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What is enabling?

Enabling isnt the same as helping. Helping is doing things that others cant 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 youre picking up the slack. When you enable, you take responsibility for someone elses behavior.

  • 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 everythings OK when its not
  • Lying about him/him so others wont think badly about him/her
  • Saying youre 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?

  • You worry about your loved one physically hurting him/herself or others
  • You worry about your loved one getting into trouble
  • Youre afraid of conflict
  • You dont know how to set boundaries
  • Youre afraid your loved one will leave you, shame you, take the kids, ruin your finances, etc.
  • You truly want to help but feel powerless

The truth is its hard to stop enabling. Your intentions are good and your worries may be valid. Below Ive outlined several components that will help you to stop enabling.

Enabling is an effort to control an uncontrollable situation. Its scary because your loved one 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 dont do can save your loved one or force him/her to make better choices. Thats the bottom line.

I find it helpful to remember that you didnt cause your loved ones problems and you cant fix them. You can control yourself and thats 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.

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 its 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.

Shame is another big barrier to changing your enabling behaviors. Chances are youve experienced judgment from others about your choices. It’s very easy for others to say, Why do you keep loaning him money? You know hes 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 isnt helping (or maybe its even causing more problems).

Do you feel ashamed of your enabling? Are you honest with yourself about what youre doing? Are you honest with others about it? Maybe you no longer confide in your best friend about paying your adult sons phone bill because you know that shell 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 thats hard. Start with being honest with yourself. Its time to truly own what youre doing and why. Then you can move on to sharing with people who have earned your trust and really get it.

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 doesnt work to simply tell people to stop enabling. When you stop enabling, your anxiety and worry are going to spike and youre 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 cant 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!


Stay in touch: Join me on Facebook and get a free copy of my Journaling Prompts for Codependency Recovery; sign-up below and Ill send one out to you.

Photo from Freedigitalphotos.net. 2016 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.