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Am I Enabling Use?

mom cleaning up son's room

Am I enabling?

The word “enabling” has almost become a curse word for those dealing with a Loved One who struggles with addiction. For a recent podcast discussion on the subject of enabling, I decided I would take a closer look at the subject.

One definition of enabling is: to give someone the authority or means to do something. To make possible.

It’s been some years since my family's lives were personally turned upside down by the epidemic of opiate addiction that is sweeping our nation (as detailed in my book “Unhooked”). In the midst of the turmoil, enabling versus not enabling was a recurring conversation in my home.

I read and researched everything I could find on the subject in order to play the hand we were dealt correctly and not enable my son to a jail cell or an early death.

I believed with all my heart that the responsibility of curing him of this disease lay solely upon me and my ability to not enable. I eventually learned this was not the truth. While we can contribute in negative or positive ways and influence the situation, we cannot orchestrate a specific outcome.

I have always found it healthiest for all to encourage and empower, versus enable. However, although I was not the “enabler” I did certainly participate in the problem in my own dysfunctional ways. This persisted until I found my way to recovery and support for families affected by addiction, alcoholism and SUD. But there were others along the way who definitely enabled the situation to continue, alongside my efforts to force consequences.

(Note: stepping in to make a circumstance easier for someone is often robbing them of a life lesson they need to learn or an accomplishment they can take pride from. Read more here about natural consequences).

I found the following information useful concerning enabling.*

Signs you might be enabling

  • Ignoring negative or potentially dangerous behavior – This can involve anything from overlooking problems to denying that a problem even exists
  • Difficulty expressing emotions – Enablers are often uncomfortable expressing their own feelings, especially if there are negative repercussions for doing so
  • Prioritizing another’s needs before our own – While it is natural to want to help Loved Ones, enabling takes helping a step too far, usually the addicted Loved One has his/her needs taken care of while the enabler neglects their own
  • Acting out of fear – Since addiction can cause frightening events, the enabler will do whatever it takes to avoid such situations
  • Lying to others to cover behavior – An enabler will lie to keep the peace and to present a controlled, calm exterior presenting that things are just fine
  • Blaming people or situations other than your Loved One – to protect them from the consequences of drug abuse, the enabler might accuse other people of causing drug abuse or somehow being in the wrong
  • Resenting the person you are helping – The result of the above behaviors is that the enabler will likely feel angry and hurt. She/he may act on these feelings by resenting the addict, all the while continuing to enable the addiction.
  • Continuing to help when help is not appreciated or acknowledged

If these questions make you think you might be an enabler; it is important that you take action. If the addict you are enabling is in treatment, then you, too, should take part in the process. If the addict is not in treatment, you should explore your own issues, either with a personal counselor or through an organization such as Nar-Anon, Alateen or Al-Anon. Don’t help the people you care about dig their own graves.”

*Highlights taken from the Anatomy of Addiction, Psychology Today and Foundations Recovery blog

Here are some guidelines for breaking the cycle of enabling:

  • Leave messes as they are
  • Weigh the options of short-term versus long-term pain (Will "helping" one more time cause more pain in the long run? Cause future demands and pressure?) and interrupt the pattern
  • Get your autonomy back (freedom and independence) don’t allow yourself to be put in danger or dragged along for the ride
  • Develop consistency and consistent standards; boundaries are vital

Sometimes we believe handling things a certain way gives us control over the outcome. We think remaining involved will block a Loved One’s downfall or even prevent their death.

This all comes back to our own fear and need to control.

It can take a while to realize that we really control nothing. In fact anyone we try to control ends up having control over us.

Does not enabling resolve addiction?

Isn’t that what we’ve been trained to believe? The moment we put our foot down, our loved will hit that rock bottom and magically find recovery. Problem solved!

That is not only not the case, but thinking this deceives us into believing we can control their decisions and orchestrate their journey.

While we can contribute in good or bad ways, not enabling by no means resolves the destructive cycle.

In fact, when we step aside and stop enabling, someone else is often next in line to make the behavior possible.

The best rule of thumb I've found when making a decision concerning helping another is to do what best helps me feel safe, sane and at peace.

Let your yes be yes and your no be no and make sure your answers are backed up by your own peace of mind.

Helping versus enabling

I have a bottom line I stick with that helps me get clear regarding enabling. As long as I am able and at peace with it, I will always help bear another’s burdens. But I am not called to shoulder anyone’s load.

I am not meant to carry another adult’s responsibilities, do things for them that they are able to do, undo consequences that they need to deal with, or clean up messes I did not make.

If I find myself doing any of the above, I feel weighed down and often resentful.

Enabling involves pressure and demand and causes us to take on problems we are not meant to solve. If you solve someone’s problems, chances are you will have to do it again. At some point we grow weary of the cycle. Helping, on the other hand, doesn’t hinder progress. Helping should feel effortless, absent of turmoil and negativity, void of fear and control.

Along the journey, I pray for the wisdom to know the difference.

“We all do things for people we love and that’s okay. But if you’re doing it consistently and all the time, you’re enabling them to not be responsible.” ~Ron Miles


(More on the subject of enabling use in this “Coming Up for AiR” podcast)

Annie Highwater is a Writer, Speaker, Podcast Host and Family Advocate. She has a particular interest in family pathology and concepts of dysfunction, addiction, alcoholism and conflict. Annie published her memoir, Unhooked: A Mother’s Story of Unhitching from the Roller Coaster of Her Son’s Addiction, in 2016. Her story sheds light on the personal challenges facing the affected parents and family members, and illustrates how family dynamics both help and hinder the recovery process. Annie’s second book, Unbroken, Navigating the Madness of Family Dysfunction, Addiction, Alcoholism and Heartache was published in August of 2018. She resides in Columbus, Ohio and enjoys writing, long distance running, hiking, the great outdoors and visiting her son in California as often as possible.



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