-Jonice Webb, PhD
What is enabling?
Enabling isn’t the same as helping. Helping is doing things that others can’t do for themselves. Enabling is doing for others what they can and should do for themselves.
Codependent relationships are out of balance and often involve enabling. If you have codependent traits, you over-function, are overly responsible, or work harder than the other person in the relationship. This allows him/her to under-function or be irresponsible because you’re picking up the slack. When you enable, you take responsibility for someone else’s behavior.
Examples of enabling an adult include:
- Making excuses for his/her behavior
- Bailing him/her out of jail
- Giving or loaning money
- Cleaning up after him/her
- Paying his/her bills
- Providing transportation or a place to stay
- Doing his/her laundry, dishes, meal prep
- Pretending everything’s OK when it’s not
- Lying about him/him so others won’t think badly about him/her
- Saying you’re not going to do any of the above, but then doing it anyway
In certain circumstances, some of these behaviors could be helping rather than enabling. However, they are probably enabling if you do them repeatedly, they are an inconvenience or hardship, the need occurs due to untreated addiction or mental illness, irresponsible behavior, or refusal to fulfill adult roles. Enabling helps your loved one avoid the natural (and negative) consequences of his/her behavior. This may temporarily keep the peace, but it ultimately prolongs the problems.
Enabling prolongs the problem by allowing your loved one to avoid negative consequences that would motivate change?
So, if what you really want is for your loved one to change, why do you enable him/her to continue destructive behaviors?
These are some common reasons for enabling:
- You worry about your loved one physically hurting him/herself or others
- You worry about your loved one getting into trouble
- You’re afraid of conflict
- You don’t know how to set boundaries
- You’re afraid your loved one will leave you, shame you, take the kids, ruin your finances, etc.
- You truly want to help, but feel powerless
How do you stop enabling?
The truth is it’s hard to stop enabling. Your intentions are good and your worries may be valid. Below I’ve outlined several components that will help you to stop enabling.
Accept that you can’t fix it.
Enabling is an effort to control an uncontrollable situation. It’s scary because your loved is out of your control and probably making some pretty bad and risky choices. Unfortunately, you are powerless to prevent harm from happening. Accepting this is waking up from denial. Nothing that you do or don’t do can save your loved one or force him/her to make better choices. That’s the bottom line.
I find it helpful to remember that you didn’t cause your loved one’s problems and you can’t fix them. You can control yourself and that’s it.
This is also known as detaching. Detaching means that you untangle yourself from your under-functioning loved one, see yourself as a completely separate person, and begin to focus more on your own needs. When you detach, you stop taking responsibility for other people and start taking responsibility for your own behavior and needs. Detaching helps you recognize that your loved one is not a reflection of you and you are not responsible for and did not cause the problems that they’re having.
Get out of denial.
In order to stop enabling, you have to break through your denial. Denial is tricky because your reality seems completely real to you. It can help to spend some quality time in contemplation about your enabling behaviors, how they allow your loved one to continue in a dysfunctional pattern, and how your life is out of control. You may also find it’s necessary to get some outside opinions to break through your denial. 12-step meetings and sponsors are great at this, in my experience. But a trusted friend, spiritual leader, or therapist can also be helpful.
Be honest in order to break down shame.
Shame is another big barrier to changing your enabling behaviors. Chances are you’ve experienced judgment from others about your choices. It’s very easy for others to say, “Why do you keep loaning him money? You know he’s only going to use it to get high.” From the outside, enabling makes no logical sense. And on some level, you know that your enabling isn’t helping (or maybe it’s even causing more problems).
Do you feel ashamed of your enabling? Are you honest with yourself about what you’re doing? Are you honest with others about it? Maybe you no longer confide in your best friend about paying your adult son’s phone bill because you know that she’ll shake her head in judgment.
When we experience judgment, we tend to stop talking about it and start minimizing, denying, omitting, and lying. Remember, shame lives in your secrets.
The clearest path out of shame is honesty and I know that’s hard. Start with being honest with yourself. It’s time to truly own what you’re doing and why. Then you can move on to sharing with people who have earned your trust and really get it.
Manage your anxiety.
Enabling may be an effort to protect your loved one, but enabling is also an effort to manage your own anxiety and worry about the situation. So when you enable, you’re also trying to make yourself feel better in a very scary and out of control dysfunctional situation.
Anxiety is another reason that it doesn’t work to simply tell people to stop enabling. When you stop enabling, your anxiety and worry are going to spike and you’re temporarily going to feel worse.
If you think that anxiety and worry fuel your enabling, getting help to manage your anxiety may be necessary in order to change your behavior. Professional treatment through psychotherapy and/or medication is very effective for many. You may also find some relief through meditation, using apps such as Self-Help for Anxiety Management or Insight Timer, grounding techniques, or journaling. The website Anxiety BC is a resource for managing anxiety that I often recommend to my own patients.
Once you get a handle on your own anxiety and worry, you will be better able to reduce your enabling behaviors.
Restoring balance to your relationship means you need to stop doing things for the other person in the codependent relationship. You can learn to stop enabling when you accept that you can’t fix it, get out of denial, get honest with yourself and others, and manage your anxiety and worry. Support is also an important part of any change plan. Reach out to others through Al-Anon or Codependents Anonymous, online forums, therapy, or supportive people in your life. Change is hard, but definitely possible!