Learning how to identify the main signs can help you prevent and stop enabling behaviors in your relationships.
You’ve probably heard the term “enabler.” It’s one that’s often charged with judgment and stigma. But what exactly is an enabler, and how can you know whether you’ve engaged in enabling behaviors?
More than a role, enabling is a dynamic that often arises in specific scenarios. People who engage in enabling behaviors aren’t the “bad guy,” but their actions have the potential to promote and support unhealthy behaviors and patterns in others.
In many cases, enabling begins as an effort to support a loved one who may be having a hard time.
As with other behaviors, you can manage and change enabling tendencies. The first step may be learning how to identify them.
The term “enabler” refers to someone who persistently behaves in enabling ways, justifying or indirectly supporting someone else’s potentially harmful behavior.
In other words, enabling is directly or indirectly supporting someone else’s unhealthy tendencies.
These behaviors can include:
- alcohol or substance use
- manipulation tactics
- unlawful actions
Enabling behaviors can be common in codependent relationships.
In this case, an enabler is a person who often takes responsibility for their loved one’s actions and emotions. They may focus their time and energy on covering those areas where their loved one may be underperforming.
For example, enabling behavior may include providing the school with an excuse so someone can skip class, even if they did because they spent the night drinking.
Enabling behavior isn’t about intent. It doesn’t mean someone else’s harmful behaviors are on you, either. But even if all you want is to support your loved one, enabling may not contribute to the situation the way you might think it does.
There are several ways to spot enabling behaviors. Here are some signs:
When someone you care about engages in unhealthy behavior, it can be natural to make excuses for them or cover up their actions as a way to protect them.
You may also justify their behavior to others or yourself by acknowledging they’ve gone through a difficult time or live with specific challenges.
But if making excuses for destructive or harmful behavior becomes a habit and gives room to more toxic behavior, you might be inadvertently reinforcing said behaviors.
Enabling behavior might be preventing them from facing the consequences of their actions. Without that experience, it may be more difficult for them to realize they might need help.
Ignoring your own needs
When you engage in enabling behaviors, you may find that the bulk of your time and energy is focused on the other person. This may make you feel like your own needs have fallen to the wayside.
A sign of enabling behavior is to put someone else’s needs before yours, particularly if the other person isn’t actively contributing to the relationship. You might put yourself under duress by doing some of these things you feel are helping your loved one.
Rather than confronting a loved one or setting boundaries, someone who engages in enabling behavior may persistently steer clear of conflict. They may skip the topic or pretend they didn’t see the problematic behavior.
This may allow the unhealthy behavior to continue, even if you believe a conflict-free environment will help the other person.
You may also feel hesitant or fearful of your loved one’s reaction if you confront them, or you could feel they may stop loving you if you stop covering up for them.
Taking on more responsibilities for them
Taking on someone else’s responsibilities is another form of enabling behavior.
You may find yourself running the other person’s errands, doing their chores, or even completing their work. This can also include larger obligations, like caring for a sick relative.
By allowing the other person to constantly rely on you to get their tasks done, they may be less likely to find reasons to do them the next time. This may encourage them to continue acting the same way.
Sometimes, when all your time and energy is focused on your loved one, you might feel like your efforts aren’t appreciated or reciprocated.
Feelings of resentment might surface. You might feel depleted and blame the other person for taking all your energy and time. At the same time, it may be difficult for you to stop enabling them, which in turn might increase your irritation.
Lending financial support
Support comes in all shapes and forms. Sometimes it may mean lending a financial hand to those you love. However, if you find yourself constantly covering their deficit, you might be engaging in enabling behaviors.
This is particularly the case if the funds you’re providing are supporting potentially harmful behaviors like substance use or gambling.
Enabling behavior is often unintentional and stems from a desire to help. In fact, many people who enable others don’t even realize what they’re doing.
Enabling behaviors are also associated with codependent traits.
Codependency may be linked to your past experiences and early relationships. Some contributing factors may include:
- history of neglect or abuse
- growing up with dismissive parents
- family history or having caregivers with personality disorders
- overprotective caregivers
- insecure or anxious attachment style
- living with personality disorders like dependent personality
Managing enabling behavior may require that you first recognize the root cause of it. For this, it might be helpful to reach out to a mental health professional.
They may work with you in exploring why you’ve engaged in enabling behaviors and what coping skills you can develop to stop those. They can also help you learn ways to empower, rather than enable, your loved one.
Besides therapy, you may also find these tips useful:
Acknowledge the problem
Instead of focusing on what you feel you did wrong, identifying concrete behaviors that might have excused your loved one’s actions could help.
Try to be honest with yourself about those behaviors that might not have contributed to a solution. For example:
- Does giving money help them fund their unhealthy habits?
- Does providing a note for school or work encourage them to continue skipping their responsibilities?
- Does taking blame for them allow them to continue behaving in the same way?
- Does avoiding the topic make the situation any different?
- Does completing their tasks for them give them more time to engage in potentially self-destructive behaviors?
Set (and stick to) boundaries
Establishing boundaries can help prevent you from enabling your loved one’s problematic behaviors.
Try to be clear with what you are and aren’t willing to do for them. Communicate this clearly. Try to stand by your word despite their efforts to convince you otherwise.
Engage in empowering behaviors
There’s often a fine line between enabling and empowering. Both often grow from a place of wanting to help.
When you empower someone, you’re giving them the tools they need to overcome or move beyond the challenges they face. For example, giving them information about mental health professionals in the area that might help.
This is opposed to providing means and opportunities to continue engaging in self-destructive behaviors.
It can be difficult to say no when someone we care about asks for our help, even if that “help” could cause more harm than good. You might feel torn seeing your loved one face a difficult moment. This is natural.
They may even get upset or lash out when you say no. This might make you feel like you want to do something to mend the relationship.
It might help to keep perspective on the challenge itself. It could be difficult to argue or distance yourself from them, but this can help them face their challenges, which in turn would make it more likely that they seek help to overcome them.
“Enabler” is a highly stigmatized term that often comes with a lot of judgment. However, most people who engage in enabling behaviors do so unknowingly.
Enabling actions are often intended to help and support a loved one.
Enabling behaviors include making excuses for someone else, giving them money, covering for them, or even ignoring the problem entirely to avoid conflict.
But these behaviors often encourage the other person to continue the same behavioral patterns and not seek professional help.
It is possible to manage enabling behavior. Acknowledging that a problem exists, setting boundaries, and even seeking professional guidance yourself are just a few ways you can provide support and empowerment to someone else, without putting your needs on the back burner.