10 Clear Signs You Are an Enabler and 5 Ways to Stop
Addiction and Enabling Go Hand-in-Hand
Substance abuse doesn’t just affect the addicted person. When someone has a drug or alcohol problem, it profoundly impacts the lives of those around them. Addiction has a special way of weaving chaos and dysfunction into the lives of everyone it comes into contact with – including unsuspecting friends and family members.
Bewildered loved ones can easily get caught up in enabling behavior when they care about an addicted person. Even employers and coworkers can become enablers. This is more common than you might think – and it’s not surprising. Being in a relationship with someone who has a substance abuse problem definitely has its ups and downs. It’s hard to navigate this kind of uncertainty – especially when your heart is in the right place.
The Person You Care About Needs Help That You Can’t Give Them
Addiction is a bewildering disease. It is not a choice. (Although from the outside, it certainly looks like one!) It can be incredibly frustrating to watch someone you care about abuse drugs or alcohol – especially when you witness the many negative consequences they experience as a result. You may cry out into the night, “WHY???? WHY ARE THEY DOING THIS TO THEMSELVES!?” The fact is, they are sick and they need help. That’s the simple answer.
Nevertheless, even though they are “doing it to themselves,” you DO have a sincere desire to help. The problem is, you don’t have the proper tools. Addiction treatment or a 12-step recovery program is the best option for someone with this illness. Nevertheless, you keep trying to help, even though it feels like you are going in circles. Enabling behavior is usually motivated by good intentions. However, it almost always leads to negative consequences for everyone involved.
Let’s talk about the topic of enabling in depth. If you are an enabler, you’re going to need some support so you can stop the madness. The more you know about this subject, the better off everyone will be.
What is an Enabler?
Let’s define “enabler.” This term can be very confusing for those who love or care about an addicted person. You may have been told by well-meaning friends and family members that you are enabling, but you’re not sure. You genuinely want to help the person you care about get sober. But, you may be starting to wonder if you are actually helping or hurting the situation.
Having some proper definitions of enabling might clear things up for you.
Here is how Merriam-Webster defines enabler: “one that enables another to achieve an end; especially: one who enables another to persist in self-destructive behavior (such as substance abuse) by providing excuses or by making it possible to avoid the consequences of such behavior.”
According to Psych Central, enabling is “removing the natural consequences to the addict of his or her behavior.”
Verywell Mind says enabling “is doing for someone things that they could and should be doing themselves.”
Dr. Phil says, “an enabler is a person who, acting out of a sincere sense of love, loyalty, and concern, steps in to protect, cover up for, make excuses for and become more responsible for the chemically dependent person. This can prevent the addicted individual from a crisis that might bring about change, and thereby prolong his or her illness.”
Do any of these definitions of enabling resonate with you? If so, it might be time to do some real soul-searching. Coming to terms with the fact that you might be an enabler can be a very painful process. However, awareness is the first step toward healing. Once you step out of denial, you can begin to make healthier choices.
Not sure if your loved one has a problem with addiction? Take this quiz and find out!
Am I An Enabler?
If you are starting to question your decisions about how you approach the addicted person in your life, you are in a good place. (Even though it may not feel like it!) There is a fine line between helping someone overcome a drug or alcohol problem and enabling their behavior.
By the time most people ask themselves, “Am I an enabler?” they have usually gone through hell and highwater to help the person they care about. They have done everything they know to do to motivate them get sober, but the situation isn’t changing.
If you are exploring the possibility that you might be an enabler, we want to applaud you. It takes incredible courage and strength to get honest with yourself. Many people continue to stay in denial about their enabling behavior for years. This keeps the addicted person sick – and you get sick in the process.
How To Recognize The Signs of Enabling
We have provided eight questions we want you to ask yourself to help determine if you are an enabler. Do your best to be honest. Your first inclination may be to answer “yes, but……” When you are caught up in the cycle of enabling, you have trained your mind to make excuses for your own behavior. It’s time for a reality check.
