Do you allow a loved one such as a child or spouse to act recklessly without consequence? Are there times at which you experience difficulty expressing emotions other than fear, anger or depression? Do you tend to put your own needs after those of others? How often do you find yourself lying for another person to cover up their mistakes? Do you resent this person for causing you to lie, yet still blame others for their actions? If you answered in the affirmative to these questions, then you’ve most likely found yourself in the role of enabler.
The hardest part about enabling is that the typical enabler won’t know that they’re doing it. From their viewpoint, all they’re trying to do is help a loved one get by. Unfortunately, most of the enabler’s efforts to help this person will be in vain. In fact, enabling usually accomplishes little other than making the problem even worse. Not only does the addict or alcoholic fail to learn anything from their mistakes, but the enabler often suffers as well. Just like the addict, the enabler must eventually take the First Step. They must admit that they are powerless over their loved one’s addiction, and that their codependent behaviors are making their lives unmanageable.
We’ve discussed enabling before, and the manner in which the enabler perpetuates the harm done to their addicted loved one. But some parents and spouses still struggle to identify enabling behaviors. As such, we’d like to cover these behaviors in the context of three broad spectra below. Many of the examples in each category are those which sometimes cause confusion among the family members of addicts and alcoholics. Some see these as enabling while others do not. But if you fear that you may be an enabler, you’ll want to give each of these examples the careful consideration it deserves.
Enabler: Solving All of Their Problems
There’s nothing wrong with supporting someone you love. We do it all the time. When the enabler solves their loved one’s problems, they see it as an extension of the support they’ve always provided. But there’s a difference between supporting a family member and enabling an addict. The difference can best be summed up by one simple question. Are you doing things for the addict in your life that they could do for themselves? If so, then you are likely an enabler.
Examples of this type of enabling tend to be on the grander side. Yes, bailing someone out of jail or paying their court fees would count as enabling because the addict doesn’t suffer any consequences. There are, however, numerous other examples that not every enabler may consider. For instance, many parents with children who suffer from alcoholism or addiction may take them in at one point or another. Perhaps they moved back in after college, or after losing a job. Maybe they never left home in the first place. Either way, they’re old enough to make their own food and do their own laundry. Allowing your adult child to live at home might not qualify as enabling. But if you’re treating them as more of a child than an adult, you might want to consider setting some new boundaries. Even the tiniest enabling behaviors might be enough to stunt the addict’s maturity.
Financial issues tend to raise questions as well. Paying a loved one’s way while they refuse to look for a job will most definitely qualify you as an enabler. Many disagree, however, on whether or not it’s acceptable to provide any financial assistance whatsoever. For instance, what if your alcoholic child has children of their own? Like any number of addicts and alcoholics, your son or daughter might not be so great at managing their finances. Are you allowed to buy winter clothes for your grandchildren? Or should you let them suffer, hoping that your child will turn things around when they see their own children in rags? Some will say that you cannot give them any money whatsoever, while others see this as an acceptable time to provide financial support. It’s always tough to decide on these matters when third parties are involved.
When issues such as this arise, you’ll often be forced to use your best judgment. Perhaps you’ll need to look for an option that allows some compromise. For instance, you might decide to go ahead and buy your grandchildren new clothes this season. But in doing so, you might also make it clear to your addicted loved one that you will not do it again. Tell them that, if they wish to keep their children, they must get their affairs in order before the next season rolls around. It won’t be easy to make such an ultimatum. But if you want to provide support without enabling, you’ll need to practice setting strict boundaries. Otherwise, you risk devolving back into an enabler—potentially without even realizing it!
Always Putting Yourself Last
You may think that the point of allowing the addict or alcoholic in your life to suffer the consequences of their own actions is so that they can learn from them. This is partially true, but there’s more to it than that. It’s also about putting yourself first. Instead of throwing off everything to help the same person over and over again, you must start attending to your own needs. The enabler often puts themselves last, voluntarily sacrificing all semblance of autonomy. And while putting yourself first sounds simple—not to mention rather desirable—many enablers find it difficult at first.
