Enabling Negative Behavior
Enabling is a term you hear quite a bit in the recovery community. It comes with a negative connotation. Family and friends are warned not to enable.
When I think of enabling, I typically think, “that’s something I should stop” or “enabling is negative.” Enabling, by definition, is to give (someone or something) the authority or means to do something or simply make possible. We enable because we care about someone. We are all driven to solve problems for people we love and to provide comfort for individuals who need it.
A few examples of positive enabling would be teaching my daughter how to cook. I am enabling her to be able to feed herself if I am not home. Or, if help her get a car that will allow her to go to work and earn money for college, that kind of enabling can be positive and helpful. When thinking about the positive nature of enabling, we could also think of that as empowering.
I know many times our intentions, especially as parents, are good. Often, our drive to provide comfort or fix a problem for someone with a behavioral issue such as addiction ends up helping our loved one dig a deeper hole of trouble for themselves. Our enabling can actually run interference to their feeling a need to get help or create change in their lives.
Some examples of this are setting up recovery meetings for them to go to, getting them a job, covering their finances when they bounce checks. All of these actions might start with intent of just helping. But it actually takes away their motivation to do these things for themselves and thereby growing and changing. It may even cause shame and resentment toward you since it could be perceived as an attempt to control them. When you are a parent to or a partner of someone in recovery from a behavioral or chemical health issue, it becomes even more crucial to know when we are enabling rather than empowering them.
Am I enabling or helping?
Some key signs to look at to determine whether you are enabling someone include:
- Rationalizing their behavior
- Ignoring bad behavior
- Cleaning up their messes (such a financial issues)
- Withholding emotions or feelings from the fear of upsetting your loved one
- Not following through on consequences you have established
- Resenting your loved one because they aren’t noticing or thanking you for your “help”
- Making excuses to others (covering for them)
There are more, but if you find yourself doing any of the above, it might be time to take a look at whether your actions are helping or harming. Through the support of others in a similar situation (like those you would meet at a support group such as Al-Anon) you will soon realize that your behavior is the only behavior you can control. Just like the person we love and are concerned about, it’s easier for us to change if we recognize the consequences our behaviors are creating.
How to be supportive without enabling
Before we are quick to “act” or “fix” or “rescue”, what if we asked ourselves: “Can my loved one do this for him or herself?” If the answer is yes, the best action from us is patience and stillness. For parents this is especially hard, since we instinctively take care of our children. When taking care of them is actually preventing them from doing something they could do for themselves, though, there are consequences for both of us.
I have come to notice a certain feeling in my stomach or gut when I am about to enable. With practice and the support of others, I have learned to notice this feeling and then wait to act on my impulse to help, fix or rescue. Waiting an hour, a day or a week typically has resulted in that other person making the healthy choice, therefore learning and growing. And without me barging in to do that for them, it has promoted more trust in the relationship. As parents, it is a fine line between what is supporting and what is enabling.
At times I have even asked my children to help me determine if what I might do would be helping or hurting – both of my kids are good at telling me when something is “their business.” Instead of feeling offended or left out, I feel grateful and proud of their maturity. As a family in recovery, we are all learning how to change, and every right decision is helpful.
At Family Recovery Resource Experts, we help families make that next right decision. Communication, boundaries and enabling are just a few of the things we address with families who are stuck. We take the finger-pointing off of the loved one you might be blaming for the problems in the family, while helping everyone focus on themselves, their role in the family and their own path to healing and functional change. No matter what you are going through, most likely you’re not alone, and your family is also experiencing it with you. Our goal is healing and forward positive growth.