When someone you love is struggling with stress, life instability, mental health problems, or addiction, you want to support them through this tough time. But how do you know what you are doing is helpful and supportive, and what is harmful and enabling?
If you are enabling someone, you are supporting their self-destructive impulses and behaviors rather than encouraging them to be better. A large part of this involves providing them with excuses for bad behavior, such as calling in sick for them to school when they have a hangover or offering excuses to leave social events early because the person is actually too intoxicated to make good decisions.
How do you know what helping is versus what enabling is? Typically, helping involves supporting the person in pursuing actions they cannot do alone or assisting them in doing things to achieve control of their behaviors and their lives.
Enabling does not lead to a positive outcome, like helping does. Instead, it prevents someone from dealing with the negative consequences of actions such as staying out all night and drinking, for example. Enabling gives the individual the impression that their harmful actions do not have adverse consequences or that they are somehow acceptable.
If you find yourself solving problems for a person rather than encouraging them to make better decisions, stay healthy, or support them in solving their own lifestyle issues, you may be enabling them.
Typically, the term “enabling” describes a relationship with someone who is struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol; however, someone who compulsively overeats, gambles, or struggles with sex addiction may also have a relationship with an enabler who finds reasons to excuse these harmful behaviors. You may do this because you want the person to care for you, because you are worried about their physical well-being, and because you want them to be healthy and happy.
However, enabling behavior does not encourage someone suffering from addiction to find help. Instead, it allows them to keep abusing drugs or alcohol without realizing that these behaviors are not acceptable.
Someone who is intoxicated on drugs or alcohol may not have control over their words and behaviors. They may experience blackouts. They may vomit or create other messes, fail to clean themselves, or not clean up evidence of their binge. They may feel awful in the morning with a hangover or comedown effects. They may choose to abuse drugs or alcohol instead of going to work or school or taking care of family or social responsibilities.
Someone who enables a person struggling with addiction may clean up after the addict to reduce the impact of their consequences. The intentions are good, but the outcome means that short-term harm does not have any immediate consequences.
If you are the person enabling negative or compulsive behaviors in a relationship, you may be doing this out of codependency. This means that your self-esteem is tied into your ability or willingness to “help,” even when this is not appropriate, and you do not receive such support in return. Finding ways to make the other person’s life easier, especially at your own expense, does not actually make for a better relationship.
You may also feel guilty because you somehow feel responsible for the addiction that your loved one struggles with. This is not true, although enabling does not help them get treatment. Someone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol cannot control their behaviors, but you can encourage them to get help.
Enabling isn’t good for you or your loved one. Reach out to a therapist or other professional today to talk about how to move away from this behavior and help your loved one get well.
Enabler: Noun. Merriam-Webster Dictionary.com. Retrieved January 2019 from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/enabler
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(2003). Enabling Behaviors. Stairway to Recovery, University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved January 2019 from http://www.uphs.upenn.edu/addiction/berman/family/enabling.html
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(July 16, 2014). When You Enable an Addict You’re Not Helping, You’re Hurting. Huffington Post. Retrieved January 2019 from https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/candace-plattor/enabling-an-addict_b_5589340.html