Definition of Enabling for the Brave of Heart

Venn Diagram of Enabling Behavior

Typically, the definition of enabling means “to supply with the means, knowledge, or opportunity; to make able.” With the disease of addiction this is also true. For when we as loved ones help ease the pain of addiction, and supply means for the addict to not suffer consequences we are truly enabling the disease. We as enablers believe that we are helping our loved one. We believe by providing means, i.e. car, money, staying entangled with, bailing out of jail, allowing them to use in our house, etc. that we are helping them, but in reality we are seeking relief ourselves and sending a message that there is no problem. What we do is demonstrate that we can and will manage the addict’s problems, which the more attention to the problem we give the more we keep the problem alive. We are impeding the very thing that will drive an addict to seek help. Addicts drink and use drugs to seek relief, so the pains caused by addiction (consequences) must be greater than the pain of not getting loaded in order for the addict to seek help. We want to rescue, but instead we send the addict into a deeper state of progression in the disease.   When we do “rescue” what we really are saving the addict from is the experience which might save their life.


–        Your son has been using drugs and continues to come over and steal things from your house to pawn. Regardless of the countless items stolen every time he calls and needs a place to stay you allow him to come over. Whether it’s out of fear of him sleeping on the street or wanting to not fell guilty you believe it’s your duty to “protect” him.

–        You are aware that your daughter has a drug problem, and that she uses drugs in your home. You tell yourself time and time again that you would rather her get high in a safe place than on the streets. You also will give her money, knowing that she is using it for drugs because you do not want her to go to other means to get money. Whatever the rationale you are only saving her from the pain which will inevitably lead her to want help. You are also feeding into the delusion of the disease that using drugs is not a problem.

–        Your wife has a drinking problem, and has shown up to many events highly intoxicated. There are many responsibilities that she has blown off due to her drinking. You continue to call her boss and make excuses for her absence, and to pick up the messes that she makes. You are afraid that she might lose her job, and you do not want to leave her because you love her.

Dangers of Enabling

As a family member you might think that any form of enabling is harmless, but it is not. We see so many families suffer and wonder why their loved one can’t get better. If we ignore the real issue, and we send the message that as a family system we will support your disease, then we are aiding in the fatal progression of this illness. Addiction is a family disease. It effects not only the addict, but the entire family and how they function. While the entire family may lose nights sleep, money, time, etc. the addict faces the fact that if they don’t change they may die. The disease of addiction centers in the mind, and creates extremely delusional thinking. Unless the addict can experience the consequences they might never break through the denial. When we enable we are relieving them of those consequences, and if they can’t have that experience they won’t seek change. The disease of addiction is fatal, which is the biggest danger of all.

How to stop

It can be very difficult to stop the enabling cycle. Saying no to someone we love goes against what our insides are screaming. We want to protect, we want to help, and we want relief just like the addict. In the rooms of AA there is a saying, “if you baby them, you bury them”, paradoxically saying no can be what helps them the most. Setting boundaries and detaching with love demonstrates that you want to support their recovery instead of supporting their addiction. When we enable we suffer from the delusion that we can make them stop, but with the disease of addiction frothy emotional appeal will not suffice. We as loved ones must take a realistic look and approach at the disease. We must step back and let our actions demonstrate that we care about the addict’s life.

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