The Guide to Empathy for Sex Addicts (Part I)
Sex addiction therapists will, if asked, most likely tell you that sex addiction is an intimacy disorder, but what does this mean?
Rob Weiss, LCSW, CSAT-S, author and renowned sex addiction practitioner and expert, puts it this way: “Sex addicts typically struggle with underlying emotional or psychological problems often stemming from early life abuse such as physical or sexual trauma or emotional neglect. . . . “[Sex addiction] is in essence a symptom of underlying profound adult challenges with intimacy and attachment, stemming from both genetic and environmental sources.”*
If you’ve struggle with sexual addiction and or sexually compulsive behaviors, creating and participating in meaningfully intimate relationships probably isn’t easy for you.
WHY EMPATHY IS SO IMPORTANT
The ability to have empathy for others is a vitally important relationship skill that you may simply not have in your toolbox, probably because no one ever taught you how to be empathetic. What’s tragic is that you likely have a lot of relationships you need help with repairing, especially if you’re in recovery, and without empathy, it’s going to be tough sledding.
The power of empathy is its unique ability to create connections between two people, especially after a rupture in the relationship. Heinz Kohut, one of the most prominent psychoanalysts of the last century, once wrote that empathy is “a bridge between human beings” (p. 361).**
If you’re a sex addict, you’ve burned a lot of bridges, so you need empathy in your life. And not just tablespoons of empathy. Buckets. Gallons. (Be sure to give some to yourself in the form of self-compassion, okay?) In this post, we’ll take a look at what empathy is and isn’t. In part II, we’ll consider how empathy works and how it transforms relationships.
WHAT EMPATHY IS NOT
Empathy is a tricksy, tricksy thing, as Gollum might say. I thought I understood what it was, but then I learned more about it when I became a therapist. Then, I met some incredibly empathetic people, and I learned how much I didn’t know about what empathy is and is not.
Let’s discuss the latter for a moment, shall we?
Before we move on, let’s pause here. Think for a moment about the last time you felt really connected to another person. You felt understood. You felt heard. Somebody “got” you, and you knew it. You felt it. What was that like? What made that possible? What did you do? The other person? Stay in that moment as long as you’d like.
Okay, let’s keep going. I wanted to pause there because chances are the other person in that memory didn’t practice empathy in one of the following ways.
EMPATHY IS NOT AGREEING WITH YOUR PARTNER
Let’s address what’s probably the most common misconception about empathy straightway: Empathy does not mean that you can’t have your own thoughts and feelings.
When I start talking about empathy, sometimes the sex addicts I work with will push back, because they grew up in families in which they couldn’t have their own thoughts and feelings or had to hide their feelings by agreeing with caretakers. This kind of agreement or accommodation to another is actually toxic because the false self is doing it, not the real, authentic self.
EMPATHY IS NOT SYMPATHY
Most understand the difference in theory but blur the lines between empathy and sympathy in practice. Sympathy is expressing sorrow or pity for someone else’s calamity or misfortune. There’s not the effort to take the other’s perspective that there is in empathy.
Sympathy says, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Empathy says, “This loss has come at a devastating time for you. How sad it must be for you to lose your dad when your mom passed just months ago.”
EMPATHY IS NOT “FIXING” YOUR PARTNER
In other words, empathy isn’t about making everything okay or, more precisely, soothing your partner’s painful feelings.
You’re trying to connect with your partner, not take away her anger, hurt, anxiety, or sadness to make yourself feel better (which is what really motivates fixing, anyway).
Moreover, fixing sends the implicit message to your partner that she shouldn’t or can’t feel the pain that she does, which will only exacerbate it.
EMPATHY IS NOT JUST LISTENING
When I first started to learn about empathy, I thought that I could practice empathy by being a bobblehead and saying “mmhmm” every once and a while.
Listening is an important part of empathy, but it’s so much more than that. If you simply listen, even if you’re a great listener, you’re missing out on a chance to put yourself in your partner’s shoes, which is the sine qua non of empathy.
Furthermore, your partner is going to feel as though he’s talking to a bobblehead, and who wants to do that? No one feels seen, recognized, or understood talking to someone who just nods all the time and doesn’t say much.
EMPATHY IS NOT SHARING YOUR LIFE STORY
When he’s pouring out his pain, he doesn’t want you to interject with a story or anecdote about that time that you felt the same way.
As we’ll see in part II, practicing empathy will call on you to periodically search your own life experiences so that you can try to emotionally resonate with what’s going on for him. Interjecting with the story, however well-meaning you are, will probably come off as an interruption and your partner will shut down or pull away from you.
SO, WHAT IS EMPATHY THEN?
Simply put, empathy is the ability and practice of putting yourself in another person’s shoes. Empathy is an effort to take the other’s perspective and share her feelings.
Empathy is just the ability to understand your partner from within her perspective. To radically accept and welcome all of her thoughts and feelings. To be aching to know more about her pain. To affectively resonate with her experiences, which sometimes means searching your own life experiences.
Empathy is powerful. Life-changing. Remember the moment of connection you thought of in our thought experiment earlier on? You recalled that moment because it changed you, and it changed the other person you were connected with, too.
That’s what empathy does: It connects, it changes, it transforms us and our relationships. But I’m getting ahead of myself, because I simply can’t wait to talk more about the power of empathy in part II.
*Weiss, R. Sexual Addiction: Hypersexual Disorder and the DSM-5: Myth or Legitimate Diagnosis? The Counselor, October 2012.
**Kohut, H. (1975). The psychoanalyst in the community of scholars. The Annual of Psychoanalysis, 3, 341-370.