What is Enabling?
We’ve all heard the term “enabling”. In its simplest form, enabling means helping somebody do something they would not be able to do by themselves. This is a natural and very human instinct that we all have. Parents want to help their children learn to cycle a bike, friends want to help their friends recover from a broken relationship and we may even want to help a stranger who has dropped their groceries.
Enabling has another more sinister meaning however, when it is paired with addiction or an unhelpful behaviour. In this instance, enabling is when we inadvertently or otherwise help someone to continue perpetuating a dysfunctional habit. People have various reasons for enabling an unhelpful behaviour. Often, when faced with the distressing situation of addiction and a loved one, enabling can be the only way to feel in control of the situation. At other times, the enabler may genuinely believe they are helping.
How do I Know if I'm an Enabler?
It can be hard to know when behaviour transforms from supportive to enabling. Below are a list of questions which may help to separate the two. Remember, enabling is not purely restricted to substances but also to dysfunctional behaviours. Check how many of the following you answer “yes” to.
Why is Enabling Harmful?
Enabling removes the consequences the addict or individual would otherwise face as a result of their habit. The damaging consequences of enabling have been highlighted by science with studies showing that the negative consequences of addiction are the single biggest motivation for change to occur. With the enabler continuously softening the blow of addiction the addict may never “hit rock bottom”. For example, if a co- worker continuously covers for their alcoholic friend’s absences, it allows them to avoid any disciplinary proceedings and operate as normal in the workplace. Whilst the intention may be noble, this prevents the addict from receiving help in the long run.
Sometimes the individual perpetuating the enabling may be referred to as a “Co- dependent”. This is because they often end up taking the fall for or shouldering the addict’s responsibilities. Ultimately, the addict will rely on the co- dependent to get by, making it increasingly difficult for the co- dependent to disengage. Often, the addict will take the ongoing help for granted and this builds a dysfunctional and resentful relationship.
Some of the most dysfunctional relationships can be between parents and children. As parents often have a duty- of- care to their children they may not recognise the difference between parenting and enabling. If you catch your child smoking during exams, and wait until their exam is over to impose consequences, this is not enabling. If however, you continue to provide a weekly allowance after exams then this is allowing your child to continue to engage in an unhealthy behaviour.
How Can I Stop Enabling?
We’ve already mentioned the importance of highlighting negative consequences to the addict. Often, the addict will be denial regarding their actions and seek to justify the addiction. It is important that the enabler stop minimizing the consequences of the dysfunctional behaviour. For example, if man carries his partner to bed every night after they have blacked out in the kitchen, they will not have to deal with the discomfort and embarrassment in the morning. Similarly, if a Mother pays her sons phone bill every time he has spent his pay check at the bookmakers, he will not have to deal with the consequences of having his phone disconnected.
This may sound callous initially, but remember that you are not responsible for the outcomes of addiction and that enabling will only make things worse in the long run. It will be very difficult to do this as often ceasing enabling brings with it a lot of short- term pain and suffering. For example if your parent loses their job once you cease enabling, this will impact the entire family financially. On the other hand, without them losing their job there is no incentive to change.
In order to maintain your resolve in this difficult time it is important to seek support and to learn to embrace your independence from the addict. “Al- Anon” is an organisation for relatives and friends of addicts. It offers a programme which aims to guide the enabler away from their co- dependent habits. It teaches practices such as “disengaging with love”. This means that whilst you love the addict and care about what happens to them, you recognise that you must distance yourself from their addiction as it is ultimately the only path to true change. In addition, you will get to meet others in a situation similar to yourself. This is important as caring for an addict can be isolating and often our support networks have been damaged.
If you are in the difficult position of being a co- dependent then don’t continue on this journey alone. Reach out to one of the many organisations that may help and take the first step in recovering your autonomy.
Haaken, J. (1993). From Al-Anon to ACOA: Codependence and the reconstruction of caregiving. Signs, 18(2), 321-345.
Moore, K. D., & Moore, J. W. (2013). Ecological restoration and enabling behavior: a new metaphorical lens?. Conservation Letters, 6(1), 1-5.