Don’t feel bad about this. If you’ve been an enabler for some time, you might find that you don’t actually know what it means to put yourself ahead of others. We aren’t telling you to ignore all cries for help and to embrace selfishness above all else. This would be going a little too far in the other direction. But you must find a way of making life your own. Enablers often become emotionally codependent, living to please others instead of themselves. To break themselves of this habit, they must pursue hobbies and begin building a social life for themselves. If you don’t have an extensive support network outside of home, this need is all the more pressing.
Let’s provide a specific example of putting others first. Say you have a small child who just started school. You join the PTA to help out, aware that this could benefit your child’s treatment by teachers and other parents. Now, let’s say that every PTA member is asked to make something for an upcoming bake sale. You’ve already volunteered, but three parents look up your number in the student directory and ask you to bake for them as well because they’re short on time and will not be able to fulfill their obligation. Not wanting the bake sale to suffer, you agree to help them. You stay up all night baking four sets of confections. Not because you want to, but because the PTA needs your help.
If you’re a true enabler, you might not notice all of the red flags in this example. We’ll start with the fact that the parents were forced to look up your number in a directory. If you’re a good enough friend to do favors for them, shouldn’t they already know your number? Why did they turn to you first if they hardly know you? Perhaps they simply see you as a doormat. But more importantly, why agree to help all of them? Surely there are more than four people in the PTA. If you declined, someone likely would’ve picked up the slack. And even if they didn’t, your own health and happiness should be more important to you than a few lousy cakes.
At no point in the above situation do you ever put yourself first. You joined the PTA for your child, then lost a night of sleep for three people you barely know. At no point did you compromise, ask for help, or simply say no. Because enablers always put themselves last, even in matters that have nothing to do with alcoholism or addiction. Perhaps this particular example doesn’t pertain to your own life. Nonetheless, you should be on the lookout for similar behaviors. You may think that the addict or alcoholic in your life is the only person who qualifies you as an enabler. But in truth, an enabler is addicted to the behavior, not the person. Just because you stop enabling one person does not mean that you won’t enable others—unless you start putting yourself first.
Failure to Nurture Emotions
Being an enabler generally leads to its fair share of emotional turmoil. If you start putting yourself first and stop cleaning up your addict’s messes, you’ll be on the right track. But you may find that there are some leftover emotions causing you distress. After years of enabling, it’s only natural to feel a bit emotionally drained. Fortunately, there are about three common emotional struggles that the average enabler will encounter. If you can deal with these properly, then you just might be well on your way toward emotional recovery.
The first two emotions are fear and resentment. Addicts and alcoholics aren’t always nice people when they don’t get what they want. Not every enabler starts out of codependency. Some begin enabling because they’re afraid of what might happen if they don’t. Over time, this fear becomes our primary motivator. When someone asks us for a favor, even if they’re quite polite in doing so, we still feel obligated. Fear becomes a Pavlovian stimulus, ever driving us to put others’ requests before our own needs. Not surprisingly, this manner of living often causes us to harbor resentments. But if we wish to move forward, we can’t stay mired in the past. We must accept that, even if others in our lives may be quite selfish, we still made the choice to help them.
When you accept the role you played as an enabler, you can begin getting over old resentments and focus on self-healing. Unfortunately, this won’t be as easy as it sounds. If you’re truly finished playing the enabler, you must find a voice. This leads us to the third emotional struggle often faced by the enabler—trouble with self-expression. You must let people know when you feel like they are taking advantage of you. Tell the addict or alcoholic in your life that you deserve to be appreciated. Don’t be more demanding than you need to be, but make it clear that you’ll no longer spend your time cleaning up another person’s mistakes. If you really can’t figure out the best way to express yourself, try asking a friend. Al-Anon or Nar-Anon would be a good place to inquire. You definitely won’t be the only enabler in the room!
If you believe yourself to be an enabler, it’s time to start taking the reins and living your own life. You can provide emotional support to your beloved addict or alcoholic without setting your own life back in the process. In fact, parents who join our Facebook group will find their fair share of parents who have gone through many of the same issues listed above. We highly recommend this group to any enabler who feels ready to change. It’s never too late to stop enabling and start taking your own life back.