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While the word “enabling” is sometimes used to describe actions as positive alongside words like “empowering”, it can also be used to describe negative behaviors as well. Typically, when the word enabling is used it is being used to describe a form of dysfunctional behavior that is meant to be helpful but ends up making a problem worse that it was before.  The dictionary defines the word “enable” as such: To behave in a manner that facilitates or supports (another’s abusive, addictive or self-destructive behavior).

It can be extremely difficult to differentiate between being helpful or supportive and enabling. It is very noble have the desire to help others or those you love. Parents do it for their children, husbands and wives do it for their spouses and people do it for their friends when they are struggling in their personal lives or at work. Unfortunately, despite what is undoubtedly the best of intentions, this desire to help frequently causes the opposite effect when some form of addiction to substance abuse is part of the situation.

To put it as simply as possible, shielding others from the consequences of their behavior is enabling. You are not helping or supporting the enabled individual, you are allowing them to be irresponsible. By stepping in to take charge or responsibility for your loved one’s behavior, you’re removing any need for a person to take responsibility for their own actions. Taking responsibility for their actions can be hugely motivational when it comes to reasons for making a change, and if the addict is never forced to take on that responsibility, it is likely they will have little motivation to make a change of any sort. It’s the unfortunate reality that enabling someone’s behaviors, addictions or actions is not only unhelpful but can actually actively cause harm to the individual and the situation.

If you’re wondering if you are being helpful or enabling, there are a few behaviors you can look out for:

  • Empty threats. Do you make threats or makeup consequences for actions with no follow through?
  • Blame game. Are you blaming other people in your loved one’s life for their behavior, such as a friend, employer, work or even yourself?
  • Do you struggle to express your own emotions?
  • Do you feel as though doing something or not doing something may cause some sort of blow up, violence or other negative reaction?
  • Do you find yourself lying for your loved one to cover their mistakes?
  • Are you beginning to resent the responsibilities that you are taking on?
  • Lack of self. Do you frequently put your own needs below the needs of others in order to help them?
  • Bail out. Do you bail your loved one out of trouble often?
  • Secret keeper. Do you find yourself keeping secrets on behalf of your loved one in order to keep the peace?
  • Do you avoid your loved one to keep peace with them?
  • Are you supplying your loved one with money that they have neither earned nor deserve?
  • Do you find yourself trying to exercise control over your loved one’s job, plans, activities or friendships?
  • Are you spending valuable time making up excuses for you loved one’s behavior to other people?



Addiction has the ability to turn your loved one into someone almost unrecognizable. So, what is scarier than knowing that someone you care about may be changing into someone you no longer know right before your eyes? Not realizing that as their addiction escalates, you are also changing alongside them. While it may be hard to believe, often times the addict in the household isn’t the only one who becomes codependent. It can be extremely difficult to tell your loved one “no” when all of your instincts are screaming at you to help them. It seems like such a small thing to agree to help them with something in exchange for them offering to quite their substance abuse. It feels like the right thing to do to offer money or somewhere to stay, take in their children while they work on recovering or dropping everything to be there for them when they need you.

Unfortunately, all of these things are warning signs of enabling behavior. It becomes codependent behavior when you start to become afraid that the addict will punish you in some way if you don’t agree to whatever it is that they are asking of you. Addicts develop an innate sense of manipulation to help them coerce others into helping them get what they want. It is completely understandable that you would feel responsible for your loved one if you turned your back on them in their “hour of need” and something were to happen to them.

This fear traps families in a cycle of enabling that never ends. Your behavior becomes controlled by your fears of what will happen to them if you remove yourself from their lives, so you catch them when they fall and they become reassured that you will catch them over and over again. As unbelievable as it may sound, the addicted person is usually acutely aware of effect their emotional, psychological and possibly physical threats have on their loved ones.

How Can You Help?

