Best Intentions: What’s the Difference Between ‘Enabling’ and ‘Supporting’ Someone with an Addiction?

A black male hand reaching down for a white female hand to lift her up in support

An article by Renee W.

Enabling versus supporting someone with an addiction. 

I’ve been on all sides of this. The one being enabled. The one being supported. The one enabling. The one supporting. 

It’s all messy and painful, no matter which way you look at it. Even if, especially if, you think you’re doing the right thing for all the right reasons.

When I was deep in alcohol addiction, drinking from the time I woke up to the time I passed out at night, I had plenty of enablers in my life.

These enablers were people who had the best intentions but just didn’t know how to help me, so they actually ended up helping to progress my addiction by:

  • Making excuses for me
  • Supporting me financially
  • Minimizing my consequences
  • Denying that I had an actual problem
  • Rescuing me emotionally
  • Ignoring boundaries
  • Avoiding confrontation

Looking back, I loved the ones who enabled me. I knew they cared. I also knew I could manipulate them over and over and over again. I knew they would believe everything I told them. I knew they would tell me what I wanted to hear, that everything would be OK. I knew they would help keep my addiction alive and stronger than ever.

I knew they would never completely cut me out of their lives.

Until one did. And then another. And then another threatened to.

It wasn’t until someone said, “No more. I will not stay around to watch you kill yourself with your drinking,” that I took the initiative to get some help.

Let’s unpack this topic.

First, it’s natural to want to help someone trapped in the clutches of addiction. It’s also natural to not know what to do to help.

However, there’s a critical distinction between enabling and supporting that makes all the difference in someone’s recovery journey.

The nature of enabling

Enabling, often done with good intentions, inadvertently perpetuates the cycle of addiction. Enabling, by definition, means “to accommodate the addicted individual in order to protect them from facing the full consequences of their (drug) use.”

Enablers do not realize the detrimental effects of their actions. They believe they are helping their loved ones. While enabling can “look” all sorts of ways, it often looks like this:

Making excuses

Enablers frequently find themselves making excuses for the addicted person’s behavior. Making excuses can involve rationalizing their actions or downplaying the situation.

Financial support without conditions

Providing financial support can enable the person to sustain their addiction without experiencing financial repercussions that may prompt them to seek help.

Covering up consequences

Preventing the addicted person from facing the natural consequences of their actions, such as legal issues or workplace problems, robs them of the opportunities to learn from their mistakes.

Denying the problem

Enablers may deny or downplay the existence of the addiction altogether. They may convince themselves that the person is just “going through a phase” or that the behavior isn’t as serious as it seems.

Emotional rescue

Selective focus of man supporting wife with alcohol addiction at kitchen

Enablers often rush to the rescue emotionally whenever the addicted person faces challenges or difficulties. By doing this, they inadvertently prevent the person from experiencing the full impact of their actions.

Ignoring boundaries

Enablers may disregard personal boundaries or values in an attempt to keep their loved one comfortable or happy. This can involve sacrificing their own well-being to accommodate the person’s addictive behavior. 

Enabling manipulative behavior

Enablers may inadvertently support manipulative behavior. This can include believing false promises, enabling deceit, or falling for emotional manipulation that keeps the person trapped in their addiction. 

Avoiding confrontation

Enablers often avoid addressing the addiction directly. They might avoid conversations about the issue, fearing conflict or negative reactions from the addicted individual.

The role of supporting

I will never forget how I felt when someone cut me out of their life because of my addiction. I was furious and hurt. I kept ruminating over how this person had “thrown me away.” How dare someone throw me away when I needed them the most?

I also will never forget how I felt when someone told me that if they knew I was out drinking and driving, they would call the police with my location and license plate number. I knew they actually would do this. I could not believe how they could try to hurt me like that.

Finally, I will never forget how I felt when my boss told me that I would lose my job if I didn’t get help. That one hurt so much. I was good at what I did at work, and I couldn’t imagine how someone could try to get rid of me like that.

These three examples of support ached and caused me so much pain at the time. I felt anger toward these people for calling me out and giving me ultimatums.

These three examples of actual support also saved my life.

If it weren’t for the threat of losing my family, job, and friends, I would never have gotten help on my own. Never.

It took what it took, and today, I am forever grateful for the tough love from these three examples of support.

