Woman expresses dissatisfaction of his drinking habitAs human beings, we’re hardwired to want to help others, especially those close to us like family members and friends. In fact, empathy is an advantage from a survival perspective as it helps us stay alive. So when a loved one is struggling with substance abuse, it’s only natural to want to help. However, addiction is a complex disease, and recovery from addiction is equally complex. So this well-meaning instinct to help can actually do more harm than good in some cases.

Enabling vs Empowering

In the context of addiction, enabling is a term often used to describe the behavior of a family member or other loved one who tries to rescue or save an addicted person from the consequences of their own self-destructive behavior.

Many people think they’re helping a loved one with an addiction when in reality they’re giving an addicted person permission to continue their pattern of drug abuse.

A common theme of enabling is that a family member or loved one takes responsibility or makes accommodations for a person’s bad behavior. The enabler, which could even be an entire family, may dismiss a loved one’s drug use or fail to set appropriate boundaries. They may make excuses for the addicted person’s actions, apologize on their behalf or attempt to solve their problems. Enablers often have good intentions, but they ultimately make it easier for the person’s addiction to continue.

Empowerment, on the other hand, doesn’t involve “fixing” or concealing a loved one’s problems. When you empower someone, you provide them with the skills, resources or tools to help them change or succeed on their own. In other words, you give them the power to make their own choices.

Enablers and Codependents 

loving wife consoling husband on sofa at homeThose who habitually enable dysfunctional behavior are often referred to as codependent. Codependency or codependence refers to being dependent on the needs of another or on the control of another. It often involves setting one’s own needs aside while being preoccupied with the needs of others. Codependency may be characterized by denial, low self-esteem and excessive compliance. Codependents often take on the role of a martyr and gain a sense of reward from feeling “needed.”

Codependency can occur in any type of relationship, including family, friendship or romantic, and can often be seen in people in relationships with individuals with addictions and mental health disorders. Common characteristics of codependent people include:

  • An inflated sense of responsibility for the actions or well-being of others
  • A tendency to confuse love with caretaking or pity
  • A tendency to give far more than they take in relationships
  • Difficulty with establishing and maintaining boundaries
  • An unhealthy dependence on relationships
  • An excessive need for approval and recognition
  • A sense of guilt when asserting themselves
  • A compelling need to control others
  • A fear of being abandoned or alone
  • Difficulty identifying feelings
  • Poor communication

Are You an Enabler?

Many people who enable others don’t do so intentionally. They may not even realize they’re engaging in enabling behavior. So what is the difference between enabling and helping? If you think you may be enabling a person with a substance use disorder, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I avoid talking about the addiction for fear of the response I’ll get or in order to keep the peace?
  • Do I make excuses for their addiction or their poor behavior?
  • Do I apologize to people on behalf of the addicted person?
  • Have I ever lied to anybody to hide the addicted person’s alcohol or drug use?
  • Have I bailed them out of jail, financial problems or other difficult situations they tend to get themselves into?
  • Have I threatened to leave the addicted person if they didn’t stop using drugs or alcohol but never done so?
  • Do I join in the behavior I know the addicted person has a problem with, such as heavy drinking?
  • Do I join the addicted person in blaming others for their own misfortunes?

Putting an End to Enabling Behavior

Putting a stop to enabling behavior is one of the most difficult but important steps you can take to support a loved one who suffers from addiction. It’s not easy to see someone you love deal with consequences of their addiction. You may feel a sense of guilt or helplessness when you stop enabling unhealthy behavior or worry your loved one will harm themselves further. However, putting an end to enabling behavior will set up your loved one to take responsibility for their own addiction.  Examples of actions that can help end enabling include:

  • Accept that you cannot “fix” another person.
  • Learn to say “no” to be loving: “No, I will not clean up the mess you created when you were high.”
  • Admit to yourself that your loved one has a problem and ensure the addicted person knows you’re aware of it.
  • Understand that self-care does not equal selfishness.
  • Set boundaries and stick to them: “No, I will not tell the family you’re at home with the flu if you’re hungover.”
  • Attend meetings of groups specifically for loved ones of people with addictions, such as Al-Anon.
  • Educate yourself about codependency and seek therapy to address codependent patterns of behavior.

Enabling may feel like helping, especially at first, but it prevents an addicted person from experiencing the consequences of their own actions or from seeing they have a serious problem. It may also prevent your loved one from seeking the drug addiction treatment they need. If your loved one has a drug and alcohol addiction, you should encourage them to seek help. Call our NC rehab today at 252-715-3905.