It is human nature to want to care for and help someone you love. There is a very fine line, however, between being supportive of someone you care about and enabling bad behaviors. Often it can be very difficult to see the line at all. Because of that people frequently end up on the wrong side of the line and don’t even know it.

Whether it is alcohol, other selfish behavior, or general irresponsibility, allowing someone to continue to choose damaging behaviors by being passive, or assisting in them through your own actions, only deepens the damage. When your intention is to help, acting as an enabler does just the opposite.

So what is the difference between supporting and enabling? Simply stated supporting or helping includes assisting with things that he or she is incapable of doing for him or herself, or doing things that help facilitate them gaining control of their behaviors and life. Enabling behaviors, on the other hand, keep someone from dealing with the negative consequences of their actions. Not dealing with these consequences gives the impression that their behavior is somehow acceptable.

For instance, a parent who let’s a child skip school because they are late with an assignment is enabling irresponsibility. A partner who accepts a hangover as being “sick” is enabling alcohol abuse and overlooking the symptoms, and the partner who never says no and is taken advantage of time and again, is enabling selfish behavior. These people may feel as though they are being supportive, helpful, or accepting, but the reality is that they are causing the behaviors to worsen.

Enablers will also often try to solve the problems for the people they are trying to help. Solving their problems makes the enabler feel as though they are doing something good for the person they care about. The truth, however, is that they are hurting them. Enabling behavior that needs to change will also create a negative dynamic in the relationship. The person needing the help becomes unable to live their life in a healthy, independent and responsible manner, and therefore becomes dependent on others. The enabler then takes on responsibilities that are not truly theirs. This can ultimately create resentment in the enabler and a very unhealthy and unbalanced relationship overall.

If you are wondering whether you are being helpful or enabling, ask yourself the following questions.

  • Do you find yourself making excuses for someone else? “Oh, he was just sick today,” “She meant to turn it in, but she was just too busy,” “He was just blowing of some steam.”
  • Do you regularly put your own needs second because someone else needs your attention? This can be normal with a newborn, but in most instances is unhealthy.
  • Do you have a feeling (or know full well) that the behavior you are seeing is unhealthy or irresponsible?
  • Have you lied (or routinely lie) for someone?

If you have answered yes to any of these you may very well be enabling behaviors that need to change.

So what should you do? In a word — stop. That sounds easier than it actually is. As mentioned earlier, it is in our nature to want to help those we care about. And it takes work and self-control to allow someone to suffer the consequences of their own choices. No parent wants to see their child fail and no person wants to see someone they love suffer the effects of bad decisions. But “helping” and “supporting” in these situations often requires you to do just that.

So you may need to become the parent who makes the child explain to their teacher why their assignment isn’t done and accept a poor grade. Or the spouse who calls the hang-over alcohol abuse and insists on change, or the partner that requires selfish behavior stop and insists on balance in the relationship. These roles are not easy and you may find that you need help yourself in enacting them. By putting a stop to the enabling behavior, however, you will ultimately make a true difference in someone’s life. You will help them live life in a self-sufficient and healthy way.