Simply answer “yes” or “no” to the following questions. This quiz is designed to help you answer the question: “Am I an enabler?” This is a determination you must make for yourself. If you answer yes to any of these questions, you might need to start making healthier choices when it comes to the addicted person in your life.
- Do you ignore or minimize dangerous behavior? Dangerous behavior always accompanies an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Every time someone purchases drugs illegally, they are putting themselves at risk. If an alcoholic drinks and drives, they are endangering everyone on the road. And, let’s not forget that a fatal overdose is a very real possibility for those who are abusing toxic substances.One of biggest signs of enabling is denial. You may be telling yourself “it isn’t that bad” or “they will stop when they are ready” or “they didn’t mean it.” Minimizing dangerous or risky behaviors, looking the other way, making excuses, or pretending that nothing is wrong – these are characteristics of an enabler.
- Do you put the addicted person’s needs before your own? When someone is addicted to drugs or alcohol, almost everything is a crisis. They absolutely MUST have their needs met… and RIGHT NOW. Maybe you sacrifice financially or neglect your own self-care. Maybe you have been the victim of a verbal or physical assault. Whatever the case may be….when you run around putting out fires at the expense of your own health and happiness, you are probably an enabler.Although it’s natural to help those we care for, meeting the needs of someone who has a substance abuse problem goes beyond reason. They become a constant drain of your money, time, and energy. You can easily revolve your entire life around their chaos and become completely toxic in the process. It’s like watching someone else’s downward spiral and being powerless to stop it. Yet, you continue to convince yourself that you can if you just do this “one more thing,” things will change.
- Do you have a hard time saying “no?” Addicts and alcoholics don’t do well with the word “no.” They can become hostile, resentful, and even violent when someone refuses to participate in their madness. This can often create a pattern where you don’t say no to the addicted person. You do this to avoid a scene or protect yourself from abuse.Also, because you have a sincere desire to help, you may not want to say no. You may feel empathy for the person you care about. They have gotten themselves into a situation they can’t get out of and you want to rescue them. This often results in saying yes when you know you should say no.
- Do you frequently make excuses for the addicted person’s behavior? This is very common for enablers. For example, a wife might become a survivor of domestic violence when her drunk husband hits her. She might say, “He didn’t mean it.” A mother might notice money is missing from her wallet, knowing her teenage son stole it. She might think, “Oh well, maybe he needed money for something at school.” An employer might notice an employee is sleeping at his desk. Instead of blaming it on his obvious hangover, he makes up some other excuse. The list of examples could go on and on.Are you convinced that addiction is the root cause of the problems in your loved one’s life? Yet, you keep making excuses for them? If so, you are enabling. You have to face the facts and come to terms with the reality that their drug or alcohol use is out of control and they need help.
- Are you blaming yourself for their actions? An enabler usually gets into the bad habit of blaming themselves for the actions of their addicted loved one. You might think if you were a better mother/father/sister/brother/friend/spouse, etc. that the addicted person would behave differently. Or, when they experience some kind of consequence (like getting kicked out of their apartment for not paying rent), you might blame yourself for not helping.Yes, it’s true that family and friends should do their best to help one another once in awhile during times of crisis. That’s what friends and family are for! BUT….an addicted person is responsible for their own actions, behaviors, and consequences. They have no one to blame but themselves. Their needs will always exceed your resources and ability to help them. And, as long as they are drugging or drinking, their problems will become increasingly worse.
- Do you financially support a friend or family member who is addicted to drugs or alcohol? Having a problem with substance abuse is expensive. Getting high or drunk doesn’t come cheap. Financial unmanageability is inevitable for someone who is addicted. Then, loved ones step up to the plate and save the day. This breeds further unmanageability and irresponsibility.Is your adult son or daughter staying with you and not paying rent because they are blowing all their money on drugs or alcohol? Do you constantly let the addicted person in your life borrow money? Do you pay their bills? Do you buy them food, gas, or other necessities because they are always broke? If so, take a look at this behavior. You are enabling them to continue to stay addicted. This is not helping the situation, it is only making it worse.
