Six Questions to Help You Recognize Enabling Behaviors

It is basic human nature to want to help someone you care for. When we see a loved one in pain or distress, the desire to offer support is instinctual. Watching a loved one battle a substance use disorder is a painful experience – one that often leaves you feeling overwhelmed and powerless. In an effort to ease the pain that the substance use has brought on, you may feel compelled to focus a majority of your energy on helping your loved ones find their path to recovery. The desire to “fix” the problem may cloud your judgment and lead you to offer support in ways that aren’t actually productive.

Despite the best of intentions, certain behaviors can actually keep your loved one sick and make your life unmanageable. There is a fine line between helping someone with an active substance use disorder and enabling them. When your actions prevent the using individual from experiencing their natural consequences and your well-being has also been compromised, you may have crossed the line from helping to enabling.

These lines can get blurry, especially when you’re in the midst of it. If you are unsure whether you are helping or enabling your loved one, ask yourself these six questions.

1) Am I maintaining my boundaries?

Do you find yourself giving in when your loved one begs for more money? Have you reacted to your loved one crossing a boundary by letting it go or brushing it off? Do you avoid setting or maintaining boundaries because you’re fearful of your loved one’s reaction?

2) Do I make excuses for their behavior?

Have you intentionally prevented your loved one from experiencing natural consequences of their substance use, such as calling off of work for them because they were too intoxicated to go in? Do you find yourself justifying their behaviors to others? How often are you picking up their responsibilities?

3) Do I put the needs of my using loved one ahead of my own?

Are you putting yourself in financial distress to keep your loved one out of trouble? Do the actions you take for your loved one cause you to feel sadness, anger, or anxiety? Are you missing out on things you want or need in order to care for your loved one? Do you sacrifice time for work, self-care, or other relationships in the name of supporting your loved one?

4) Have I concealed what I am doing for my loved one from other people in my life?

Do you feel like you need to lie about how you’re helping your loved one? Have you helped your loved one in secret because you knew the people in your life would object? Are you making an effort to shield your loved one from being negatively viewed by others?

5) Am I ignoring, denying, or tolerating problematic behaviors?

Do you find yourself ignoring obvious signs of active substance use? Have you avoided having conversations about your loved ones behaviors because you don’t want to argue? Do minimize the severity of your loved one’s substance use, holding on to the core belief that they can stop at any time? Have you allowed your loved one to continually mistreat you?

6) Do I feel resentful?

Are you struggling with alternating feelings of protectiveness and resentment towards your loved one? Do you experience deep anger towards your loved because they aren’t appreciative of your efforts to support them? 

How to Stop Enabling a Loved One

If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, there is a good chance you are enabling your addicted loved one. At any point, you can make the choice to step away from enabling behaviors and learn to empower your loved one. These suggestions can help you make the switch.

Talk About the Issue

Let your loved one know that you’re aware of their substance use issue and you’re concerned. Make it clear that you do not support their behavior but that you still love them and are willing to help them if they are willing to work towards change.

Encourage them to get help

Your loved one may not agree to get help immediately, but don’t be discouraged. Communicate to your loved one that when they are ready to get help, you will be there to support them. Focus on giving your loved one the tools to help themselves, but don’t do the work for them

Set and Enforce Boundaries

Tell your loved one that you are here for them when they’re ready to get help, but you will not continue enabling their behavior. This may mean asking them to leave your home or cutting them off from financial support. Be mindful that failure to enforce boundaries sends a message that your threats are empty. If you’re unsure how to set effective boundaries, don’t be afraid to seek professional guidance.

Seek Professional Help

Seeking the support of a counselor can help you process your experience living with an addicted loved one. Therapists often work with people who find they are enabling loved ones and offer guidance on how to offer more practical support. They can also assist you in restoring your emotional and mental well-being.