Are You an Enabler?

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If your words and actions are helping someone maintain or continue their addiction then you may be an enabler.

Having a family member, friend, or loved one who struggles with addiction is certainly not easy. It can be very difficult to figure out how you can best support them.

You are probably worried about them and want to help, but you may also be wondering if what you are doing is truly helping them overcome their addiction or rather supporting the addiction in some way. It is common to ask yourself, “am I helping or am I enabling?”

What Does It Mean to Enable?

With regard to addiction, enabling means to accommodate the addicted individual in order to protect them from facing the full consequences of their drug use (Lander, Howsare, & Byrne, 2013).

If your words and actions are helping someone maintain or continue their addiction then you may be an enabler.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Have you helped your loved one purchase or obtain their substances in any way?

Giving someone money to buy their drugs or alcohol, or driving them to the liquor store or to meet their dealer – even if done with a motive of preventing them from getting behind the wheel, or other protective measure – would all be considered enabling.

Have you facilitated their use by turning a blind eye, or have you provided a venue for them to use?

If you let someone who is addicted to alcohol or drugs use their substances in your house or car because you think you are offering them a “safer” place to use, you are enabling their addiction.

The same is true if you know that your loved one is going upstairs or into the bathroom to use but you choose not to say anything.

Have you lied for them or tried to cover up their addiction in any way?

In an attempt to help your loved one, you may try to cover for them by, for example, calling their employer and making excuses for why they didn’t show up at work or lying about their use when someone else expresses concern to you about their addiction.

Have you made empty threats in an attempt to get them to stop their alcohol or drug use?

If you have tried setting boundaries, which might include no longer giving them money, but then you fail to follow through, you are enabling their addiction.

Have you been taking care of your loved one and their responsibilities in ways that they should reasonably be expected to do themselves?

Maybe you have taken over trying to find them a job, have paid some of their bills, or have even cleaned up their vomit after a night of partying. Although it may feel like you are helping, all of these are ways that you make it easier for them to continue to use.

Have they gotten better or made progress?

If the answer is ‘no,’ then you likely aren’t really helping as much as you think you are. You may have temporarily helped them keep a job, or avoid getting arrested, but you may also have helped them maintain their drug use.

Do interactions with them create significant stress and strain in your life?

If your finances have been significantly negatively impacted, or if your emotional well-being has suffered as a result of your relationship with that person, that should be a red flag that you may be an enabler.

How Does Enabling Hurt?

Enabling hurts

When you enable someone, you take away the natural consequences of their addictive behavior, and their motivation to change often goes right along with it. If you are constantly coming up behind them and sweeping up the mess they made, they may see no real need to change.

Individuals who are struggling with addiction can be experts at convincing themselves they don’t really have a problem and that their addiction is not really that bad. Removing the natural consequences of their behavior may just, in their eyes, provide the evidence that fuels that denial.

For them to be interested in even thinking about treatment and recovery, the pros of stopping their substance use have to outweigh the cons. So if you really want to help them, stop enabling them so the balance can be tipped in the right direction and they will be more motivated to seek treatment. This is often referred to as “raising the bottom”—the addict begins to feel the consequences of using and may be motivated to seek treatment before hitting a so-called “rock bottom.”

Another point to consider is that enabling is not good for you either! Chances are if you have been enabling an addiction, you may also be experiencing a significant amount of physical, emotional, or financial drain. You may have expended an enormous amount of energy with just your worrying alone, not to mention all of the things you have done to bail them out of bad situations. Soon enough, it may even seem that your whole life revolves around the addicted individual to the point where you almost feel like your addiction is them. Your sense of worth or identity may have become tied to your caretaking and the addicted individual’s dependence on you. This pattern has often been labeled as codependency, although this term has been criticized for its lack of a precise, operational definition and for potentially placing blame on the caretaker.

It can be very challenging to break these patterns, as both yourself and the addicted individual have become so used to operating under those conditions. You may be experiencing a sense of fear when you think about not enabling anymore, perhaps for your loved one’s life or maybe even for the potential conflict or retaliation. Keep in mind that someone with a fierce addiction will be desperate to continue using and may be skillful at manipulating the situation to do so. They may take full advantage of your reluctance to break an established enabling routine. Although it is hard, it is vital that you stick to the limits you set and remember that your end goal is to help motivate them to seek professional help.

Steps to Take Instead of Enabling

If you’ve made the decision to stop enabling your loved one, understand that this doesn’t mean you can’t help and support them!

It can be difficult starting out as you are trying to learn a new way of interacting and relating with that individual. Just keep in mind the general definition as a general rule of thumb. Ask yourself, “Is what I am doing making it easier for them to continue to use alcohol or other drugs?” If the answer is yes, you may want to rethink it.

Encouraging Positive Change

  • Let them know a change is coming! Before you lay the new groundwork of how your relationship with them will proceed, give them the heads up. Be specific about what you will no longer do, but perhaps try and balance that out with letting them know what you will You can express to them that you are not abandoning them but will no longer participate in their addiction. Let them know you will be there for them in full when they decide to seek treatment.
  • Don’t be a temptation or bring them around temptation. If you are trying to help someone who is addicted to alcohol, don’t drink around them or bring them to other places that have easy access to alcohol.
  • Encourage their sobriety. Let them know you won’t spend time with them if they are under the influence. Try to participate in fun sober activities with them.

Throughout, don’t forget the importance of self-care. Utilize your support system or seek your own personal counseling so that you can process the effect your enabling has had on your life, as well as any underlying reasons you engaged in it in the first place. You might even want to look into support groups specifically for family members and friends of individuals struggling with addiction, such as Al-Anon.

Start to live your own life! So much of your time and energy has been focused on helping someone else; take this time to reinvest into your own life again. It’s okay to make decisions in the interest of your own mental and physical well-being.

Remember that what you really want for your loved one is that they begin to recover from their addiction and learn to live a happy and healthy life. Remind yourself that your enabling only serves to delay their recovery, and that you can support them in more effective ways.

Decide to be a part of their recovery instead of their addiction. If you would like help finding a treatment program for your loved one, call 1-888-744-0069 .

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Jaclyn Schuon, Psy.D., earned her doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the Georgia School of Professional Psychology and she has been a licensed psychologist in the state of Georgia since 2009.

She has extensive experience providing psychological services to college students and has extensive professional experience at the college and university level. She is also a registered yoga teacher at the 200 hour level and is passionate about utilizing mind-body interventions in her work.

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