- Do you lie or cover up their behavior? Do you call in sick for a hungover relative? Do you tell the neighbors stories to explain the bizarre behavior of your loved one? Do you lie to your spouse so they won’t know what is really going on? Or, do you help them manufacture lies to explain why they missed work or forgot to attend an important event?If you are lying (or being an accomplice to lies) to “help” the addicted person in your life, this is a red flag.
- Do you continue to endure your loved one’s addiction even though it’s ruining both of your lives? Staying in a toxic, enabling relationship with someone who has a substance abuse problem is never going to turn out good. They become dependent on you to help sustain their addiction and you become a doormat. It’s the truth!An addiction to drugs and alcohol can steal your joy, rob you of your peace of mind, and drain you financially…..even though you are not the one who is addicted. When you really stop and think about it, this is quite insane.Chances are, you are totally exhausted by this relationship. Things only seem to be getting worse. You don’t feel like you can go on like this. You may even feel like you are going insane. If you are sick and tired of being sick and tired, you may be ready for change.
Why Enabling Is A Bad Idea
It is easy to become completely entangled with an addicted person and lose sight of where they stop and you start. Boundary lines get blurred. Before you know it, you can assume full responsibility for their addiction. This begins an endless cycle of dysfunction that causes you undue stress and emotional pain. It is also dangerous for the addicted person in your life.
Not only is enabling unhealthy for you, it is completely counterproductive to the addicted person. As long as you are there to soften the blows of their consequences, they will never feel the full weight of their choices. As a result, they will never be motivated to get into recovery. They will continue to abuse drugs and alcohol until they die, go to jail, get in a serious car accident, or experience some other tragic event.
There is no doubt that you are motivated by a desire to ensure that these things DON’T happen. However, strange as it may seem, enabling behavior increases the likelihood that these things WILL happen. The only way an addict or alcoholic will be motivated to change is if they become miserable enough to want to change.
It’s sad to watch for sure. Your compassionate nature tells you to do whatever necessary to prevent your loved one from hitting rock bottom. But, letting go of your need to try and control the situation is our best advice when it comes to helping an addicted person. Let’s be honest, everything you have done to try and “help” your spouse, son or daughter, friend, or relative hasn’t worked. It’s time to switch things up.
Seven Ways To Stop Enabling
At this point, you feel pretty convinced that you are an enabler. When you started reading this article, you might have had some doubts. Now, after getting honest with yourself, you are likely coming into some acceptance about your situation. This is sure to feel uncomfortable for you, but this kind of honesty opens the door to change. And, remember – nothing changes if nothing changes.
By now, you do not know how to not enable. Of course not! You’ve been doing this for so long, you don’t know any other way to be. That is okay. You can learn. You can stop being an enabler. It won’t be easy – changing behavior never is. But, it will bring you a greater sense of peace and help you get your life on track.
Here are seven suggestions that will help you learn how to stop enabling:
- Get Support For Yourself. You can’t do this alone. Consider going to an Al-Anon or Nar-Anon meeting. These are 12-step fellowships that support friends and family members of alcoholics and addicts.You may think it is uncomfortable to walk into a room full of strangers and share your innermost thoughts. But, you don’t have to! You can just listen and hear other people share their experience about enabling. They will offer you strength and hope and give you the tools you need to refocus your attention on your own recovery. You can’t change the addicted person in your life, but you can change yourself and your reactions to the situation. These programs can help.If you don’t feel comfortable going to one of these meetings, consider talking to a therapist or addiction expert. They will teach you how to navigate a life that doesn’t center around someone else’s addiction. You will learn coping skills and strategies that will help you establish boundaries.
- Consider Staging an Intervention. You are probably not the only person who is fed up with the behavior of the person in question. It may be time to stage an intervention.This is one of the most effective tools in getting someone the help they need for a problem with substance abuse. It often motivates people to go to rehab or get into a 12-step recovery program like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. It also gives you and other family members or friends the opportunity to present a unified front. Together, you can set some healthy boundaries and stop enabling. When at all possible, helping someone get into recovery should be a team effort.During an intervention, you can tell the person you care about that you will do everything in your power to help them get sober. But, explain that you are no longer going to help them continue in their self-destructive cycle.
