs or alcohol and releasing the shame that stands in their way of lasting recovery. Next, empathy extends to close family members and friends, and then to the community at large.

*  *  *  *

A couple things I noted when I read this. First, every single one of our therapists has mentioned and talked about the concept of our ancestors living in tribes and larger connected groups, which instilled a much closer connection to feelings, behaviors, morals, rewards and punishments, etc… Elders trained the youth and there was a moral code. If someone was doing something against code, like stealing, they would be brought in front of the tribe for punishment. They cared what their community thought about them. There was also a village to care for the vulnerable needs of the children. No doubt physical and emotional childhood abuse was nearly non-existent therefore many of the childhood wounds probably didn’t exist. There were also very few places to hide. This kind of accountability was a much larger deterrent to the disconnected electronic society we have today. We are losing grasp of our relationship with others as human beings. Second, I believe the brain disconnect to empathy happens with many cheaters, not just addicts. It is not necessarily that they lack empathy, they are just able to shut it down and compartmentalize for the purpose of getting what they think they need at the moment.

In my opinion, people shut down their empathy when they become dangerously self absorbed, whatever the cause. It is not that they don’t have empathy. It is that they use temporary compartmentalization to shut it down so they get what they want when they want it… and most likely immediately regret it. We are all a work in progress.

11 thoughts on “The highjacking of empathy

  1. Pingback: Revisiting empathy | try not to cry on my rainbow

  2. Thank you so much. I get it now and I see how compartmentalizations works with empathy. Great resources to quote as well. I don’t know if my husband was a SA but he has certainly exhibited some traits, oh vey, too much to think about. He did seem to give up his affair pretty easily once it was all out. You’ve given me a lot to think about and digest but I get it now.. Thanks for your thoughtful education. You rock Kat:)

    Liked by 2 people

    • We all do the best we can with what is thrown at us. The part that rang so true to me in the last article, which I have read numerous times to try and keep myself from going insane is, “Even though they are not really emotionally in touch with their fellow drug users, they have an experience of being closer to them as a result of sharing the experience of being high. In this kind of pseudo-empathic experience, drug users share a high but are not really in a relationship emotionally or psychologically.” I just replace drug users with addict/sex addict. From everything I know, my husband’s long term affair partner is an alcoholic and a sex/love addict and has a personality disorder. I think she frankly did not realize or did not want to acknowledge that he was just getting his drug and wasn’t in any kind of relationship. None of it is easy or totally understandable to me, but I try. Thanks for the kind words.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh all very well said and spot on with what I needed to hear. Thank you! Compartmentalizations and lack of empathy are both characteristics of my husband. So not fun!

    Training for a marathon eh? I will run vicariously through you! I am not a runner and I’m barely a walker now but it sounds like such fun!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. OMG so hot here in south Florida too! Exercize?!? Yuck. I know it’s trendy, but at one time so were Crocks (shoes) LOL. Stay cool my friend, stay away from the gym 😉 queens aren’t meant to sweat💋👑

    Liked by 1 person

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