Enabling is a word that we hear a lot when we have a loved one that is either in an active addiction or beginning a journey of recovery. It is a word that we are warned against, or sometimes scolded for. We are fearful of doing it, however sometimes concerned that we don’t know the difference between enabling and helping. In my years of working with patients and families, I have found this word to be the one that confuses and concerns people the most. In coaching people how to avoid enabling, I have really come to understand that what enabling truly does is rob everyone involved of important opportunities.
“We cripple people who are capable of walking because we choose to carry them” ~ Christie Williams. So often, we “enable” our loved ones by covering for them, giving them money, allowing them to live with us when they are actively using, etc., because we feel that we are saving them in some way. We want to save them from consequences that could be devastating – legal consequences, failing out of school, being fired from a job, being homeless, losing a significant other. What we are often unable to see is that in trying so desperately to save them, we are robbing them of the opportunity to either save themselves or to learn from the consequences. None of us want to see our loved ones suffer, but if we think about important lessons we have learned in life, those lessons have often been learned through some tough consequences. Enabling takes away consequences that would naturally come about from an active addiction. What a wonderful gift we are giving, albeit often difficult to realize during the struggle, when we allow someone the opportunity to make the right choices or to save themselves.
Our natural instincts as human beings are to want to help the ones we love……whether that is our child, our spouse, our parent, or a friend. When we give in to the desire to enable someone, we create a parallel process to their active addiction. Addicts often use to numb emotions or not have to deal with the consequences of real life. Through enabling, we create an environment that protects both the addict and ourselves from the feelings of helplessness, despair, or consequences. We are helping them to escape from some of the same things that they are reaching for the bottle or the drug to escape from. We clearly do not do this on purpose. We do it out of love or concern, or most often……. anxiety.
In moments of wanting to enable our loved ones, a helpful tool can be questioning our own motives for doing so. Aside from wanting to “save” them from potential consequences, often if we dig deep enough, we can realize that our biggest motive is our own anxiety. Beneath anxiety is always fear. There are so many fears that come along with the disease of addiction. Giving in to the temptation to enable our loved ones, though, robs us of the opportunity to learn how to work through our own anxiety and to practice the self- care that we so desperately need. Addiction robs us of so much, and is often out of our control. It is within our control, however, to not allow it to rob us of the opportunity to learn to reach out for help and support and to work through our anxiety and fear, instead of giving in to enabling. The next time you are tempted to enable, pause for a moment to ask yourself who you might be robbing of an opportunity.