Recovery Programs: Empathy as a Necessary Tool

recovery programs and empathyRecovery can be defined as a return to a normal state of mind, strength or health[i], which indicates that the focus of recovery programs should be on a return to the normal, or original state, prior to the onset of a mental illness.  With the recent popularization of neuroplastic change[ii] recovery has become more feasible, and realistic.

Michael Kirby declares that: “recovery requires appropriate patient support, including peer-to-peer support, family or caregiver support, community interventions and supportive housing programs [iii],” and should be focused on assisting patients solve their problems on their own, instead of solving the problems for them iii.

This concept mirrors Rogers’ client-centered approach, whereby, clients are drawn to the conclusions on their own, with the support of the therapist. This is done through empathy and unconditional positive regard, two components that play a major role in recovery programs.

Empathy is one of the strongest emotions a client can be offered. It demonstrates to them that we are truly listening to, and hearing what they are saying, and that we are trying our best to understand their situation. It is an admission that we will never know fully what they are going through, but that we acknowledge the difficulty they are facing, and that we are there for them in times of need.

Unconditional positive regard [iv] acts as a way to build confidence in the client; it says that we accept them as a positive and good person, no matter the circumstance. This does not mean that we accept negative behavior as positive or that we encourage it, but that we accept the person as a wholly positive being, whose behavior may be negative from time to time – just like everyone else.

I have found that these two components play a significant role in a clients understanding of their self within a therapeutic setting, and translate well into their lives outside of therapy, counseling, etc.

Unconditional Positive Regard

By employing both empathy and unconditional positive regard, we are actually building the clients confidence so that outside of therapy sessions, they will be more able to cope, and deal with new negative and stressful situations they may face.

In my experience, when I have offered clients my empathy, and unconditional positive regard, they have reacted in a much more positive way, and have ended up recovering from the emotional crisis much quicker than they otherwise would have.

Further, empathy and unconditional positive regard work together in strengthening the client-therapist relationship, or therapeutic alliance (therapist, confidant, counselor etc), which only has positive effects on the client receiving care. This too, builds the client’s confidence, and ability to cope because it demonstrates to them that they are able to confide in someone without being judged – even their deepest, darkest secrets.

How does all of this translate to recovery programs? Recovery programs are similar to traditional therapy in that they are meant to assist clients in facing and coping with their issues or crises.

These programs may be more structured than traditional therapy (for instance, psychoanalytic therapy does not focus, necessarily, on re-framing a persons mind, whereas cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, does).

If we are following from Kirby’s iii understanding of recovery, then most programs use CBT’s methodology. For instance, WRAP[v] is a self-maintenance program that focuses on dealing with issues (for the sake of this article we will focus solely on mental health issues). The 5 key recovery concepts that are listed are: hope, personal responsibility, education, self-advocacy and support.


As you can see, empathy is not mentioned as a key recovery concept. Although it could be argued that empathy is included in one of the 5 key concepts, it should be its own, and should be a major focus area in any recovery program – whether it be peer or self led.

Rogers has shown us that empathy proves very powerful when assisting a client iv so we should be employing it in every therapy-based situation we find ourselves in, including recovery programs. In recovery programs the focus is, of course, the client, (the focus should always be the client) and empathy can only encourage and support the client even more.

Patricia Deegan conceptualizes recovery perfectly in her article “Recovery: The Lived Experience of Rehabilitation.”

She says: “they experience themselves as recovering a new sense of self and of purpose within and beyond the limits of the disability[vi].” This can be achieved through finding support, and encouragement in your peers, mental health professionals, and community – which will undoubtedly translate into your personal understanding and conceptualization of your self.

The encouragement and support given to you by your peers, for example, is empathetic. They attempt to understand your troubles and acknowledge that you are important enough that they do not meddle. Although we are there to assist clients, and we are there to aid in their recovery, we acknowledge that we are powerless in these situations, and the reason for this is because our power is relinquished, and given to our clients. Because in recovery, the only power we have is through our empathy and understanding.

[i] Recovery. (n.d). In Oxford Dictionaries online. Retrieved from

[ii] Doidge, Norman. (2007). The Brain that Changes Itself. New York, NY: Viking Press.

Doidge, Norman. (2015). The Brain’s Way of Healing. New York: NY: Viking Press.

[iii] Kirby, M. (2008). Mental Health in Canada: out of the shadows forever. CMAJ, 178 (10) pp. 1320-1322.

[iv] Rogers, Carl. (1951). Client-Centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications and Theory. London: Constable. ISBN 1-84119-840-4.

Rogers, Carl. (1959). A Theory of Therapy, Personality and Interpersonal Relationships as Developed in the Client-centered Framework. In (ed.) S. Koch,Psychology: A Study of a Science. Vol. 3: Formulations of the Person and the Social Context. New York: McGraw Hill

[v] Copeland, M. E. (1995). WRAP is…Retrieved from

[vi] Deegan, P. E. (1988). Recovery: The Lived Experience of Rehabilitation. Psychosocial Rehabilitation Journal 11 (4), 1119.

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Recovery Programs: Empathy as a Necessary Tool


APA Reference
Bourassa, T. (2019). Recovery Programs: Empathy as a Necessary Tool. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 6, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 21 Sep 2019
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Sep 2019
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