Each of us is innately engrained with the desire to help those that we are close to. We help our friends through messy breakups, we help our parents as they age, and we help our children do well in school and work towards their dreams and aspirations. We support our loved ones in times of need; we do what we can to make their lives easier. Unfortunately, when addiction is involved, this natural instinct has been known to backfire tragically.
When we think of the term ‘enabling’, we will likely think of lending a helping hand to someone who cannot necessarily accomplish a given task on their own. In this sense, enabling and empowering have very similar meanings and connotations. Recently, however, the term ‘enabling’ has acquired a new meaning – especially when it comes to the realm of substance dependency. To enable an individual means to unintentionally perpetuate their problem, rather than help them to solve it.
Enabling Vs. Helping
For example: A mother who allows her son to continue living at home for free at age 25 simply because he does not want to get a job is enabling his indolence and unemployment. A man who constantly makes excuses for his hung-over or incessantly intoxicated wife is enabling her alcoholism. A father who sends his son grocery money because he has spent all of his personal earnings on heroin is enabling his drug habit. Those who enable damaging and dysfunctional behavioral patterns, despite their best intentions, are actually doing far more harm than good. They may feel as if they are protecting their loved ones from potentially unfortunate circumstances, when in reality, they are disallowing their loved ones the opportunity to suffer beneficial consequences. How can a consequence be beneficial? If we never had to deal with the repercussions of our own mistakes, we would never learn or grow or have any real reason to work towards self-betterment.
Am I an Enabler?
If you are actively enabling an addicted loved one, setting healthy boundaries or ceasing involvement entirely is often necessary – but it is far from easy. You may as if your loved one will be unable to survive without your help; you may be afraid that he or she will perceive the boundaries you are setting as abandonment, or a lack of love. Try to look at it this way: By continuously stepping in to solve your loved one’s problems, you are essentially robbing him of any motivation to take responsibility for his own actions. Without this essential motivation, he will not feel the need to change – thus he will continue engaging in addictive behavior until he winds up incarcerated, institutionalized, or dead. From a logical perspective, this may make sense to you. However, maintaining disengagement is often far easier said than done. Why? Because you, the enabler, are also getting something out of your involvement.
In many cases, the enabler has become so accustomed to saving the day that his or her sense of self-worth depends upon his or her ability to ‘help’. The help that the enabler provides, although ultimately inappropriate and damaging, allows him or her to maintain a sense of control – to feel that an unmanageable situation is actually being managed. Try to take an honest look at the situation, and the role that you have been playing. Do you feel that you are helping or hurting? This can often be difficult to determine, seeing as the line between enabling and empowering is often quite fine. When attempting to determine whether you are being helpful or inadvertently exacerbating the active addiction, ask yourself the following questions.
Signs of Enabling Behavior
- Do you tend to overlook unacceptable behavior?
- Do you find it difficult or uncomfortable to express your own emotions?
- Do you continuously offer help despite the fact that it is not appreciated, or even acknowledged?
- Do you find yourself blaming other people or circumstances for the actions of your addicted loved one?
- Do you ever lie to cover up the mistakes that your addicted loved one continuously makes?
- Do you sometimes find yourself resenting your loved one, or resenting the responsibilities that you willingly take on?
- Do you ever fear that your loved one will get angry or cause a scene if you do not continuing helping him?
If you answered ‘yes’ to several of these questions, it is important that you take the steps necessary to begin reversing these patterns of enabling. Get in touch with a licensed addiction specialist, perhaps an interventionist or therapist, who can help to guide you in the right direction. Look up a local Al-Anon meeting and listen to the experiences of others who have been in your shoes. Dealing with an individual who is active in his or her addiction is no simple task, and you are not expected to inherently know how to best handle this sensitive situation. This is why seeking outside help for yourself is crucial. Reach out for guidance and support from others who have been through similar experiences – if you would like more information, please feel free to contact us today.