If you have a loved one in your life who is an alcoholic or addict, you probably want to help. Naturally, family and friends want to “fix” the one struggling with addiction.
Your intentions may be good, but if you don’t know the difference between enabling and helping, you may be doing more harm. Enabling often results in a dysfunctional dynamic where family and friends support the addict’s lifestyle.
But where is the line crossed between helping and enabling? How can you know if, however well-meaning you are, that you are actually enabling? How can you stop enabling when you realize that is what you’re doing?
First, let’s define this key term.
What is Enabling?
Enabling, defined, is doing things for an alcoholic or addict that they could do for themselves if they were sober. Enabling is also attempting to protect the alcoholic/addict from the consequences of their actions.
In contrast, helping is doing something for the alcoholic that they cannot do for themselves when sober. Helping does not protect them from their action’s consequences. For example, if an addict has lost his or her driver’s license, you may give him or her a ride to an AA meeting.
It is vital to understand that no matter how well-meaning an enabler is, they are NOT helping the alcoholic or addict. By “protecting” the addict from the consequences of their actions, you are feeding into their addictions and delaying an opportunity to get help.
Examples of Enabling
Here are some examples of enabling an alcoholic or addict.
- Giving or loaning them money to spend on their addiction.
- Doing things they should be doing, such as calling their boss to say they are sick and won’t be going to work.
- Drinking or using with them, all the while knowing they have an addiction.
- Making excuses for their drinking or drug use.
- Accepting their excuses for their drinking or drug use.
- Giving them alcohol or drugs.
- Always giving them “one more chance,” no matter how many “chances” they have been given.
- Minimizing the damage they are causing to themselves and others.
Why Do People Enable Alcoholics/Addicts?
Enablers may think they are helping, but they are causing more damage. People enable others for a number of reasons. Here are a few:
- Enablers may be in denial that their loved one is addicted.
- Enablers may justify their loved one’s addiction by minimizing the causes or effects.
- Enablers may be afraid of the anger or retaliation that may come from saying no.
- Even if it’s subconscious, enablers like to be in control. Enabling is a means of controlling others.
- Enablers may truly think they are actually helping because they don’t realize they are enabling.
How to Stop Enabling an Alcoholic or Drug Addict
You may realize that you have been enabling your loved one and want to stop. The first truth to realize is that you can’t change others. Period. When you realize this, you may feel hopeless, but you shouldn’t.
You should feel empowered because while you cannot change the alcoholic in your life, you can change how you behave and react to him or her.
Here are some practical ways to stop the enabling, which will, in turn, begin helping:
Stop Doing Anything that Allows the Alcoholic to Feed Their Addiction
This is a broad step, and it looks different ways in different situations. You may need to sit down and make a list of ways that you are enabling your loved one.
- Are you working to pay bills that the alcoholic should be paying?
- Are you doing things the alcoholic should be doing (working, cleaning, errands, etc.)?
- Are you giving the alcoholic money that goes towards his/her addiction?
- Are you “rescuing” the alcoholic by bailing him out of jail or paying legal fines?
- Are you lying/covering up for the alcoholic?
These are questions to start asking yourself. With your answers, you can get clear answers on how exactly you are enabling.
Set Boundaries with the Alcoholic and Follow Through with Them
Once you know what you need to stop doing, you need to talk with the alcoholic and let him or her know that you have realized you are enabling them, which is not helping them. Explain that you will no longer participate in enabling behaviors and set boundaries.
Boundaries are to protect both of you. You do not have to accept unacceptable behavior from anyone else, and while you cannot control another’s behavior, you can choose not to suffer from it.
Saying things like, “If you don’t quit drinking or using, I will leave you,” is a threat, but it is not a boundary. Boundaries should be clear, specific, and time-oriented. “I will not allow you to drink in my home. If you do, you will have 24 hours to find somewhere else to stay.”
Check out Al-Anon Meetings if You Haven’t Already
Al-Anon is an empowering support group for those who love alcoholics and addicts but don’t know how to help. In Al-Anon, you will learn how to help your loved one without enabling by focusing on what you can control and what you cannot. You will receive support from others who either are or who have been in the same situations.
The bottom line is you cannot change the alcoholic in your life. You cannot force him or her to get help, but you can control how you respond. Taking a step back, setting boundaries, and committing to not enabling the addict will be the most loving action you can take.
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