“Am I Enabling?” – How to See It and How to Stop
Lately you’ve been wondering how things got this way.
You look at your son or daughter, and remember when you used to feel relief and adoration, watching your sleeping child.
But now, it’s two o’clock in the afternoon and you know your adult child should have been at work hours ago. They are passed out, not sleeping.
Even worse, you are almost certain they’re passed out because they’ve been using again, and stayed up all night with their “friends” who are always dragging them down.
You hate to admit it, but they’ve probably been using right here under your own roof.
And you really didn’t imagine that your child would still be living with you in their 30’s, needing to be woken up for work, needing you to feed them, needing you to keep providing like this.
You ask yourself, “How did it get this way? We did everything we could think of raising them, and was such a good kid. Is this my fault?”
When loved ones start to exhibit strange behavior, it’s easy to give them the benefit of the doubt. And when it devolves into bad behavior, it’s hard to realize just how bad things can get if problems aren’t addressed right away.
You don’t want to believe anything bad of your family members and, honestly, letting some things slide seems like a good way to avoid more conflict at home.
But when a family member is caught up in addiction, family members can unknowingly make things worse.
Even with good intentions, family members can instinctively create an environment that discourages, rather than encourages, recovery.
It’s possible that you are enabling this addiction.
How do you know if you’re doing this though? And how do you change things if you are?
First, you have to notice the tell-tale signs.
To Speak to a Specialist, Call Shadow Mountain Recovery: 866-768-9790
What Is “Enabling” and Why Do So Many of Us Do It?
Usually, loved ones can tell when someone in the household is having a problem.
Changes in behavior are noticeable right away to the people closest to them, especially when those behaviors are harmful to themselves and others.
But love and other emotions can prevent you from meeting the problem head-on to put an early stop to the cycle.
At this point, in an effort to maintain normalcy at home, you may begin enabling.
“Enabler” has become a widely-known term for someone who indirectly encourages bad behavior by ignoring it, or worse, covering it up and making excuses.
According to Kyle S. King (LMFT, LCPC, Family Therapy), “Enablers can be romantic partners, ex-partners, parents, adult children, siblings, or friends. The one thing that all enablers have in common is this: they love someone who is out of control, and they find themselves taking more responsibility for the actions of that person than the person is taking for themselves.”
Unraveling this relationship can be awkward or even risky, and may require professional counseling, ESPECIALLY if substance abuse is thrown in the mix, as substance abuse literally changes the way your family member thinks.
What Are the Warning Signs that I Am Enabling?
Enabling behaviors can actually seem rational at first.
You don’t want to let your son or daughter lose their job, so you wake them up and make sure they get ready.
But a pattern of behaviors like this can actually be a roadblock to their recovery.
Look for these signs:
1. AM I IGNORING MY CHILD OR SPOUSE’S RISKY BEHAVIORS?
The first natural reaction to noticing that your loved one might be abusing drugs is to ignore it.
It is natural to hope that the problem will go away on its own, and worry that addressing it might somehow make it worse.
So you try not to notice how they’re dropping some commitments, or if they slur and stumble, or that their work attendance is dropping.
But ignoring the problem WON’T make it go away.
2. AM I ALWAYS BLAME-SHIFTING OR EXCUSING BAD BEHAVIOR?
Once you can no longer ignore and avoid the problem, the next instinctive response is often to spread the blame.
Your love for the person with addiction will make you see them too sympathetically, and it’s hard to believe that they would put you or themselves at risk if they could help it.
So you think the problem must lie elsewhere.
Some examples are:
“His kid’s mom has really stressed him out, of course he needs a way to unwind. If she would just stop playing games with him and leave him alone, he wouldn’t act like this.”
“She had a rough childhood, so of course it had to catch up with her sometime. She just needs a release for a while. She’ll get through this and get back to normal soon.”
Both excuses derive from the hope that things will get better if EXTERNAL factors would change. Factors that are beyond you and your loved one’s control.
But that’s the heart of the problem. You and your son, daughter, or spouse can’t control other people or the stresses of life.
Getting into recovery means focusing on the things that ARE in your control, and loved ones need to encourage them to do that.
3. AM I PUTTING THEIR NEEDS ABOVE MY OWN?
As a rule, enablers take far more responsibility for the well-being and actions of their loved ones than they are actually liable for.
As your loved one with an addiction loses control over his or her life, you try your best to make up the difference.
This pattern of behavior becomes a bigger and bigger drain on your energy and resources over time.
For example, you may be getting them up for work or reminding them of assignments that they should be making time for on their own. When you do this, you sacrifice your own time to sleep or get ready for work, or plan out your own day.
But the sacrifice most common to all codependent, enabler/addicted personal relationships is financial.
Enablers end up spending more and more money to care for the person with the drug dependency.
