The term “enabler” has gained widespread recognition and use in popular culture and media over the past several decades. It is a label that can result in a great deal of anxiety and guilt for anyone who has been accused of being, or suspects that they may be, an enabler.
In its original context, enabling refers to a pattern within the families of people addicted to alcohol and drugs, wherein the family members excuse, justify, ignore, deny, and smooth over the addiction. This notoriously allows the addicted person to avoid facing the full consequences of his or her addiction, and the addiction is able to continue.
In a wider sense, enabling can describe a pattern of behavior that becomes organized among the family and friends of not just an addicted person, but any person who is exhibiting poor choices that harm themselves or others and for which they are not being held responsible.
Who are enablers? 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.
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.
Who is enabled? The enabled person may be one who is refusing to take on responsibilities he or she would otherwise be expected to take on in the course of age- and stage-appropriate development. The enabled person may be exhibiting a range of poor choices with alcohol and drugs, ranging from abuse to addiction. This may also encompass poor choices around so-called “soft addictions” such as gambling, pornography, or excessive video gaming. He or she may refuse, or appear unable, to fulfill normative roles of adulthood. If a parent, he or she may underperform or disregard the responsibilities of parenthood. He or she may frequently disrupt romantic partnerships. The enabled person often displays poor money management, as well as disorganized academic and/or career-planning choices. He or she may quit or be fired from a series of promising jobs and educational or training programs. The enabled person often describes himself/herself as a victim of circumstances or of other people.
The enabled person’s behavior elicits a great deal of anxiety within the people who love him or her. This creates a dysfunctional system into which people who are close to, love, or care for the person can become enmeshed: compelled to organize their own behavior around the needs and choices of the enabled person.
Some who use the term “enabler” do so with a heavily negative judgment against the person who fulfills the role. It is commonly believed that enablers are knowingly, even willingly, complicit in the actions of the person they are enabling; that enablers support and condone the negative choices of the person they are enabling.
This is far from true. Enablers do not like or feel OK with what the enabled person is doing. To the contrary, enablers are often the ones most affected by, and most disturbed by, the negative behaviors of the enabled person. They feel extremely anxious about the destructive consequences that the enabled person could face.
Consider the following quotes from self-described enablers in therapy:
- “If I kicked him out, he would be homeless. He’s so irresponsible with money, he could never make it on his own. What else am I supposed to do?”
- “Every time I’ve tried to talk to her about her addiction to those pills, she’s gone on an even worse binge, and I’m afraid she will overdose.”
- “I know I shouldn’t have paid for his lawyer after the third DUI, but if he went to jail, he would lose his job.”
- “Every time she and her boyfriend fight, she crashes here. I let her because I know he can be violent, and I don’t want her to be hurt. I wish she would leave him for good.”
In other words, enablers detest the behaviors of the enabled, but they fear the consequences of those behaviors even more. They are locked into a lose-lose position in the family. Setting boundaries feels like a punishment, a rejection, or an abandonment of the person they love. Enablers may struggle with the guilt they would feel if the person they’re enabling were “left alone” to be hurt and damaged by the real consequences of their actions. In some instances, enablers are also protecting themselves and/or children from those consequences.
Enabling, therefore, is a distorted attempt to solve problems. Enablers desperately desire to find a solution to the issues at hand, but their attempts to do so are severely limited by the dysfunctional family system.
Enablers frequently find themselves thinking things like:
- “If only I can keep this person going through their current crisis, it will buy us another day.”
- “If I can’t change what they’ve done, at least I can help limit the damage of that choice.”
- “Maybe my loved one will wake up and come to his or her senses. Maybe a real solution is waiting right around the next corner.”
Enabling has the effect of releasing the enabled person from having to take responsibility for his or her behavior. Enabling means that someone else will always fix, solve, or make the consequences go away. When someone is in the throes of an addiction or other grossly dysfunctional behavior pattern, he or she begins to rely on the resources available. Enabled persons will come to expect that their behaviors are disconnected from consequences or negative outcomes. Enabled persons may even begin to hold their enabling family members in “emotional hostage” in order to keep this pattern going. They may learn to manipulate their enablers in order to ensure that the help and support keep coming.
