What is Enabling?

Person handing over envelope of money

Tuesday, May 28, 2019 | By Cooper Samp

“Enabling is different from helping and supporting in that it allows the enabled person to be irresponsible.”

—Elina Kala, MA Mental Health Professional

Family and friends are loving and caring. When they see a loved one in need they want to do everything they can to help them out. While this is amazing in most cases, in some instances this love can actually negatively affect a person usage – so much that it can help exacerbate the problem. Enabling shields people from experiencing the full impact and consequences of their behavior.

A common example is lending your loved one money. They may be out of a job, homeless, and “need money for their baby’s diapers.” Your options are as follows

Give them money for the diapers and hope they use it for what they say

  • As kind as you are to trust their decisions, those in active addiction rarely think about meeting someone else’s needs before their own – even for their own children. More often than not the money will be used for drugs or the money saved from not having to buy diapers will go towards using. Either way there are no repercussions for using and therefore no reason to quit using.

Go to the store and buy diapers for the baby

  • This is a better option as you can ensure the baby is getting the diapers it needs and the money is not going towards drugs. But, this decision is actually enabling still. The consequences for the child not having diapers is still not being felt.

Do not provide money or diapers

  • This would be the first non-enabling decision. Non-enabling decisions feel hurtful which is why it can be easy to choose the enabling behavior. Chances are the person will resent you making it harder to communicate with them. These are the battles you will have to fight – but in the end the non-enabling decision will be more productive in the end.
  • There is still one problem with this decision as the child may actually need diapers. How do you make sure the child is cared for properly while also instilling some repercussion towards the loved one?

Child protective services

  • Even in the scenario where the loved one uses your money to provide for their child; if they are still using drugs they have created an unsafe environment for the child. Also, continually relying on others for support is not a viable and long-term solution. This option can provide the appropriate care for the child while showing your loved one their actions have consequences. It is likely they will be angry and resentful, but it could be the last straw to finally change their actions.
  • Typically in these scenarios, once the loved one is able to prove they are clean and sober they will be able to reacquire custody of the child.

As you can see enabling can be easy and not enabling can be complicated. Not enabling behavior takes foresight and knowledge. When you see your loved one suffering, all you want to do is help, and this can make it even more difficult to give them the tough love they need. Tough love thus requires strong willpower. These decisions are rarely easy, but rest assured in the end your loved one will be better off.

Common Signs of Enabling

  • Ignoring the addict’s negative or potentially dangerous behavior – This behavior can involve anything from overlooking problems to denying that a problem even exists
  • Difficulty expressing emotions – Enablers are often unsure how to express their feelings, especially if there are negative repercussions for doing so
  • Prioritizing the addict’s needs before her own – While it is natural to want to help loved ones, enabling takes helping a step too far, where the addict has her needs taken care of while the enabler neglects her own
  • Acting out of fear – Since addiction can cause frightening events, the enabler will do whatever it takes to avoid such situations
  • Lying to others to cover the addict’s behavior – An enabler will lie to keep the peace and to present a controlled, calm exterior
  • Blaming people or situations other than the addict – To protect the addict from the consequences of drug abuse, the enabler might accuse other people of causing drug abuse
  • Resenting the addict – The result of the above behaviors is that the enabler will likely feel angry and hurt. She may act on these feelings by resenting the addict all while continuing to enable the addiction.


Al-Anon, a mutual-help group for people with alcoholic friends or family members, pioneered the idea of detachment with love. A core principle of Al-Anon is that alcoholics cannot learn from their mistakes if they are overprotected. Detachment with love means caring enough about others to allow them to learn from their mistakes. It also means being responsible for our own welfare and making decisions without ulterior motives – the desire to control others.

Ultimately we are powerless to control others anyway. Most family members of an addicted person have been trying to change that person for a long time, and it hasn’t worked. We are involved with other people but we don’t control them. We simply can’t stop people from doing things if they choose to continue.

Understood this way, detachment with love plants the seeds of recovery. When we refuse to take responsibility for other people’s alcohol or drug use, we allow them to face the natural consequences of their behavior.

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