3 of the Most Common Styles of Enabling and Why They Happen
Generally speaking, enabling is a good thing.
The word itself means helping other people with their problems and providing means for them to achieve their own goals and desires. Teachers, parents, friends, co-workers, neighbors; all of these people are enablers since these important, and well-respected roles naturally involve quite a bit of helping and supporting behaviors.
Unfortunately, though, the word “enabler” has gotten a bad rep over the years because we’ve learned to associate it with toxic co-dependency. That’s because, in some situations, it’s not clear how to enable the person we care about in a way that actually makes things better. When things like addiction, abuse, mental illness, or irresponsibility happen, we can end up behaving in ways that enable the problem to get worse and continue happening. Even though what we really want to do is enable a solution.
These are 3 of the most common styles of dysfunctional enabling. We’ll discuss what they mean, and why they happen.
1. Financial Enabling
When someone is battling with addiction, trauma, grief, or mental illness, usually one of the first things to fall apart is that person’s financial stability. They may lose their job, muck up their credit, or spend all their savings because of the problem at hand. This causes them to look to others for help with bills, pocket money, food expenses, rent, loan payments, and of course, paying for drugs or alcohol.
Enablers can end up financially supporting their loved one, even when it starts to become a major burden. Why do we do it?
We are afraid of what they will do for their money if it doesn’t come from us
- Many enablers believe that the addict, or otherwise dysfunctional person, will resort to stealing, tricking, or drug-dealing if they don’t provide financial support. While that may be true, handing over cash is only a short-term solution that encourages and facilitates more irresponsibility.
- Gradually reduce the financial support and set boundaries. Consider using those resources for providing treatment rather than footing the bill for the addict’s/dysfunctional person’s unsustainable lifestyle.
Enablers frequently find themselves rescuing their loved one from the bad situations they create for themselves. That can involve lying to cover up the addict’s behavior, dealing with legal issues, and taking on his or her responsibilities.
Enablers rescue by bearing the consequences of another person’s actions and that’s a huge problem for two reasons:
1. It’s draining you financially, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
2. It’s teaching your loved one that they can behave however recklessly they please without concern for what happens next because you’ll always come to the rescue.
Why do we compulsively rescue our loved ones over and over again?
We’ve grown to believe that our loved ones are helpless and can’t handle themselves on their own.
While everyone does need a helping hand once in a while, this is a problematic belief to hold long term. It cements you in the caretaker role, and it breaks down the self-esteem of your loved one, preventing them from taking more initiative in their own life.
- Don’t automatically swoop in to help when your loved one makes a mistake. Set boundaries, explain that you are not responsible for what happened, and encourage them to make their own amends, and deal with the fallout themselves.
3. Internalizing Blame
Internalizing blame is a form of enabling because it takes away the addict’s/dysfunctional person’s emotional accountability. When we explain why our loved one behaves the way they do by referring back to our own faults, mistakes, or wrongdoings, we are internalizing blame.
This style of enabling is very complicated because it involves deeply held beliefs as well as strong feelings of shame and guilt. It can be extremely hard, especially for parents, to overcome the feeling that you’ve caused your loved one’s addiction, mental illness, or their pattern of withdrawing from life.
Although it’s hard, it’s well worth the effort to try and combat these beliefs. Recognize that only that individual is truly responsible for his or her life course, not you or anyone else. While some of your actions may have exacerbated the situation in the past, that does not mean its all your fault.
Remember: addiction and mental illness are not a game of whodunnit, nor a matter of finding the boogeyman. Thinking in terms of blame will not improve the situation since there is no one single cause for these types of issues.
Why do we blame ourselves?
We internalize blame because that person we’re enabling is just so important to us, and we love them so much that it’s impossible to accept that they’re making such irresponsible, harmful life choices.
It’s much more tolerable to believe that we’ve somehow caused them to give up on life and behave this way. That’s because internalizing blame gives us a feeling of control and hope. If we believe we caused the problem by being too cold, or not giving enough in the past, then that means we can fix the problem by being more attentive and enabling in the present.
Instead of blaming yourself, recognize that addiction and mental illness stem from a wide array of issues. Most of those issues by the way, including genetics, personality, and learned coping mechanisms have nothing to do with you.
Hold your loved one accountable for their actions, and resist playing the blame game.
Don’t beat yourself up if you’ve engaged in these types of dysfunctional enabling; your heart is in the right place.
The term enabler has a really bad connotation these days, but that’s not fair. Enablers are usually the people who care the most about the addict and have the strongest motivation to help. It’s not easy dealing with big issues like these, and it’s understandable how good intentions can backfire.
Now that you know how helping too much can be a problem, and the reasons we tend to do so, you can adjust your approach. Stop facilitating the problem, and start encouraging change.