In this kind of a system, everybody loses by inches. The enabler is desperate to prevent one enormous crisis, but winds up experiencing a constant state of stress as he or she attempts to manage each smaller daily crisis. Enablers generally are aware that they are being taken advantage of in some way; they often report feeling frustrated, unappreciated, and resentful.
The enabled person becomes stuck in a role in which he or she feels incompetent, incapable, disempowered, dependent, and ineffectual. He or she may gradually accept a self-concept that includes these negative traits, destroying self-esteem.
How, then, does the enabled person also “lose”? The enabled person may wish he or she felt in control of themselves, particularly with regard to addiction; but lacking the life experience and lessons that facing consequences brings, they may not know how to break those patterns. They may not have had the benefit of true self-reflection and self-evaluation of their behaviors. The enabled person becomes stuck in a role in which he or she feels incompetent, incapable, disempowered, dependent, and ineffectual. He or she may gradually accept a self-concept that includes these negative traits, destroying self-esteem and rendering the person even less likely to suddenly do a 180 and become responsible and self-sufficient in the future. The enabled person may essentially be prevented from building the skills and motivation he or she needs in order to practice responsibility and reach his or her full potential. Because the enabler(s) will always solve problems for them, the enabled person does not learn how to solve their problems themselves.
By this point, you may be thinking, “I can see some of the ways I have been enabling my loved one. What now?”
You must accept that while your enabling behaviors come from a place of love, enabling is an ineffective way of solving problems at best; debilitating to all involved at worst. You may buy another day or prevent another emergency, but in the end, you are only postponing the real solution.
The key to breaking the pattern of enabling is to return responsibility to the person it belongs to. This involves setting boundaries between yourself and your loved one. You can no longer attempt to take on responsibility for anyone else’s actions but your own. Your loved one’s choices are (and have always been) his or hers. Your loved one’s outcomes and consequences, as well, belong to him or her alone.
The enabled person lives in the same world, with the same rules, as everybody else. Managing their world for them means that they don’t learn to manage themselves within the world. He or she is very likely to have untapped internal and external resources which have not been utilized because the enabling pattern has short-circuited their growth.
When you set boundaries, you release your need to control the outcomes that your loved one experiences. You allow your loved one the chance to connect his or her own choices to the positive and negative experiences that naturally follow. Their choices, their consequences, and what they do or don’t learn from them are all on their side of the boundary.
On your side of the boundary, this means that you must learn to cope with, and internally manage, the anxiety of not being in control of your loved one. Many recovering enablers find that they must rely on their own sources of support to help them overcome the urge to control and enable. The fear of your loved one being hurt can be so overwhelming that setting boundaries and stepping back can be panic-inducing. Receiving counseling for further insight and support in this area is highly recommended.
When you stop enabling, this does not mean that you stop loving the person. It does not even mean that you cannot help him or her.
When you stop enabling, this does not mean that you stop loving the person. It does not even mean that you cannot help him or her. There is a difference between healthy help and enabling. Healthy help involves providing information, encouragement, and coaching to your loved one. You may give your loved one contact information for doctors, counselors, lawyers, or rehabilitation programs, without feeling the need to force him or her to accept this help. You may discuss with your loved one what the possible consequences of actions might be, without feeling as if you must make sure they make the choice you want them to make. Healthy help puts your loved one in control and allows you to take a secondary role.
Enabling is essentially love turned to fear, and help turned to control. The effects of enabling are toxic to all involved. With a solid understanding of what enabling is, and what it is not, there is hope for families who are acting out this pattern. An experienced individual and/or family counselor can be a valuable source of support for anyone who is looking to break enabling patterns.
© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Kyle S. King, LMFT, LCPC, therapist in Lake Bluff, Illinois
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