Fostering recovery through kindness and compassion

Empower healing by how we mindfully treat ourselves and others

People challenged by addiction ought to think about themselves more favorably.

Come again? (Did you just read a huge typo?) Nope, you didn’t — and, here’s why: Pain and punishment, unnecessary shame and guilt, almost never lead to a better, healthier, happier life. Research proves it; from my own life, I believe it.

As a certified recovery specialist (CRS) supporting those who desire recovery from substance use/misuse, I often explain how viewing or talking to ourselves, and others, without kindness and compassion is of little to no benefit.

Here’s the thing: To develop resilience, or the ability to bounce back from difficulty, we have to have confidence that we are able to overcome life’s hardships. This attribute is greatly enabled by staying a healthy distance from self-criticism if you’re feeling “not enough.”

Find new language

One of the best ways to begin believing that what we are, and what we have, is sufficient is to notice how we speak about recovery and those seeking it.

According to recovery scientist Robert Ashford in an article published by, “The words we use have been shown by researchers to not only negatively influence our attitudes toward people in recovery and those still using substances — to the extent of suggesting that a health condition is a moral, social or criminal issue — but they also impact access to healthcare and recovery outcomes.”

In other words: How we speak to someone, and how we refer to ourselves, in private or in public, matters.

How can we begin to address this?

Ashford suggests using “terms that are rooted in humanity.” Indeed, by doing so we can be reminded of the utterly not-spectacular nature of our faults, as he puts it, and “even benefit from using terms that don’t immediately degrade our very essence as people.”

Well-respected writer on addiction and recovery policy William White seems to reinforce this idea: “Those who believe they can improve or change are more likely to engage in activities that allow them to grow; those who believe they cannot improve or change are less likely to do so.”

Mazzoni Center’s Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) provides a higher level of care for people addressing their addiction(s), along with recovery-support groups endeavoring to incorporate and model empowerment — a quality grown and nourished through the practice of compassion. Therapists and recovery specialists deeply understand that the use of unhelpful labels becomes internalized over time. People begin to believe what is limiting about their character.

In fact, there have been occasions when attendees in our support groups identify themselves as addicts or alcoholics — a typical practice in some other programs. When this happens, I often respond, “Thank you. So, what else do you do well?” Certainly this response utilizes humor, but for a good reason. A person’s struggle with substances does not define them in totality; dare I say, it is even not their most prominent attribute.

The search for wholeness

In a wider context, what all this engenders is the thing called wholeness.

Regarding the search for a complete sense of self, White offers this: “Wholeness comes from bringing into harmony those elements of character which had been magnified into excess with those which have been suppressed and denied.” A three-dimensional fullness of what it means to live as a human in the here and now is a laudable and valuable lifelong goal.

People in recovery, and those contemplating it, need to be supported by self and others through helpful, intentional action. This can be manifested through the manner in which we all express ourselves.

And even though it may, at times, feel counterintuitive, let us advocate for words and deeds reflecting compassion and kindness to support the work done on the path to better health and well-being. 

Kirk Parsons is a recovery specialist at Mazzoni Center. He believes there is untapped potential within each person caught in the grip of addiction. To learn more about Mazzoni Center’s LGBTQ recovery-support groups, visit

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