How to Stop Being an Enabler

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When you see a loved one, friend or colleague heading down a one-way collision course of self-destruction, it is only natural to want to step in and offer a helping hand.

Supporting someone in such a situation must, however, be done in a way with careful consideration, with their best interests in mind.

Aiding someone by easing the symptoms of alcoholism or drug addiction is not really helping at all.

Making it easier for someone to carry on being an addict, instead of making it easier to stop being an addict is often referred to by many as being an ‘enabler’.

It is important to remember that addiction is not a choice, but a disease. For those suffering from addiction, their best chance of recovery is by actively seeking out professional help with the support of strong individuals around them.

Although enabling practices may be rooted in good intentions, the outcome is usually that of negative nature and can be incredibly detrimental to the sufferer’s recovery. Enabling somebody’s bad habits, even without realizing, is the opposite of helping them. You have to be cruel to be kind.

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Are you a Helper or an Enabler?

There is a very fine line between being a helper, and being an enabler.

A helper:

  • Looks at the bigger picture and has the sufferers best interest in mind. This may involve being ‘cruel to be kind’, which means making decisions or actions that might seem harsh, but are for the greater good of the individual. Doing so might be all it takes to give them that extra little push needed to actively seek recovery.
  • Sets boundaries by outlining certain behaviors you will and will not tolerate. This is not to be mistaken with offering ultimatums such as saying “If you don’t stop buying alcohol, I will leave you”. An example of setting a boundary would be “I will not allow you to use our shared money to support your habit”. Setting boundaries puts you in the driver’s seat and allows you to control to what degree their addiction enters your life.
  • Offers solutions to the cause of the sufferer’s problems. The cause being their addiction and the solutions being, seeking help from a health professional, enrolling in a 12 step program, speaking to a psychiatrist, etc. By offering solutions to the cause, you are explaining to them the tools that they need in order to get better.
  • Actively seeks out intervention and pushes the sufferer in the direction of recovery. Although it is bad to be over forceful, pushing an addict toward recovery is sometimes absolutely necessary.
  • Allows the addiction to affect the sufferer’s life. This is a tough one for most people, as it can be difficult to see a person’s life cave in and crumble around them. If you mask their problems and keep picking up the pieces, it will never resonate with them that their addiction is ruining their life.

An enabler:

  • Is narrow-minded and only tries to fix immediate issues at hand caused by their addiction. Be it calling into work on their behalf to explain that they have a stomach bug, when actually they are in bed hungover; by offering them a headache tablet to ease their hangover symptoms; or by throwing all of their substances away in the hope that they won’t buy any more.
  • Lets the sufferer’s life take over their own and allows them to control the situation. By not setting boundaries you are opening the door for the addiction to become more established. If there is no limit or end to where the addiction will go, it will totally engross the life of the sufferer and all of those around them.
  • Protects them by making excuses. Protecting an addict from the consequences of their actions is like wrapping them in cotton wool. By making excuses on their behalf, it allows them to carry on doing what they’re doing, without seeing any repercussions.
  • Offers financial support. If a sufferer is having money troubles, but is still unsure whether or not its time to kick the habit, offering them financial support is only going to prolong the problem. Financial support may seem like an easy way that you can help someone, but to an addict, it is only going to fuel the fire. Unless the funds are going directly toward a program or rehabilitation center, it is better kept in your own pocket.

Fundamentally, an enabler is someone that does things for an addict, that they would otherwise normally do themselves if only they weren’t a substance abuser, and/or someone that protects a substance abuser from the consequences of their actions.

Why is Enabling Bad?

The reason most people progress into becoming enablers is that they are not are health professionals and believe that what they are doing is actually helping. Enabling is rooted in good intention, but the result is the complete opposite, helping in no way towards a substance abuser’s recovery.

Enabling… enables a person to keep on doing, whatever it is that they do, be it abusing drugs, sex, alcohol, etc. Not allowing the abuser to witness the full effect of their problem will never push them toward recovery. If you could eat junk food, sweets and chocolate every day and see no effect on your health or waistline, would you stop?

Being an enabler slows down recovery and will allow the sufferer to cause more damage to themselves and others in the process. It is often better to do nothing at all than to be an enabler.

How to Stop Being an Enabler

Okay, so if you’ve established that you are enabling someone, its time to take the right steps that will help them to move towards recovery.

First things first, you are not to blame! Being an enabler does not mean that you have made someone develop into a substance abuser, or made them worse in any way shape or form, you’ve been trying to help and in doing so you have shown that you care and that your intentions are in the right place.

The best thing to do going forward is to change your ways, implement some new habits and practices and to help yourself to help them.

Here are five steps to stop being an enabler.

1. Don’t go at it alone

Getting some support for yourself is the first and most important step when looking to help others.

Having people around you that can offer advice, a helping hand, or simply lend an ear can be incredibly beneficial, and will put you in the best position for helping someone else. You can get support from friends, family or by seeking out an anonymous group tailored toward those who support sufferers of addiction.

2. Express your feelings and take a stand

Someone with a drinking or drug problem (or any other addiction) might not even know that their ‘problem’ is even an issue. People often say that the first step to recovery is acknowledging that you have a problem.

By staging an intervening and expressing how you feel, you can let them know that their ‘drink to cope‘ or ‘social drug use’ is effecting you, themselves, and others around them in a negative, unhealthy way. Explaining to someone that they might have a problem and suffer from addiction can help them to make their own mind up and seek professional help.

3. Stop giving them money

This is a big enabler no-no. Money makes the world go round, and it also fuels the habit of addiction.

Help them by retracting any financial aid that you currently offer, and no matter the plea or the begs, you have to stay firm. Often sufferers of addiction can be deceitful and lie about where the money goes, so the best thing to do is to cut all financial help full stop.

The only time financial help should be considered is if it is going directly towards their recovery. This is, however, often government or charity funded, so shouldn’t be an issue.

4. Set your boundaries

If after expressing how you feel, explaining to them that they have a problem and that they need help, they are still reluctant to do so or are in denial, you have to set some healthy boundaries.

These may be in the form of closing shared bank accounts, temporarily refusing to stay under the same roof or not allowing their addiction to enter your home in any way. There are many boundaries that you can set in the time before they seek out recovery.

Boundaries are put in place to separate the problems that arise due to the person’s addictions and without them, addiction can not only take over their lives but yours also.

Boundaries are also a good encouragement for someone to seek help.

5. Be firm

Without being firm and sticking to your guns, all other help is useless. If 90% of the time you’re a helper, and 10% of the time you’re an enabler… you are an enabler.

It takes time for someone to realize that they have a problem and even once they do realize that they’re an addict it can take years (if ever) before they seek actively help.

Slipping between being an enabler and a helper is only going to make recovery harder for them.

By being strong and maintaining your long term goal, you are doing the best you can in helping them to reach recovery

Are You an Enabler?

Trying to help someone overcome their addictions are tricky waters to navigate. The line between showing empathy and being sympathetic is greatly blurred with being an enabler.

Those who are going through tough times with substance abuse or addiction most definitely need support. The best way to help might seem cold, or like you are leaving them to handle it on their own, but by being a helper you are taking the right steps in guiding them towards seeking their own recovery.

Additional Resources

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About the author

Alena Scuk Bego
Alena is a full-time health and wellness enthusiast, combining her two biggest passions – healthy living and writing. Based in Southeastern Europe, she holds a degree in English language and literature, and strongly believes that true beauty comes with a healthy body and restful mind.

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