It wasn’t like I was buying them the alcohol! I don’t understand how what I was doing was enabling.
So often we think of enabling someone’s addiction or problem drinking as doing very obvious things for them: buying their alcohol/pills, driving them to the ABC store so they stay safe, or calling in sick to work for them so they don’t lose their job. However, enabling is much broader than that. Enabling is when we are trying to protect someone from the natural consequences of their actions. The problem with protecting people is that they get the impression that they don’t need to change their behavior because family or friends will take responsibility for whatever is needed.
We enable people when we do things for them that they can or should be doing for themselves or when we try to soften the consequences for someone so they don’t get upset or struggle. Some people call this “being a lawn mower.” In other words, it’s when we try to clear the path of life in front of our loved one so they don’t have to struggle with disappointments, challenges, pain, or difficulties. We do this because we are trying to “help.” We do this because we are scared that our alcoholic/addict will drink or use if we don’t because they will be stressed. We do this because we are uncomfortable watching them struggle with life.
Enabling behaviors take lots of different forms. When we justify someone’s drinking by telling ourselves or others that they’re just going through a tough time or that work is hard right now, we are enabling. When we minimize their using by comparing the type of drug (prescription pills, “just beer,” or “just pot”) to other harder types of drugs, we are enabling. When we control the lives of our loved ones by cancelling social engagements or pouring out their alcohol to “help” them stop, we are enabling. Also, when we take over all of the responsibilities of the household or the work place because “someone has to,” we are enabling.
The problem is that trying to protect someone doesn’t solve their problems, it makes them worse and perpetuates them. Until a person can see the consequences of their drinking or drugging, they cannot see why they should change. After all, if they still have their job, friends, a clean house, no legal problems, etc., why should they think they have a problem? People change when they see that what they have been doing isn’t working anymore. When we fall into enabling behaviors, we keep them from seeing that.
So what can we do to stop enabling? Be honest. With ourselves and with our loved ones about how we are feeling about their substance use. Allow natural consequences. As they see their family, friends or colleagues’ disappointment, they may begin to see that they need to change something. Enforce boundaries. We teach people how to treat us. If we are setting boundaries and then backing off of the consequences, we are teaching them that we don’t matter. And finally, work on ourselves. Getting support from family, friends, and support groups is crucial if we are going to become healthier and make changes. We deserve to be happy and healthy. Oftentimes as we change, our loved ones see that they need to change as well.
Heather M. Bland has a Masters of Education in Counseling from Wake Forest University. She is a Licensed Clinical Addictions Specialist Associate and a Nationally Certified Counselor. Heather has been a counselor working with the substance abuse population for ten years. For the past two years she has been a family counselor at Fellowship Hall Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center. When not working with families, she enjoys spending time with her husband, sons, rescue dog, and geriatric cat.