Reader Mailbag – Do Addicts Have the Capacity to Feel Emotions? Does...

Reader Mailbag – Do Addicts Have the Capacity to Feel Emotions? Does it Help them to Know that I Care?

Reader mailbag

Dazed and Distraught writes in and comments: “People have told me that addicts have no capacity to feel real emotions. Does knowing that people care actually help them in these situations?”

Thanks so much for your comment, Dazed. First of all, I want to address the statement that “addicts have no capacity to feel real emotions.” Being a recovering addict, I feel I can shed some light on this statement.

It would be easy to become indignant here and proclaim that “of course addicts and alcoholics have feelings!” But I understand where that person is coming from in suggesting that they don’t, because for so long while I was self medicating, I struggled to constantly cover up my feelings. It certainly wasn’t “cool” to show emotion or acknowledge feelings at all amongst my peers, and I can see how a large part of my addiction was fueled by a need to suppress my emotions. Throughout my active addiction, and in my early recovery, I had a tendency to cover up my feelings as best I could, especially if I was either hurt or scared.

In recovery, a very insightful therapist taught me quite a bit about feelings, and how the basic ones of Sad, Mad, Glad, and Scared tend to form the basis for all of our disagreements and miscommunications in life.

Here’s an example of using this therapists philosophy:

Say that you come home from work and your spouse has purchased a very expensive plasma television without consulting you first. You explode in anger and a fight ensues. It gets ugly.

Now in the case of analyzing feelings, this therapist of mine would have suggested the following:

1) When you realize that you’re arguing and both emotional, it’s time to back off and cool down. Agree to part ways for an hour and come back and discuss rationally after the emotions have settled. Or, simply step away from the argument and allow yourself to cool. You need to calm down in order to process the feelings.

2) Analyze your feelings down to the primary emotion (either sad, mad, glad, or scared). Why is it so upsetting about the extravagant purchase? It probably boils down to Fear (about finances) and maybe also some Hurt (because they did not consider consulting you first). This is the part where you have to look inside yourself and identify one of those primary emotions.

3) Then, communicate those feelings to your partner without accusation or name calling or giving opinions. Simply state “I felt scared when I saw you had spent so much money because our finances are so messed up lately.” You could also go on to say “I felt hurt because you did not consult me first.”

These statements of your true feelings (make sure they are a primary feeling and not an opinion of yours) are very powerful because they cannot be refuted. No one can claim you weren’t scared or hurt–those are your innermost feelings, you did not choose them, the feelings just happened. So communicate them simply like this and your partner cannot help but take them into consideration.

Now as far as addicts and alcoholics go, if they are still actively using substances, this sort of technique isn’t necessarily going to work any miracles, but it is a very good way to communicate honestly with them. Instead of throwing fuel on the fire and hurling insults at each other, simply stating your feelings accurately like this is probably your best bet.

Does it help that the addict knows that I care?

Yes it does. While it doesn’t seem like a using drug addict or alcoholic really cares, deep down I was always struggling to find a way to bring meaning back into my life, and the problem was not that I didn’t care about my friends and family–the problem was that I just didn’t care. Period. At all. That is the misery of full blown alcoholism or drug addiction. It consumes the whole person–mentally, emotionally, and so on. There just isn’t anything left.

So it is not so much a problem that addicts and alcoholics are self-centered, uncaring people, but that they are trapped in the vicious cycle of addiction and depression. The question is: does this qualify as an excuse? Of course not. It merely explains their lack of emotional involvement. For me personally, it definitely mattered that others cared about me, even though I could not (at the time) bring myself to take any action based on that knowledge. I was still trapped in fear….terrified of facing life sober. But I can’t help but think that others caring about me helped to eventually push me into recovery.

Does anyone else have anything to share about dealing with feelings and emotions? I would love to hear your comments!


  1. My brother was 11 years older than I. He and my sister (10 years my elder) were practically a second set of parents for me. He died from going for a swim while both drunk and stoned. Although he had done many good/happy things for me, I can’t seem to let go of my resentment for the many, many bad/sad things my family I had to go through. He passed away 21 years ago and I have yet to shed a tear for it. But on the other hand I often cry from pity for him and guilt for my indifference towards his death. It was a relief to not have to deal with his behavior but he was my brother and I did love him.
    What kind of person does this make me?
    How can I let go and get over this emotional torment?

    (I tried to put this in the “Ask Patrick” dialog box but it would not submit for some reason.)

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