They will likely lose their jobs as the pursuit of drugs becomes more important, and cause you to pay for them as if they were children again, covering meals, housing, gas, insurance, and more.
As time passes, these expenses often expand to include medical bills from bodily damage done by the drug, lawyers and court fees to keep them out of jail as they veer into illegal activity, and even a myriad of little expenses, like using more gas because they lost their driver’s license.
Families often share their experiences with financial burden, as they are put in a position of worrying that not paying for things will leave family members without medical coverage or even homeless or incarcerated.
4. HAVE I STOPPED EXPRESSING MY EMOTIONS?
Enablers tend to feel extra pressure on every interaction they have with their loved one who is struggling with addiction.
They are afraid that expressing frustration or unhappiness with their loved one will drive them further into drug abuse, or that the delicate veneer of peace they have maintained in the home can be shattered with just one disagreement.
Am I Engaging in Behaviors That I Normally Wouldn’t to Protect Them?
As things become more and more out of control, eventually you might start compromising your morals to maintain the illusion that things are fine, or protect your addicted loved one.
Examples include being dishonest to friends and family to cover for your loved one, becoming controlling to try and force them to do better, and generally doing anything within your capabilities make every look “normal.”
Sometimes family members even endanger themselves, by permitting “friends” of their child or spouse and other bad influences into their homes, thinking “It’s better that they do it at home, where I know they’ll be safe.”
Worst case scenario, family members have given false alibis to police (saying they were with the family member if they weren’t) or even destroyed evidence that their loved one possessed illicit drugs or engaged in other illegal activities.
6. Am I Feeling Highly Resentful?
After a certain point, it’s common and understandable to resent your loved one.
You are sacrificing, you have made your life revolve around their needs, and you become emotionally and physically exhausted from trying to keep everyone taken care of and the situation looking normal.
That’s no way to live, though, which is why it’s important to get help when you are in a codependent and enabling relationship.
7. AM I IN A CONSTANT STATE OF FEAR?
The biggest, most condemning sign that you have become an enabler is that your environment is now putting in a state of constant fear.
Circumstantial and emotional fears comes along with all of the previous warning signs.
Then, most of all, enablers fear that their loved ones with a substance abuse problem will finally have to face the consequences of their actions.
Enablers cannot save their loved ones from their addiction, so they try to shelter and protect them, instead, from the naturally occurring consequences.
Because if their son, daughter, or spouse does get fired, or end up needing to go to rehab, or wind up homeless or in jail, the enabler will feel like these consequences are somehow their own fault.
If you are always afraid that you will be at fault for all the actions and lack thereof that your loved one should be responsible, and then altering your own behavior to avoid fault and consequences, you are an enabler.
While many people feel guilt or shame at this label, keep in mind that you acted the way you did because of the love you feel for the person being enabled. Remember that love, and channel it more usefully instead, into addressing the problem, and even encouraging them to get treatment.
If This Sounds Like Your Family, Call Shadow Mountain Recovery: (800) 203-8249
How Do I Stop Enabling My Loved One?
Getting off the enabling roller coaster involves a lot of emotional work.
However, there are some simple (if still difficult) steps you can start out with.
STOP COVERING FOR THE PERSON WITH SUBSTANCE ABUSE.
You probably got used to take up all the slack when your loved one had no follow-through or wasn’t keeping up with personal responsibilities.
You most likely even worry that finally facing those responsibilities will push them deeper into their addiction by putting pressure on them.
But the cold, hard fact is, if they won’t be personally affected by the problems their drug habits are bringing into the home, they will never be motivated to quit using and start the path to recovery.
They need to see the issues they have caused and deal with the consequences, or they will never want to get sober.
MAKE A LIST OF THINGS TO CUT BACK ON, CONSIDERING LONG-TERM GOALS AND CONSEQUENCES.
Often, others with good intentions, but on experience themselves, will advise you to, “Just kick him out,” or “Cut him off and make him figure it out himself.”
But you already know that if you’re able and willing to do that, you would have done it by now.
Besides, over 50 percent of the time, extreme “tough love” measures like that don’t even work, as friends and family support is vital to the recovery process… As long as those loved ones are supporting without enabling.
However, you can begin determining which things you are willing to help with and which things you aren’t, which will ease your loved into having to handle some things on their own, and free up some of your time and money for yourself and your own responsibilities again.
For instance, it may protect you both from emotional pain now to pay your child’s rent, but will that cause him to come right back next month, instead of applying for jobs?
Weigh each thing you’ve been doing for them by considering what the consequence will be if you don’t help against what the consequence is if you do, and pick some items with the best balance for you and your family to ease off of.
FIND SIGNS OF CODEPENDENCY, AND RESPOND BY REASSERTING YOUR OWN AUTONOMY.
