Enabling is doing something for someone that they can reasonably do for themselves.
Originally, enabling referred specifically to doing something for an alcoholic or addict (such as loaning him money, excusing his aggression, or driving him to work because he got a DUI) to help him avoid the consequences of his addiction. But enabling can happen in any relationship where one person is making unsafe or unhealthy choices and isn’t taking full responsibility for his life. Instead, he relies on you to take care of him, so he doesn’t have to take responsibility for himself and accept the consequences of his actions.
Why do we enable others?
Love and concern. Enablers have good intentions. They want to help. They want to relieve their loved one’s pain and problems. Most of all, they don’t want their loved ones to suffer or get hurt.
Anxiety. The other driving force behind enabling is anxiety. Enablers enable to relieve their own anxiety. Enabling, whether it’s denying that a problem exists or taking steps to keep your loved one safe, can provide short-term relief from your worries and fears. Enabling doesn’t actually solve problems (and can create more problems as you’ll see below), so it’s important to remember that it’s not an effective way to manage anxiety.
Is enabling really a problem?
Enabling looks a lot like support and caretaking. But it doesn’t actually help your loved one make better choices, overcome his challenges, or learn to take care of and be responsible for himself.
Enabling makes it possible, or even encourages, your loved one to remain stuck – in immaturity, irresponsibility, addiction, or another dysfunction.
These are some of the ways that enabling is problematic:
- Enabling shields people from the consequences of their poor decisions and this allows them to continue self-destructive behavior and making poor decisions.
- Enabling keeps people from learning from their mistakes. The natural consequences of our actions are life’s greatest teachers; they help us learn to make better choices so we can avoid painful consequences. So, when you repeatedly protect someone from the negative consequences of their choices, they don’t learn how their behavior affects themselves and others, they aren’t motivated to change, and they don’t learn to make better choices.
- Enabling prevents people from solving their own problems and developing problem-solving skills. Your loved one won’t learn to solve his problems if you always step in and do it for him. Most of us learn by doing -- trying something and making adjustments based on what worked and what didn’t – not just by watching other people do things.
- Enabling is disempowering and makes your loved one feel incompetent and insecure. Even though you mean well, enabling fosters dependence and sends the message that you don’t trust your loved one and you have to do things for him because he’s incapable.
- Enabling can be controlling. When we enable, we are trying to control what someone else is doing or control the outcome of a situation. This is an attempt to feel safe, which is understandable especially if your loved one is harming himself or others. However, trying to control people and situations rarely works and can damage relationships in the process.
- Enabling keeps people from feeling uncomfortable. Avoiding discomfort sounds appealing and even helpful, but it really isn’t. Uncomfortable feelings serve a purpose, usually to tell us that something is wrong. If you continue to ignore or numb uncomfortable feelings, you won’t ever solve the root problems.
- Enabling allows some people to avoid their responsibilities and burdens enablers with responsibilities that don’t belong to them.
- Enabling leads to exhaustion and burnout. In addition to resentment, continuously over-giving and overworking leads to exhaustion and will drain your energy.
What’s the difference between enabling and doing something for someone because you love them?
There’s nothing wrong with occasionally doing your 18-year-old’s laundry because he’s working full-time and going to college or consistently cooking dinner for your spouse if that’s part of a fair division of labor. The truth is, the distinction between enabling and helping isn’t always obvious. Sometimes the distinction depends on the frequency with which you do the caretaking or helping. Often, the distinction rests on your reasons for helping and how you feel about it. If you frequently do things for others that they can do themselves out of guilt or fear, you may be enabling.
Signs of enabling
- You worry or feel highly anxious about what someone else is doing (or not doing).
- You lie or make excuses for harmful behavior.
- You minimize or deny problems.
- You routinely do things for him that he can do for himself.
- You consistently put his needs before your own.
- You feel guilty if you don’t help.
- You feel anxious if you don’t help or rescue.
- You feel responsible for his life, choices, and problems.
- You feel resentment towards your loved one.
- You feel sorry for your loved one because he’s had a hard life.
- You’re afraid to let your loved one fail or get in trouble.
How to stop enabling
As you go through the coming days, be aware of times when you may be enabling. Often, enabling is a pattern with particular people in our lives (it could be your spouse or child or parent). Try to slow down and not respond so quickly with an offer to help. Give your loved one time to solve his own problems and meet his own needs. He may or may not figure things out on his own. If he does, you’ll both probably feel relieved. If he doesn’t, it may be challenging to tolerate your worry, guilt, and other difficult feelings.
Your loved one may be angry or disappointed that you’re no longer at his beck and call or there to clean up his messes (literally and figuratively) and make his life easier. When you set new boundaries, this is a common reaction. It’s tempting to give in and go back to enabling. Instead, try these ideas:
- Remind yourself of the reasons you want to change. Write them down and look at your list often.
- Find more effective ways to manage your anxiety.
- Get support (therapy or Al-Anon can be helpful).
- Notice your feelings and needs and practice self-care.
- Be clear about your boundaries – what you expect, what you will tolerate, what you will and won’t do.
- Work on detaching. Similar to a boundary, detaching is separating yourself emotionally from your loved one’s problems and consequences. When you detach, you aren’t overly invested in what your loved one does; you love them, but you don’t try to control or fix or do things for them.
- Challenge feelings of guilt; you are not responsible for fixing other people’s problems (and you can’t).
Will putting an end to enabling fix all your problems? No. Will it make your loved one more responsible or get sober? No one knows. There’s no guarantee that if you stop enabling, your loved one will figure it out for himself. Most likely, things will get worse before they get better, which is understandably hard to accept. It’s important to remember, that the reason to change your behavior is to improve your life, not to get someone else to change.
Curtailing enabling and learning to set boundaries will relieve you of guilt and obligation. It will allow you to find real solutions to your anxiety and other difficult feelings. It will help you prioritize your needs and improve your self-care because you’re not so focused on and busy meeting taking care of others. It will free you from trying to solve problems that don’t belong to you and from feeling responsible for things you can’t control. Ending enabling behaviors will also allow you to help others in ways that actually make you feel good.
©2020 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
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Free yourself from codependent patterns
Navigating the Codependency Maze provides concrete exercises to help you manage anxiety, detach with love, break through denial, practice healthy communication, and end codependent thinking. It was written by Sharon Martin, a psychotherapist with over 20 years of experience helping people overcome codependency, people-pleasing and perfectionism and find their way back to themselves. For more info and to view sample pages, click HERE.