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The Difference Between Helping and Enabling Your Loved One

Know When Helping is Harmful to Their Recovery

When it comes to helping a loved one in recovery, most people have good intentions. After all, you want to see that person do well and overcome challenges.

But allowing harmful actions to happen isn't what they need from you. In fact, this often leads to enabling the behavior, which then causes their progress to decline. In some cases, this can even cause a relapse in sobriety, derailing all of their efforts in seeking treatment.

To help you learn the difference between helping and enabling, we've put together this brief guide with information on what enabling means and examples of how the two are different.

What Does Enabling Mean?

Before discussing potential warning signs, we need to cover what the term even means. By definition, enabling is exhibiting behavior that gives the person you love a chance to continue their destructive actions or habits.

However, that isn't so easy to spot on the surface. After all, there's a good chance that you aren't physically pouring them an alcoholic drink or handing them drugs.

But maybe you're giving them money that you know they'll spend to purchase those items or use substances in their presence. That is blatant enabling.

And there are times when enabling is a lot subtler. For example, you could make excuses for them when they don't follow through with responsibilities or obligations due to their addiction, avoid discussing the repercussions of their actions, or outright turn a blind eye to what they are doing. These are all examples of enabling behavior, too.

At this point, you're probably wondering why those actions are such a big deal. What does it matter as long as you're keeping stressors at bay or tension in the household low? After all, wouldn't that trigger a potential relapse, too?

Enabling is dangerous because it keeps past patterns in place and makes it harder to move forward with growth and change through the recovery process. When your loved one knows they aren't going to get called out for their actions or suffer consequences for behavior, they're more likely to fall into those negative patterns.

Enabling vs. Helping

Again, you only want what's best for your loved one—which is why you're present in the recovery portion of their life. So, how do you spot the difference between enabling and helping? Here are a few key details to consider.

  • Do you address specific behaviors that are hindering their progress? (Helping)
  • Do you avoid discussions to minimize confrontation with your loved one? (Enabling)
  • Do you offer a specific consequence for negative behavior that is clear and consistent? (Helping)
  • Do you ignore or minimize toxic behavior by not following through with consequences or making excuses for the actions? (Enabling)
  • Do you work to guide them towards making better choices based on their recovery goals? (Helping)
  • Do you make excuses for their behavior, both internally and with others? (Enabling)

Let's break that down even further. Enabling means letting the negative behavior continue without any consequence or expectation of change while helping means holding them accountable for their actions during recovery.

Examples of Enabling Behavior

When seeking to understand the difference between helping and enabling, it is good to look at a few specific examples of how this usually happens in real life. While the specifics of each instance might not exactly pertain to you, noticing any similarities could be a sign of enabling.

  • Your spouse forgets to pick up the kids from school during a relapse. Instead of being truthful, you make excuses for the behavior.
  • Your sister cannot afford her apartment rent due to spending all her money on drugs. You decide to help her out by paying for it out of your personal savings.
  • Your loved one has nearly overdosed three times in the last six months. But you insist that it is just a casual habit and nothing anyone should be alarmed over.
  • You've told your partner that you cannot continue the relationship if they come home drunk again. After it happens, you don't confront them and pretend as though nothing happened.

As you can see, these examples are very specific and perhaps even extreme. However, they offer insight into how any response to negative behavior unmet with consequences can enable the problem to continue.

The Role of Empowerment

Of course, enabling isn't the only "e" word you need to keep in mind throughout your loved one's recovery process. There's also empowerment.

What does this mean? It's a term that refers to efforts that make it easier to succeed—often far beyond just simply helping them through their journey.

Empowerment doesn't automatically work to fix or cover up their faults or actions. Instead, it gives them the tools, access to resources, and skills necessary for a life without substance use.

Look at your actions to determine if you're working to empower versus enable. Often, the introspective view is one of the most challenging (but necessary) parts of helping your loved one through their recovery.

Addiction Treatment in Asheville, North Carolina

Carolina Recovery Solutions offers compassionate and caring assistance for those in recovery. Not only do we work to help our patients throughout their journey, but we include families in the process to ensure lasting change. Learn more about what we do and why we are passionate about promoting healthy living by contacting us directly at (828) 383-8328.