You and the person abusing substances in your life have gotten into a routine, in which they chase a high while relying on you to provide for them, and you are constantly finding ways to cover for them and run damage control.
This is unhealthy for both of you.
Each time you identify a symptom of codependency, make a change. The only thing you really have control of is your own behavior.
If you normally work your schedule around when he or she needs to get out bed, quit. Set your alarms in accordance only with your own schedule, so that they have to set their, and get out of bed on their own.
They most certainly won’t be happy about it in the beginning, but eventually, they will learn that if they want to get where they need to go, they have to manage their own schedules, and the most basic beginning to that is getting out of bed.
Start doing things for yourself again, and they will realize they have to do the same.
OPEN CLEAR AND HONEST LINES OF COMMUNICATION.
Not talking about problems has most likely become a habit, and now that you’re unpracticed at it, your last few attempts to bring things up probably weren’t very productive.
This is normal. But also avoidable.
There are good ways and bad ways to bring the problems forward and face them head-on.
Suddenly vocalizing years’ worth of pain resentment is one of the wrong ways, and despite what you may hope, it won’t shock your loved one into behaving better.
Somewhere inside, they already knew that they were burdening you, and one of the things motivating them to stay high trying to escape the guilt that makes them feel.
Bringing these up in anger may accomplish your worst fear, pushing them deeper into their drug use.
It is much more effective to layout to your loved one struggling with addiction how it will benefit THEM to sober up and get into counseling.
People struggling with addiction already know that drugs are unhealthy for themselves and their families. Nearly always, an underlying issue like trauma, mental illness or stress is the root cause.
Use compassionate communication to help your child or spouse see that using drugs has now created a secondary set of problems in their lives, and that you support them in finding and fixing that root cause, and want to help them feel better in a healthier way.
Then, as they begin to embrace the idea of getting clean, and you have made it clear you still love them and are still helping, you can later explain to them how their substance abuse has affected you.
This needs to be done after they have other methods in place for processing guilt. Ones that aren’t driving straight to drink, or venting to their dealer before getting high to forget.
This is a delicate process, and it can be difficult to manage when your own emotions are already running high. For that reason, you may benefit greatly from family therapy.
FIND YOUR LOVED ONE A DETOX OR REHAB THAT MEETS THEIR SPECIFIC NEEDS.
At the end of the day, your loved one needs to go to rehab, especially if this has been a problem for a long time.
Firstly because detoxing can have medical risks, and they need to have a professional oversee them as they first get the drugs out of their system.
Secondly, a little time apart is important to rediscover your own needs and rhythm at home while they rediscover their own capabilities in treatment, and it helps with breaking up that unhealthy codependency.
If your loved one has been to jail or rehab before, you both may already be familiar with that process.
Last time, you may have had some important realizations once you had some time to yourself.
Unfortunately, these realizations are usually overpowered when your son, daughter, or spouse gets home because you didn’t have the tools you require to put those realizations into real changes in behavior.
Getting some professional help, or even just knowing that you’ve committed to break the cycle will help you stick to the resolution not to enable anymore.
The next question, after you accept that they need treatment, is “How do I convince them to go?”
Movie-scene interventions, in which friends and family ambush your loved one and say things like “I want the old you back, because I don’t recognize the person sitting in this chair,” or vent about how much they’re hurting their own family DON’T WORK.
Even if they go to rehab after that, they are most likely doing it just as a result of feeling pressured. People with addiction need to CHOOSE to get better.
So helping them choose treatment requires several different things:
- The Right Advocate – The family member or friend with the best communication, who they are closest too, needs to be the one to have the conversation. Even if that person isn’t you.
- Individualized motivation – Remember, they have to want to go. So frame this decision around THEM. Not your, their kids, or the family.
- Love and Support – Make it clear to your loved one, that while receiving treatment is surrounded by stigma, you don’t feel the way “society” does. Explain that you are doing your best to think of their time in rehab like time spent in a hospital for any other medical problem, and you only want the best for them.
The topic is awkward, but watching your loved one self-destruct in a never-ending cycle of fear for your loved one, and resentment of them, over and over, is much worse.
Get Started Right Away
These steps will be hard to take. The process can be uncomfortable at times. Sometimes, you may even feel a little selfish but it must be done.
And you have to start NOW. As soon as you decide you want to do this, start and don’t talk yourself out of it later.
There will never be a “right time.” The next closest thing to the “best time” you can settle for is the soonest time.
If you are looking to break the cycle of enabling, and give your loved one a comprehensive, individualized treatment plan, complete with family therapy, check out Shadow Mountain Recovery.
We have locations in 3 states, individualized treatment plans, 12-Step and 12-Step Alternative options, and Master’s level clinicians on site.
Call us today: (800) 203-8249