Here’s what supporting someone with an addiction looks like. It involves actions that may seem “mean” at the time, but they may ultimately facilitate an individual’s recovery journey. Support comes from a place of empathy, understanding, and love.

What can you do to support someone’s recovery journey?

1. Encourage treatment

Worried male patient keeping hand on head while black man comforting him (1)

Encourage the individual to seek professional treatment. If you are in a position of authority (a boss or parent, for example), you can require that the individual seek professional treatment. This can include researching treatment options, attending therapy sessions, and going to support group meetings.

2. Set boundaries and follow through

Those with addiction have no boundaries, and when they have relationships with others who have no boundaries, chaos erupts. Enablers often don’t like confrontation and lack clear boundaries. However, setting boundaries (and sticking to them) is essential in supporting someone with an addiction. This communicates that their addictive behavior is not acceptable and you will not tolerate it.

3. Educate yourself

Gaining knowledge on addiction, its underlying causes, risk factors, and available resources helps equip you to provide informed help. If anything, understand that addiction is a disease and that diseases can be treated. Understand that no one wants to be an addict. The addict is miserable and sick. 

Navigating the fine line between enabling and supporting

The line between enabling and supporting is thin, blurry, and often messy. Intentions often differentiate these two approaches. Understanding the long-term consequences is crucial.

Enabling may provide temporary relief, but it perpetuates the destructive cycle of addiction. Supporting aims to promote lasting recovery and growth.

Here are some ways to successfully navigate this delicate balance:

1. Check your motives

Examine your motivations. Ask yourself: What is driving my actions? If your actions are driven by your sincere desire to help the person overcome their addiction, you are probably on a path of genuine support.

2. Long-term vs. short-term

Enabling always seems like a quick fix to reduce immediate stress, but it hinders long-term growth and progress. Supporting requires patience and dedication for the long haul.

3. Consequences

Both positive and negative consequences play a role in an individual’s recovery. Supporting means allowing them to experience the effects of their actions without trying to minimize them.

OK, so I want to support, not enable. What are some action steps I can take?

Navigating the complexities of addiction requires both careful consideration and a strategic approach. Here are some strategies for families and friends to provide meaningful support:

1. Interventions

Interventions can be guided by a professional therapist or an addiction specialist. These professionals can provide a safe space for loved ones to express their concerns and encourage (or require) the individual to seek treatment. 

2. Open, honest communication

Honest and non-judgmental communication is the cornerstone of effective support. Encourage open dialogues where the individual feels heard, understood, and supported.

3. Professional help

Sad woman, therapist and care for understanding in support for addiction

Collaborate with addiction specialists, therapists, and support groups. These professionals have the expertise to guide both you and the individual through the recovery process. 

4. Self-care

To say that supporting someone in addiction is emotionally exhausting is an understatement. It’s essential to take care of yourself first. Remember that saying, “You can’t pour from an empty cup?” Think about it – there are no truer words.

Also, there are plenty of support groups out there, like Al-Anon that help family and friends cope with the addictions of their loved ones.  

What’s the bottom line?

As I said at the beginning, I’ve been in all four roles:

  • The enabled
  • The supported
  • The enabler
  • The supporter

Here’s what I’ve learned:

In the journey to help someone overcome addiction, the intentions behind your actions matter immensely. Enabling and supporting are two vastly different approaches with potentially life threatening outcomes.

If you are currently enabling someone, stop. You are not helping them. You are making their addiction worse. Enabling is a form of control. When you enable, you’re not letting the addicted person take responsibility for their actions and behaviors.

If you are currently supporting someone, I commend you. Please, please take good care of yourself first, though. You come first, and then you can help.

If you are currently in addiction, there is so much help out there. You are not alone, and others who have gotten through it and lived to tell their story (like myself) are proof that there is hope for you. You are never too far gone. There is no such thing. If you are reading this, you are breathing, and you can get the help you need.

How can Tikvah Lake Recovery help?

If you or a loved one is grappling with addiction, know that you don’t have to face this journey alone. Tikvah Lake is a beacon of hope, offering tailored support and expert guidance in Florida’s sunshine.

With a team of dedicated professionals, evidence-based therapies, personalized treatment plans, and a nurturing environment, Tikvah Lake provides all the tools needed to break free from the grip of addiction – in addition to thorough aftercare and support to prevent relapse.

Get in touch today to find out how Tikvah Lake’s compassionate team can help you or a loved one begin your journey to lasting recovery.


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