As difficult as it can be, you have to understand that addiction doesn’t get better on its own and you are likely going to struggle with breaking enabling behavior once you’ve determined that is what it is. Don’t give your friend or family member the chance to cause irrevocable damage to your life. You can still support them, but will need to do so in a healthy way to make sure that you keep yourself protected while you do. It is more than ok to seek help during this transitional period. You don’t have to make the change alone!

Just like breaking any habit, there are a number of ways you can position yourself to break the habit of enabling in your day to day life:

  • Get support. You are not the only person, friend or family to go through this same type of behavior. There are a lot of really great support groups out there specifically designed to help those that are looking to learn about addiction. These groups can be enormously helpful at putting the situation into perspective as it will give you an opportunity to learn from the experiences of others. It also shows you that you are not alone in this, and that anything you do is a first step down the road to recovery for everyone.
  • Talk about it. After attending meetings or support groups, chances are you’ll be feeling a deeper understanding for the habits that you need to correct or shift to improve the situation with the addicted person. It is very important that any decision or discussion focused around the topic of adjustments to the way things will be done include the addicted person, and that you are honest with them about what you think and feel. Try to catch them sober and make sure you impress that these adjustments are based in love and not punishment or revenge. Set clear limits and be prepared to stick to them.
  • Chances are, it will be easier and safer to keep on track if you limit one on one contact with the addicted person to help prevent against any pressure or manipulation they may attempt. Engaging them alone will open you up to the powers of persuasion, but there is safety in numbers.
  • No excuses. Your loved one may have difficulty remembering what they did when they were under the influence. Your goal is to make sure that they see the consequences of their addiction, so no more cleaning up after them. No more helping them to bed, smoothing over awkward social interactions or covering for them with work.
  • Don’t supply them. While it may seem like a no brainer, don’t buy or offer substances to the abuser. They will frequently use a reward system to gain the fix they’re seeking. They “deserve” a drink or they should be able to “relax” on the weekends. This can lead family members to celebrate or indulge with the addicted member. Living with a family member that enjoys or utilizes the thing that the addict is craving can be very difficult for the addicted person as well.
  • Consequences stand. Many substance abusers utilize substances that are not legal, or will go about getting them in a way that is not legal. They may steal medication or money, purchase illegal drugs, drive under the influence or become involved in sexual exploitation. These indiscretions can have some pretty serious consequences if your loved one is caught. While it will be difficult, avoid bailing them out of trouble. Legal repercussions are some of the most serious consequences because nobody wants to have a criminal record or do time. This can be a huge eye opener for the addicted person having to stare down the barrel of a severe court sentence.
  • Reevaluate financial relationships. Addictions are an exponentially growing debt. The more you use, the higher your tolerance and the more you need to take to feel that same high. This means the cost of affording the substance is going to be on the rise as well as the addicted person purchases more and more of it to keep up with their tolerance. This has a huge effect on whether or not a person can actually afford their addiction. It is very important to set boundaries on any finances that may be shared with an addicted person. When they can no longer afford the fix and no longer have access to a financial support system, they may find themselves forced to seek help.
  • Get help. It can be very difficult to alter behavior both as the enabler and the addict. There is no shame in seeking help to correct these behaviors. Having a counselor to coach you through any tough spots can be the push needed to keep everyone involved strong and on the right track.
  • Seek treatment. As the family member or friend of the affected person, setting those boundaries and consequences can be really beneficial in pushing the abuser to a place where they want to make a change. It is important to support and encourage them in this venture, and one of the best things to do is to seek out a treatment facility and see if there are any available short term, long term or day treatment programs that would be beneficial to your loved one.

Again, it is important to remember that you are not the first person to find yourself in this situation, and you don’t have to go through it alone. There are so many options out there for support groups where you have the ability to listen, talk and learn from the mistakes of those who came before. There is absolutely no shame in admitting you may need help or guidance to get on the right track with helping your loved one recover. It is an honorable thing to want to help someone else keep their head above water, but you want to make sure that you are prepared and equipped for the encounter so they don’t pull you under with them.

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