- Make the Commitment Today to Stop Helping Financially. If the person in your life wants to use alcohol or drugs, it’s time they start using their own money to support their habit. If they don’t have any because they don’t work, they need to get a job. If they blow all their money on their habit and then don’t have gas to get to work, they are going to have to walk. If they don’t have food, they will have to go hungry or go to a soup kitchen. These may seem like extreme measures, but they are totally appropriate.Stop loaning them money. Stop buying them things they should be able to afford on their own. If they are living with you, demand that they start paying rent. (Even if it is only a couple of hundred dollars a month…..insist that they act like a grown-up who pays their own way through life!) It is not your responsibility to clean up the financial messes of someone who has a substance abuse problem. Stop making it easy for them. Make them face their own consequences. They won’t like it, but it’s for the best.
- Stop Tolerating Abusive Behavior. People who are under the influence of drugs are often verbally, emotionally, or physically abusive. Stop tolerating this kind of treatment. You deserve to be treated with respect. If you are not getting it, change the dynamic of the relationship.This, of course, might require some drastic moves on your part. You may have to ask a spouse to move out until they are willing to get help. You might need to end a romantic relationship or friendship. You may even need to stop talking to someone altogether for awhile.Do what you need to do to preserve your own physical safety, emotional health, and spiritual well-being. This is an important step in establishing healthy boundaries and taking care of yourself. You have probably been putting up with some kind of abuse from the addicted person in your life – in one form or another. If nothing else, they have been abusing your kindness. Put an end to it.
- Learn the Power of the Word “No”. Sometimes one of the greatest gifts you can give someone – especially a person who is addicted – is to tell them no. Think about it this way….what if an 8-year-old child asked to borrow your car? It would require almost no thought to come up with the answer.It wouldn’t be safe for the child. It wouldn’t be fair to other drivers on the road. And, it would almost guarantee that your car would be wrecked and undrivable. You would NEVER let an 8-year-old borrow your car, right? Think of this example the next time you are tempted to enable the addict or alcoholic in your life.No, they can’t borrow your car! No, they can’t borrow money! No, you won’t bail them out of jail! No, you won’t take them to go buy drugs! NO! NO! NO! Telling them no forces them to learn how to manage their addiction problem on their own. When they run out of resources, they are more likely to ask for help and get sober.
- Set Healthy Boundaries. If you think an intervention is too dramatic – or you just aren’t ready to take that step – set some boundaries with your addicted love one. Tell them you are no longer going to tolerate their behavior. Explain that you care about them and want to help them, but that you are done enabling their addiction. Let them know that if they want to get sober, you will be fully supportive of their recovery.You have your own life, your own responsibilities, and your own challenges to deal with. And dealing with your own stuff can be difficult enough! It’s okay to put yourself first and take care of you.
- Stick to Your Guns. To stop enabling once and for all, you have to be consistent. When you set boundaries, you have to stick with them. You can’t be wishy-washy. Your “no” has to mean “no.” If you give an addicted person an inch, they will take a mile, put it in a pipe and smoke it! Stay strong.
Enabling No More – Today Is a New Day
Your situation is not hopeless, even though it may seem that way. It won’t be easy to break the cycle of enabling. You’ve been doing it far too long. BUT, you can make a decision today that you are no longer going to participate in the insanity. You can take action now to get your power back and experience some freedom in your life.
If you are doing things that allow someone to be comfortable with getting high or drunk, you are helping to keep them sick. When you let go of control and allow them the gift of experiencing their own consequences, THAT is when you are actually helping.
Now that you understand what enabling is, why it is not a good idea, and how you can make some positive changes; it’s time for a new beginning. You do not have to continue to stay stuck in the same old tired cycle you’ve been trapped in for so long.
Decide that you are going to set out on a new path TODAY. Enabling no more!