Understanding the difference between helping and enabling

Understanding the difference between helping and enabling

There’s a huge difference between helping someone and enabling them.

Enabling as a word is most often used around someone addicted to drugs or alcohol. But it could equally apply to someone who has a behavioural addiction to such as work, exercise, shopping, plastic surgery or gambling.

Behavioural addiction is a type of addiction that involves a compulsion to engage in a non-substance-related behaviour that gives a reward (a “high”) and creates a constant distraction from someone’s real issues. Being an enabler to an addict means their addiction and/or unhealthy behaviours are much more likely to continue.

So an enabler is someone who allows or even encourages some behaviour – such as a damaging habit – in another that is detrimental to that person and/or those around them.

Enabling and codependency

Helping is doing something someone such as an addict couldn’t do for themselves. But enabling is doing something that they could do themselves – if only their addiction wasn’t hindering or stopping them.

So it’s fixing a door that an alcoholic kicked in when they came home drunk. This is enabling as the alcoholic needs to take responsibility for the damage they’ve caused.

A heavy drinker will never know or feel any of the pain caused by their behaviour if their mess is always mopped up. This is why sorting out their chaos like this is sometimes described as “putting pillows under them”.

A great number of people would see it as merely being helpful. But there is a massive difference – and it can be the difference between seeking help or not, and that can mean the difference between life and death.

If someone is enabling their partner who’s an addict, then codependency is something that needs to be considered. A codependent person is someone who has an excessive emotional reliance on their partner.

Sometimes called “relationship addiction”, it’s because a codependent has a relationship that is emotionally damaging – but they do not seem able to leave it. A codependent person allows and puts up with another person’s behaviour repeatedly even though it is adversely affecting them.

They are actually addicted to the relationship in a similar way that a codependent’s partner is often addicted to alcohol or drugs or has a behavioural addiction.

What are some major signs of enabling

What are some major signs of enabling?

Common signs to watch out for to realize if you or someone you know is an enabler include:

  • Regularly making excuses for or telling lies to protect the other person.
  • Treating the other person like they are still a child, including always coming to their rescue and taking over their responsibilities.
  • Continually attempting to avoid any conflict to “keep the peace”.
  • An enabler will not usually let out any of their own emotions. At the same time, they are always trying to manage the other person’s emotions – which are frequently all over the place.
  • Trying to control the other person by shaming them.
  • If the other person is an addict, the enabler will often deny there’s any problem, frequently explaining it away in the manner of: “It’s just how they are.”
  • Supporting the addict in a financial sense, including frequently bailing them out.
  • An enabler might start joining in with the other person’s addiction.

Stop enabling and start helping

It can be extremely difficult not to do what you can for someone who’s obviously suffering. In fact, it can be heartbreaking.

Someone who’s enabling another person – and it could be a partner, a friend, sibling or a son or daughter – will frequently be worried that if they don’t carry on doing everything they can for the other person that there might be unthinkable consequences. Indeed, many addicts know this and become very manipulative.

So some advice that is often given to someone who realizes they are enabling is to “detach with love.” This means that you don’t care for the other person any less at all but that you do step back.

In particular, it means stopping doing any of the things that are in the “major signs” list above. It can seem really harsh – but very often, it is only when someone feels the consequences of how they’re living that they will finally seek the help they desperately need.

Consider that if every time someone got drunk and drove their car, they knew that if they got caught or even crashed it, they’d always get away with it because they know their town’s top police chief – and he’s let them off dozens of times previously. But if instead they faced going to prison or ended up in a cell, they might have a hard look at the reasons that got them there.

Then do something positive about it.

How to help recover from an addiction rather than enable

How to help rather than enable

Nothing can be completely set in stone regarding enabling or helping. This is because each situation needs to be carefully considered.

For instance, someone may say to their cocaine addict partner that they will never drive them anywhere again – because they used to always take them to their dealer’s house. But then if the addict says they are going to start seeing a therapist and need a lift there every week…

It would, in this case, make sense to watch them go in where they say they are going and possibly wait for them too. This would be helping rather than enabling.

Other things that can be helpful include:

  • Setting boundaries and sticking to them. Let the other person know in a calm and non-threatening way that these boundaries are for your wellbeing.
  • Make sure not to step in if there are consequences due to such as the other person’s addictive behaviour. Let them face it and deal with it.
  • Never be dishonest with them. But also make sure never to be belittling or lecture them as this will undermine their trust in you.
  • Set a good example by eating and living well by doing regular exercise. Maybe start meditating to relieve stress. Encourage them to join you in these healthy ways of living.
  • If they show any effort to seek some help, such as cutting down or quitting an addiction or getting into recovery, give them every encouragement you can.
  • Always do your best to speak to them kindly. Understand that you might not really know what they are going through or understand it.

If an enabling system is removed, frequently it leads to the person who needs help to finally seek it. It doesn’t always happen, which can be very difficult to accept – but it is certainly much more likely.

Our understanding and experienced team have treated people with all types of mental health problems, including codependency and various addictions. Call us today to speak about how we can help you or someone you know.

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