Why people enable and what does it accomplish?

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Enabling Part 1

I am sure you have heard the term enabling before and perhaps you have been “accused” of enabling or labeled an enabler.  It is easy for others looking from the outside to judge and advise you to stop enabling.  Addiction professionals and counselors may have told you that you just need to stop.  But as you know it is not that simple.  Before I go on, know that there is no judgment here.  I too, have been at times an enabler to my own loved ones.  I know how easy it is to be caught in the cycle of enabling and how difficult it is to stop. 

First of all, we must understand why we enable and what lies underneath it.  When a friend or loved one is suffering our natural instinct is to offer help.  We see that they are not functioning well. They are making poor choices, they are not meeting their responsibilities, and we are worried.  We only want to help and to protect them from disastrous consequences.  We don’t want them to get hurt, we don’t want them to lose their jobs, we don’t want them to go to jail, we don’t want them to go bankrupt, or to suffer, and most of all we don’t want them to die.  What we do want is for them to stop using and for them to get well.  It seems obvious than since we can NOT get them to stop what they are doing, even with our nagging, threats, and pleads that we would do what we can do and that is usually help in the form of enabling.  So this enabling behavior comes from a deep desire to help and protect, but ultimately it is out of a need to try to control and a deep fear that we enable.

Yes, fear and control.  At some level we are terrified.  Terrified of what addiction is doing and will do to our loved one.  We are terrified of an overdose.  We are scared of legal consequences that may destroy one’s future.  We are fearful that our once beloved spouse has become someone we no longer know or recognize and that divorce may be in our future.  We are worried sick that the financial consequences, not only to the person with the addiction will destroy us too.  So we do our best to help by trying to prevent these things.  Initially, our attempts to control and lessen the consequences work.  He avoids getting that DUI on his record. You wake him up so that he doesn’t miss another day of work.  You pay her rent so she is not evicted this month.  You allow her to stay in your house even though she is using heroin, just so you can be sure she is still alive.  These things make you feel better.  Your anxiety is lessened a bit.  The ultimate catastrophe was avoided.

But the problem doesn’t go away.  In fact, it seems to get worse.  It seems like it will never end.  Enabling truly only accomplishes three things:

  1. It gives the enabler a false sense of control.  It temporarily reduces your fear and anxiety.  You become consumed with controlling, rescuing, protecting, and shielding your loved one from consequences that you believe to be dire. Ultimately, your own well being is compromised.  You enter into an ongoing cycle of destructive behavioral patterns and way of interacting with the addicted person.
  2. Enabling always prolongs the disease of addiction and postpones recovery.  Each time you fix the situation, they learn no matter how irresponsibly he/she acts; there are no consequences.  You take care of everything.  There is always another chance.  They never hit their bottom.
  3. Over time these failed attempts to control, protect, and change the addicted individual creates for you a sense of frustration, anger, resentment, and learned helplessness develops.  You have tried everything, spending tremendous emotional energy and resources in your attempts to help.  Your loved one is still acting self destructively. You are now left feeling discouraged and hopeless.

These things were not what you were hoping for.  They were not what you were trying to accomplish.  The first step in any change process is an awareness that there is a problem and that what you’re doing is not working.  There is hope.  You have learned that you can’t control your loved one, but the good news is you can control and change how you respond to them.



Categories: Family Enabling
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