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Are You an Enabler (and Don’t Know It)?


In therapy, I talk with clients about enabling—how they enable others and how others enable them. Many are shocked to discover they’re involved in enabling patterns they weren’t aware of. According to the American Psychological Association, these are “patterns within close relationships that support any harmful or problematic behavior and make it easier for that behavior to continue.” If this describes your actions toward anyone, it’s time to face the music.

Understand first that enablers often mean well. They want to help, can’t stand to see someone suffer, and believe people will change given time and support. Almost always, however, those who enable others to continue harmful behavior also are avoiding facing painful feelings of their own. They don’t want to believe their son is addicted to heroin or their sister is cutting herself. They don’t want to hurt Mom and tell her that Dad lost his job last month or take their dream job in another state because their parents will be lost without them living next door. They don’t want to feel useless as parents, so they infantilize their adult children and discourage them from growing up emotionally.

People also enable because they wish to be enabled to avoid emotional discomfort. Whatever the reason, enabling is destructive to self and others. Here’s a great blog from Jack Bloomfields’s newsletter, A Design for Living Interventions on how harmful it can be (Landau, J., and Garrett, J. (2008), Invitational Intervention: The ARISE® Model for engaging reluctant substance abusers in treatment. O.J. Morgan & C.H. Litzke, eds. Family Intervention in Substance Abuse: Philadelphia, PA: Haworth Press):

"Enablers are the worst enemies of the very people they love the most. Enablers are those of us who take the responsibility to protect other people from pain. If someone near us is spiraling out of control with addictive behaviors and unhealthy choices, we believe it is our job to continually help to soften the blow. We can't bear to see those we love in pain.

Despite our good intentions, our enabling has a negative side. In protecting others from pain, we also shield them from a marvelous teacher and motivator . . . experience. We prevent them from taking responsibility and from living with the consequences of their decisions. When enablers, even motivated by love, gallop onto the scene, they deprive their loved one of the motivation they might need to make some changes.

Recovery requires change and change often begins with a conversion experience. Conversion experiences are often rooted in pain. If we enablers are always there to cushion the fall, how are our loved ones going to meet the concrete? Our own growth might be due to those who loved us enough to let us experience the painful consequences of our mistakes. We in turn, to help those we love, must gain the strength to pass this loving detachment onto others.

Today, I will allow others to live with their own choices.”