It’s time for true confessions:
- Have you bailed a loved one out of jail more than once for driving under the influence or being caught with an illicit substance?
- Have you loaned someone with an addiction money to cover his or her debts or pay bills, or have you borrowed money from other people to help that person?
- Have you made excuses for the addicted person’s behavior to help him or her save face or to keep the peace?
- Have you fulfilled the addict’s personal or professional responsibilities because he or she couldn’t?
- Have you repaired or replaced property an addicted person broke without the person paying you back?
- Have you called in sick for your addicted loved one or otherwise lied to his or her employer to cover up for absences?
- Have you continuously listened to an addicted person whine about the unfairness of life without comment?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may be enabling someone’s addiction. “Outside the field of recovery the term ‘enabling’ is generally used in a positive sense — ‘enabling legislation’ sets a foundation for a societal improvement; a scholarship ‘enables’ a student to attend college,” notes Tom Horvath, PhD, a clinical psychologist and owner/president of Practical Recovery, in San Diego. “However, in the field of recovery, enabling typically means shielding the substance user from the natural negative consequences of substance use.”
The Risks of Enabling
The trouble is, protecting an addict from the consequences of his behavior can reduce his motivation to change. “The more comfortable addiction is, the more likely it is to continue because there’s no incentive to stop,” says Diana Clark, JD, a family addictions consultant based in New England and the author of Addiction Recovery: A Family’s Journey. Besides taking away any incentive for the addict to change, enabling also can be harmful to the person who’s doing it.
Often, “enabling is behavior that reflects a codependency issue, a collapse of boundaries that separate the addict and you,” explains Clark. “This can lead to complete focus on someone else and a loss of focus on you.” Not surprisingly, codependency is associated with anxiety, physical complaints and anger, she adds.
Breaking the Cycle of Enabling
The first step to ending a pattern of enabling is to set boundaries about what you will and will not do to help the addict and what you will or won’t tolerate, such as the addicted person speaking disrespectfully to you. To that end, it’s a good idea to carefully distinguish between helping and enabling: While helping an addicted person means assisting her in getting the treatment and recovery support she needs, enabling involves trying to just fix the immediate crisis instead of looking at the long view and the damage that addiction does over time, in myriad ways, Clark says. “The best message to give an addict is: The best way I can help you is to help you find treatment.”
In the heat of the moment, when someone with an addiction asks you for help, feel free to hit the pause button. “Tell the person you need time to think about the request instead of just being responsive to the person’s whims,” Clark suggests. If you’ve had an entrenched pattern of rescuing your addicted loved one, you could also try doing the opposite of what you’re naturally inclined to do: If your loved one calls you drunk from a bar and asks you to pick him up, let him figure out another way to get home rather than going to get him.
Keep in mind: Breaking an enabling (or shielding) habit can be very difficult, Dr. Horvath says, and there’s a good chance you’ll get pushback from the addict until he or she becomes motivated to change. “Breaking the cycle [of enabling] involves changing your behavior inch by inch and not making excuses for the person,” Clark stresses. “It helps to think about what you’re teaching the person with your behavior.” Rather than trying to solve the addicted person’s problems by bailing her out financially, legally or professionally or by cleaning up the wreckage from her reckless behavior, forcing her to deal with the messy or unpleasant consequences in the cold, harsh light of day may provide the incentive she needs to get professional help.