Journeying with a loved one who is struggling with an addiction or some other struggle is one of the most difficult things in life. If it’s someone we really care about we will naturally want to do something to help them. I’ve been doing this a long time and in the vast majority of the 100’s of cases I’ve worked with over the last 16 years there’s nearly always a loved one, who is close by, who is enabling the behaviour. In many cases, I believe the person, who is generally a parent but could be an uncle, sister or a friend, does really care about the individual who’s struggling, but despite the intent and hardwork are actually creating another barrier for the individual to overcome before they can overcome their problem.
This is a very complex field to navigate and even after all these years working in this area and consulting seasoned professionals with every case: I still make mistakes. If you’re reading this and you realise you’ve been “enabling” your loved one please don’t feel guilty. If your intention was to help them then that’s a great thing and you should be proud of that. However, for their sake, it is important to develop how you help so it actually brings life and doesn’t accidentally continue to hurt them.
Let’s consider what the difference really is. In a wider sense, enabling can describe any pattern of behavior the family, friends and colleagues which alleviate their responsibility. Enabling has the effect of releasing the enabled person from having to take responsibility for his or her behavior. Enabling means that “the enabler” will always fix, solve, or make the consequences go away. In contrast helping someone through this is being there through the difficulties, the tantrums, the catastrophies. Being there means listening, sharing a meal and being compassionate. It will also mean resisting the intense manipulation, the violent intimidation when they are coming down. The only way this is possible is holding to very strong boundaries. This might mean canceling lunch if they are drunk and then rescheduling. It might look as simple as gently stating, “I prefer our conversations when you’re not stoned”. It may look like blocking numbers or social media if there have been threats of violence online while intoxicated and only communicating via email. Your boundaries are your boundaries and you must consider in advance a flexible, compassionate, commensurate, well communicated response when they are breached. No consequence or communication about the breach says very clearly that you affirm their behaviour.
Here are some classic examples I have come across of enabling behaviour.
- Giving Them Money
“Oh I went to the doctor and I’m in so much pain and I have to get an X-ray and I just need $50 to get the X-ray. It’s urgent please!”. In your head, you’re thinking, “well, it’s for a medical bill and he’s giving so many details so it has to be true and he really looks like he’s in pain”. This is a classic story told to manipulate loved ones or randoms for drug money. I’ve fallen for this one before. Even if it’s “food for the kids” for a single mum who’s using drugs. If she’s relying on you to provide the food then she knows she can spend her centrelink money on drugs and get help from other people for the legitimate purchases. But how should we help in these situations. A strategic response to really help might sounds like. “You know I can’t give you money but it sounds like what you’re going through is really difficult, how long have you been in pain?”. From there you can talk about it. You could also take a middle road approach and go with them to get the alleged X-ray done and still pay for it. If you do that and it turns out to be true there still has to be a conversation with them why they didn’t have the money to pay for it, what are their plans to pay for it next time and who are they getting support from to help them on that journey. With the single mum to really help them you could offer to drop off some healthy frozen meals or a hamper and listen to their situation. Just the same I would encourage having the same difficult conversation why she is in that situation.
- False Responsibility
Making excuses for someone with an addiction denies the reality of the problem, and is a sure sign of enabling. Denial of an issue or avoiding it by downplaying it. If you’re an enabler you won’t confront the addict because you fear conflict. Instead, you may find yourself making excuses for the addict’s behavior and convince yourself that the problem will just go away on its own.
If they have a hangover you might be manipulated to call their boss for them to call in sick. This doesn’t help the person in question, it allows the problem to persist. To truly help, it’s important to confront them, in a respectful and loving way, about their behavior.
- Placing them before yourself
If you’re helping an addict appropriately, you will set clear boundaries and balance your self care with theirs. This one is most difficult for parents of an addict. It is possible to be supportive without neglecting your own needs. Helping someone should never be a threat to your own well being. Make sure you’re taking care of yourself first.
Codependent behavior is almost always present to some degree in an enabler. If your honest with yourself you might find you’re getting some personal gratification from helping the addict. For example, you may feel that you’re doing a good deed or feel a sense of pride from making a sacrifice, or you might feel a sense of control out of the situation or enjoy the feeling of being needed.
If you find yourself enabling your loved one, you can attend support groups such as Al-Anon or Nar-Anon to address your codependency or see a therapist and learn how to provide support without enabling them.
- Getting them out of uncomfortable situations
Helping someone out of a predicament caused by drug use only enables them to continue making poor decisions. Whether it’s legal support to defend them when they’re guilty, buying personal items back from the pawn shop, or lying to employers and loved ones, bailing them out takes away the negative consequences of addiction and just prolongs the inevitable.
While it can be difficult to see a loved one go to prison or get fired from a job, the pain of repercussions from their choices, along with your encouragement, will prompt them to seek treatment and develop the personal strength to really overcome their problem.
Most enabling behaviour comes from fear and wanting to control the outcomes for the individual. When you’ve been used to this for some time that will feel like love. Letting go of the control will even feel unloving at first. It’s not easy. But really it’s best for both you and the person you love.