Enabling is a pattern of behavior in which a parent, partner, or loved one with addiction issues assists or supports that person’s harmful or self-destructive habits, often unintentionally. This can take many forms, such as giving someone money or covering up for a loved one’s relapse.
Enabling can come from a genuine desire to help, but it ultimately does more harm than good since it allows the enabled person to continue destructive patterns without facing the consequences.
For example, imagine a mother who consistently provides her son with money, despite knowing he’s using it to buy drugs. She may believe she’s helping to protect her son somehow, but in reality, she’s perpetuating his addiction by removing the need for him to seek help or change his behavior.
When addicted individuals experience no consequences for their actions, they’re much less likely to want to get sober — after all, why should they? Nothing bad is happening. There’s no reason to change. They’re protected.
Empowering versus Enabling
The problem with enabling is that it can often seem like a form of help, which people think of as positive. However, there’s a fine line between enabling, which supports a person’s addiction, and empowering, which supports the person.
Empowering means supporting and encouraging people to take control of their lives, make their own decisions, and become self-reliant. Enabling, on the other hand, is when you take responsibility for other people’s actions and shield them from consequences.
When you empower loved ones, you provide them with the tools and support they need to grow, learn, and overcome obstacles. Empowerment is about helping people develop their strengths and abilities while also holding them accountable for their choices and actions.
Enabling, in contrast, is all about rescuing and taking over, often motivated by a desire to protect the person from pain or difficulty. While enabling may seem like a compassionate response, it ultimately disempowers the enabled individuals as it prevents them from learning and growing through their own experiences.
Ultimately, enabling allows them to continue hurting themselves and those around them, and could even lead to their death.
Common Signs of Enabling
Recognizing the signs of enabling is crucial if you want to break the cycle and support your loved one in a healthier way. Some common signs of enabling include:
- Consistently bailing loved ones out of trouble, whether it’s financially, legally, or by covering up for them.
- Avoiding confrontation or difficult conversations about loved ones’ harmful behavior, often due to fear of their reaction or a desire to maintain the peace.
- Ignoring or downplaying the severity of loved ones’ actions, even when they are causing harm to themselves or others.
- Making excuses for loved ones’ behavior, such as blaming external factors or circumstances, rather than holding them accountable for their choices.
- Feeling responsible for loved ones’ happiness, well-being, or success to the point where you prioritize their needs above your own.
If you recognize any of these patterns in your relationship with a loved one struggling with addiction, it might be time to take a step back and consider whether you’re hurting more than you’re helping.
The Impact of Enabling
The consequences of enabling can be far-reaching and have a significant impact on both those enabled and their family members.
For people struggling with addiction, enabling can perpetuate their substance use and prevent them from seeking help or recognizing the need for change. When enabled by friends and family, individuals may never reach rock bottom, which is usually required for them to realize that they need to make a change.
For enablers and other family members, the consequences can be equally severe. Enabling can create a toxic, codependent relationship dynamic, where enablers become overly focused on the needs of the addicted person and neglect their own well-being. This can lead to issues such as stress, anxiety, depression, and even physical health problems.
Enabling can also strain relationships between family members since others may become resentful of the enabler’s actions or frustrated with the lack of change in the addicted person’s behavior. This can create an atmosphere of tension, anger, and mistrust within the family, making it difficult for everyone to heal and move forward.
On top of that, enabling often involves money — money flowing from the enabler to the addicted individual, whether given directly, stolen and forgiven, paid out for legal fees, paid to drug dealers, or spent to resolve other issues. This can quite literally drive enablers into bankruptcy, and it can also ruin their relationships with partners who are tired of paying for the problem.
How to Stop Enabling a Loved One with Addiction Issues
If you recognize that you’ve been enabling a loved one’s addiction, it’s crucial to take steps to break the cycle and promote healthier, more empowering support.
One of the most important steps in breaking the cycle of enabling is setting clear, firm boundaries. This means establishing limits on what you will and will not do to support your loved one and then sticking to those boundaries no matter how difficult.
For example, you might decide to no longer provide financial assistance, cover up for his mistakes, or allow him to live in your home if he continues using drugs.
Setting boundaries can be incredibly challenging because it means saying no to someone you care deeply about. However, by setting boundaries, you are not only protecting yourself but also helping your loved one understand the consequences of his actions and encouraging him to take responsibility for his own well-being.
You also have to remember that your enabling might literally kill him.
Encouraging Responsibility and Personal Growth
Instead of enabling, focus on empowering loved ones by encouraging them to take responsibility for their actions and make positive changes in their lives.
This might involve helping them explore treatment options or supporting their efforts to find employment or develop healthier coping mechanisms.
It’s also essential to allow loved ones to face the consequences of their actions rather than shielding them from the fallout. This is most important, as many loved ones with substance use issues will refuse to listen to you about going to treatment until they’ve ruined their lives enough that they have no choice.
This can be difficult as you may feel compelled to rescue them from the negative consequences of their addiction. However, by allowing them to experience the natural outcomes of their actions, you are helping them understand the impact of their choices and fostering personal growth and accountability.
Seeking Professional Help and Support as an Enabler
Breaking the cycle of enabling can be challenging, and it may be necessary to seek professional help or support to do so effectively. Consider attending therapy or support groups geared toward family members, such as Al-Anon or Nar-Anon.
These groups can provide a safe, supportive environment to share your experiences, learn from others in similar situations, and gain insights into healthy coping mechanisms and strategies for promoting empowerment.
Additionally, consider working with a therapist or addiction specialist to explore your own feelings and motivations around enabling and develop a plan for how to break the cycle and promote healthier support for your loved one.
Enabling can be a difficult pattern to break, but it’s essential if you want to support your loved one in a way that promotes personal growth, accountability, and lasting change. With hard work, it is possible to break the cycle of enabling and create a more empowering, healthy relationship dynamic.
If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.
About the Author: Cristal Clark, LPC-S, is the Medical Reviewer for ASIC Recovery Services. She reviews all website content for quality and medical accuracy. She is a master’s level Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor and graduated from Liberty University in 2011. She has worked in the behavioral and mental health field for over 12 years and has a passion for helping others. She has been clinical director and CEO of a 200-plus-bed facility, PHP, and IOP, with experience managing a team of counselors, individual/group/and family therapy, and coordinating continuum of care. Cristal is trained in EMDR and certified in non-violent intervention. She is a member of American Counseling Association and American Association of Christian Counselors.
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