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Candace Plattor Headshot

When You Enable an Addict You're Not Helping, You're Hurting

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Ermin Gutenberger via Getty Images
Ermin Gutenberger via Getty Images

After working for nearly 25 years with the loved ones of people struggling with addiction, I'm still amazed by how many come to their first session with me and say "I know I'm enabling, but..."

Do you have an addicted loved one in your life? Are you already aware that you're doing things you probably shouldn't be doing, in the guise of 'helping' them?

And even if you're not getting the results you're hoping for, do you still continue to enable them anyway -- often for way too long?

A logical question to ask yourself in a situation like this would be:

"Why am I doing this?"

The reality is that there are, in fact, a few answers to that question. The first reason may be that no one has ever told you what you could be doing instead. As a loved one, know that what you're doing isn't working; in fact, in most cases, the problems continue and just get worse over time. But if you don't have a clue about what actually can work in these situations, you may be feeling very frustrated, helpless -- and quite stuck.

What is "enabling"?

A simple definition of an enabling behaviour is one that will keep the addiction going. Here are a few examples:

  • Each month, Randy gives money to his addicted sister because he fears that she won't be able to buy food if he doesn't -- even though he knows that she spends the money he gives her on drugs. He's even been known to drive her to the dealer to pick up her drugs. He tells himself, "At least I know that she's safe here with me."
  • Julia pays her boyfriend's rent when he's lost all of his paycheque gambling at the casino. Sometimes that means she's short of money herself when trying to take care of her own bills and other expenses -- and she rarely receives a thank you for her efforts. But she is stuck in fantasy thinking when she tells herself, "If I just love him enough, he'll change."
  • At 35, Tess's parents still allow her to live in the family home due to her longtime crack addiction and apparent inability to hold a job. They don't set clear and appropriate boundaries about what is expected of her, so she brings sketchy people and illegal drugs into their home. Tess is often high while there, and she doesn't contribute in any positive way, at times becoming quite abusive with her parents both verbally and physically. Her parents don't feel they can ask her to leave -- "What if we kick her out and she's on the street?"

When this kind of enabling occurs on a regular basis, the loved ones lose their own sense of self-respect and the addict has no reason to do anything differently. The dysfunctional, addictive behaviours continue -- because the most effective way to stop addiction is to stop the enabling that so often accompanies it.

Are you feeling guilty?

Often, a major reason that loved ones of addicts use enabling behaviours is that they feel guilty about the addiction in the first place. If you're like many loved ones, you may mistakenly think that you're somehow responsible for the addict you love.

But you did NOT cause the addiction to happen. You may be contributing to it continuing, but you didn't cause it. Even though no one chooses to become an addict (in fact, most addicts believe they're 'special' and can handle addictive substances and behaviours without becoming addicted), there always comes a time when addicts know there's something wrong and that they're in trouble. It is at this point that they have a choice -- to either remain in active addiction or to begin some type of active recovery.

Think about it this way -- if addicts didn't have this choice, then no one would be recovering. Millions of people are in recovery from addiction because they made the choice to stop hiding from reality by using a self-sabotaging behaviour. As the loved one of an addict, you are NOT responsible for the choices the addict is making. If you feel you are contributing, then it's your responsibility to change what you're doing. And once you do that, you'll feel far less guilt and a lot more self-respect.

Remember: You can't change another person, but you can change yourself. It takes courage for you to look within and to do whatever you can to contribute to healthier ways of being the loved one of someone with an addiction.

Are you scared of conflict?

Another reason that family and friends of addicts enable them has to do with codependency and people-pleasing, which I see as one and the same. If you are codependent, then you're putting others' needs ahead of your own on a fairly consistent basis. You may have convinced yourself that you're doing this because you're a "nice person" -- and please understand, I'm not suggesting you aren't nice. But the truth is that you may have an ulterior motive for acting this way.

Let me explain...

The real reason codependent people say yes when they really mean no -- squashing down their own needs in the process -- is usually because they are terrified of conflict and will do whatever it takes to avoid it, even when it means they lose their own self-respect in the process. Your need to people-please will have its roots in making sure there are no fights or disagreements -- and this is because you've never really learned how to deal with other people's anger or frustration or disappointment, especially when those are directed at you!

When codependents consistently do this, it can become an addictive behaviour for them -- and if you're giving in to the addict you so dearly love and not setting effective boundaries, you are actually meeting your own needs, not theirs. An addict does NOT need to be allowed to get away with dangerous and disrespectful behavior. What an addict truly needs is firm, healthy boundaries with appropriate, self-respecting consequences attached to them.

And when you finally learn how to handle someone else feeling angry or disappointed with you, you will become emotionally free -- which is a much healthier way to live!

Dare to be uncomfortable

In reality, addicts need their loved ones to make it as uncomfortable as possible for them to remain in their active addiction. If you have an addict in your life, this is actually the most loving thing you can do for them, because it holds them to a higher standard and encourages them to take responsibility for themselves. The more we inappropriately behave as caretakers for people who can -- and should -- be taking care of themselves, the less belief they'll have in their own resiliency and capabilities. The addiction will go on and on, usually just becoming more entrenched over time because addiction is a progressive condition that needs to be halted. In other words, if you love an addict, you need to stop enabling their unhealthy life choices in order to see any meaningful change happen.

And if your addict is abusing mind-altering substances, you need to do this before he or she dies out there.

Of course, the problem is that when you, as a codependent people-pleaser, start setting boundaries and making things uncomfortable for the addict you love, you yourself will become extremely uncomfortable too. We use addictive behaviours of any kind to feel better, to remain comfortable. But as the saying goes, life begins at the end of our comfort zones and, as a loved one, you'll need to be the change you want to see in this situation.

You'll need to love your addict enough to say, "I care about you so much that I'm not willing to support you in your active addiction anymore. I love you so much that it's tearing me apart to watch you continue to hurt yourself like this -- so if you really need to keep doing that, you'll have to do it somewhere else. When you're ready to be in some sort of active recovery, I'll be happy to support you in that."

Not only is this a loving act toward the addict in your life, it is also the most self-respectful stance you can take, because you will no longer allow yourself to be treated abusively.

Letting our addicted loved ones know that we care enough to want a healthier relationship with them is often enough for them to understand that we're not trying to punish them by assertively maintaining our boundaries. It's acceptable and appropriate for us to raise the bar and require more of them -- just as we're requiring more of ourselves.

That is definitely the best way to love the addict in your life.

If you've been enabling an addict -- and I know that many of you are aware that you have been -- please strongly consider changing some of your own dysfunctional behaviors so that you're actually helping instead. The pay-offs of making that change could be amazing!

And remember: If not now, when?

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