Substance use disorder is a complex issue that is often difficult to overcome without help. As a family member watching someone you love battle addiction, it’s only natural to want to help them and let them know that you’re there for them. Unfortunately, sometimes these acts of kindness can translate into enabling behaviors.
If you’ve been trying to help someone who is battling drug use or an addiction to alcohol, you’ve probably heard of the term enabling. Enabling can actually make your loved one’s struggles with addiction even harder to overcome.
What Is Enabling Behavior?
The idea of enabling is pretty straightforward. Enabling allows your loved one to continue their unwanted behaviors. This may involve justifying the behavior, denying the behavior, or showing that you allow the behavior. Unfortunately, it is often incredibly hard to distinguish the act of enabling from simply being helpful and supportive.
Why Enabling Is Destructive?
Enabling can be harmful both to you and the person you’re enabling. Not only can it drain you mentally, physically and financially, but it also prevents your loved one from suffering the consequences of their behavior. It could encourage them to continue drug use and can be detrimental to any treatment they might be receiving, this keeping them exposed to the dangers of drug abuse.
Am I an Enabler?
Even when your heart is in the right place, there may be a part of you that questions if you’re doing the right thing. Am I really helping? Did I do what’s best for my loved one? When dealing with addiction, it’s best to carefully analyze your actions to make sure they are actually what your loved one needs.
Signs of Enabling
Since addiction is such a complex problem, you may not even know you are enabling the user’s behavior. Certain actions probably felt like the right thing to do at that time. There are certain signs that you can search for, however, that may tip you off about whether or not you are enabling your loved one:
Putting your loved one’s needs before your own
If you notice that you are putting more effort into caring for your loved one than caring for yourself, you may be enabling their behavior while also taking a toll on yourself.
Making excuses for their behavior
Coming up with reasons why your loved one may be unemployed or maybe stealing money is a way of trying to ignore their drug addiction. You could also attribute their addiction to depression or anxiety. You might even put blame on yourself for them developing a chemical dependency.
Keeping the user’s behavior a secret
An enabler may be tempted to call in sick on behalf of a loved one while they are high or come up with other excuses to tell friends and family. This can send the message to your loved one that you’ll take care of them and protect them, even if they continue using.
You may find yourself afraid of your loved one or afraid that something will happen to them. This may cause you to cover for them in order to avoid making a scene. It can also cause you to avoid your loved one altogether.
Financially supporting them
You could find yourself spending a lot of money on behalf of your loved one, whether you’re handing them spending money, paying off their debts, or letting them live with you rent-free. This could be a sign that you are covering the costs of their basic needs so that they can spend their money on drugs.
If you’ve been putting in a lot of effort to helping your loved one only to see them continue their drug use, it’s possible that you might begin to feel resentment toward them for it.
In addition to these behaviors, it’s important to keep track of your thought processes. If you catch yourself having the following thoughts, you could be enabling your loved one:
- “They just need a little more time.”
- “Maybe they will come to their senses soon.”
- “If I can’t stop them, I can at least help.”
- “What else am I supposed to do?”
How to Stop Enabling
Once you’ve recognized that you are enabling someone with a drug or alcohol addiction, it’s important to stop your enabling behaviors so that your loved one can properly overcome their addiction and seek help. However, you might not be sure exactly how to stop. Consider the following actions to help you quit enabling.
Ask for help
It’s okay if you can’t break the cycle alone. There are many groups for families of users. Nar-Anon and Al-Anon both offer 12-step fellowship programs that provide ongoing support and counseling services. Even if you feel uncomfortable sharing your story, just sitting with others who are going through the same thing can help. Just as someone with an addiction suffers, so do the people who love them the most. No, you can’t change someone with a drug abuse disorder, but you can change how you react to certain situations. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing with a large group of people, consider individual or family counseling. Addiction experts can teach you ways to stop enabling your loved one’s behavior.
Cut financial ties
In addition to the emotional toll addiction takes on you, financially supporting someone who is capable of supporting themselves can leave you in financial ruin. Make the point clear that you will no longer financially support their habit or pay for their mistakes. If they don’t pay their rent, then they will have to find somewhere else to live. If they spent all their money and don’t have enough money to buy food, give them the number to the nearest food bank. This way, they know they have to be financially responsible for themselves.
Consider an intervention
If you’ve gotten to this point, know that you’re probably not the only person who is tired of the ongoing destructive behavior. It’s at this point that you may want to consider staging an intervention. Only the person in question can change their life. You cannot make someone stop using until they are ready. However, you can let them know that you will no longer participate in the cycle of addiction or enabling. Although it’s difficult, you cannot let your personal feelings cloud your judgment. Staging an intervention may help the user see that they need to be accountable and ask for help.
If staging an intervention isn’t possible, you can still establish boundaries. Let the person in question know that you are no longer going to tolerate their behavior. While you will support them 100 percent in recovery, you will not support their addiction. Setting boundaries might involve telling your loved one that you won’t help them until your own needs are met or that you won’t contact them until they seek treatment.
Stop cleaning up their messes
When you stop fixing things for your loved one, it can help them feel the consequences of their actions and make them feel more accountable. Stop making excuses for them, don’t bail them out of jail, and don’t help them pay fines.
Recognize and stop abusive behavior
If your loved one shows signs of abuse toward you or your family, it’s important to recognize it and put a stop to it. Abuse can come in many forms, including physical, such as punching or hitting, verbal, such as insulting or demeaning, and emotional, such as guilt tripping or invalidating, among others. In order to discourage this behavior, it could take some drastic measures, like kicking someone out or cutting all ties with them. However, it’s important to realize that you deserve respect and should not reinforce those negative behaviors.
Learn how to say no
Enabling does more than allow a user to continue substance abuse. It builds resentment for everyone involved and makes the user expect that you will continue to make everything right when they don’t own up to their responsibilities. Although the pressure to continue helping can be overwhelming, particularly from a family member or very close friend, you need to stay strong and not give in. Refusing to give money or bail them out doesn’t mean you don’t care. Instead, it means that you will no longer make excuses for their poor choices. Saying no means that you are taking control of the situation. This could involve setting boundaries like refusing to give them money, refusing to let them stay with you for extended periods of time, or refusing to lie for them.
Encourage the user to seek treatment for their substance abuse. Offer support and let them know that you will do whatever it takes to help them get sober. However, that doesn’t mean contributing to their habit. It means helping them to stop the self-destructive cycle.
It’s easy to revert back to enabling behavior, especially when you see someone you care about in need. However, you need to remind yourself why you said enough is enough. Don’t let guilt get in the way of better judgment. You have your own life, wants and needs that must be met, and your loved one needs to make changes for themselves.
Understanding what enabling is and knowing how to break the cycle is key. Seeing someone you love to battle a substance use disorder is probably the hardest thing you will ever have to do; however, they will never stop if you keep telling them it’s okay.
Once you’ve made the decision to walk away and only communicate if they choose to get help, you need to start rebuilding your life. In reality, you’re giving them control over their lives again. You are making them accountable for their decisions, which frees you from the guilt you’ve probably felt hundreds of times.
Sometimes, we devote so much time into helping someone else that we forget how to live our own lives. We forget about the things that used to make us happy. The ugly truth about addiction is that it robs us blind even when we have our eyes wide open.
Finding ways to feel good again should be the focus. Make a point to check in on the person in question, but don’t let it dictate your life. Most importantly, focus on self-care and know that you’ve done the right thing.