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enabling addiction

Clinically Reviewed by Linda Whiteside, LPCC

Medically Reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson, MD

Enabling Addiction: What is Enablement and How Can it Be Avoided?

Table of Contents

Enabling addiction is a common trend in the recovery community. Our desire as caring and compassionate individuals is to help those in need, however, good intentions can often have negative and undesired consequences. Such is the case when it comes to enabling an addict. There is often a thin line that exists between what is helpful and what is simply enabling addiction and destructive behavior. 

The situation becomes more difficult when the individual you’re trying to help is a close friend or loved one. Our close relationship can cloud our judgment about the best course of action in a difficult situation, it’s important to be careful before proceeding in “supporting” the addict in your life. If you want to make sure your efforts are productive, first educate yourself about enabling, and learn what you can actually do instead.

What is Enabling Addiction?

Enabling is what it sounds like: you’re indirectly facilitating an addict’s substance abuse by helping him or her in one way or another. The trick is telling the difference between what is constructive or helpful and what is merely supporting the addict as he or she pursues their substance of choice. Enabling also has an emotional component, which can be a little more difficult to define. 

It may be most commonly understood as being the willful ignoring of negative or destructive behavior in favor of second or even third chances. When we care about someone, they may take advantage of that connection to try to manipulate or use you to help support their addiction whether it be in the form of monetary support or a place to crash when they’ve expended all their other options.

How To Deal With Enabler?

To understand how enabling addiction works, you need to understand something about the psychology behind addiction. Once someone has become a full-blown addict, everything else starts to fade. Over time, the addict’s sense of self-dissolves until they become an almost unrecognizable shell of their former personality. 

Honesty is usually the first thing to go; the unfortunate truth is that an active addict will say almost anything to conceal their habit. As their resources dwindle, addicts will eventually resort to even less scrupulous behavior, including breaking the law. As their addiction continues to grow, responsibilities and obligations start to become even less and less important.

The narrower their options become, the more and more help addicts will require from family and friends. Eventually, their addiction may lead to loss of transportation, employment, and even housing. At this point, an addict will become almost entirely dependent on their social support network. Without this support, the addict will have a difficult time continuing the way of life he or she has fallen into. 

This last point underlines why enablement is so dangerous. Ultimately, helping someone in a way that allows them to continue their addiction is actually a form of harm. Various classic forms of enabling addiction include loaning money, giving rides, and letting the person stay with you.

One of the things that makes enabling so difficult to avoid is that not doing it goes against most of our instincts. It can be extremely painful to deny basic necessities to people that we care about. On some level, addicts understand this and may use the “blind spot” most of us have for people we love a weak place to exploit. This sounds harsh, and not all addicts do it on a conscious level, but it’s a reality that loved ones will need to face eventually.

On the positive side, the situation is not hopeless! Just because enabling encompasses most of the traditional ways that we might think to help someone doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to help an addict. The key is to understand the aforementioned psychology and progression of addiction. You can help addicts, it just might not seem like it on the surface. 

Lest you forget it, once you stop enabling an active addict, they will almost certainly accuse you of abandoning them or trying to hurt them. Remember: that’s the addiction talking, not your loved one. It’s very important for your sanity that you stick to your boundaries at all costs, even if it means turning the addict away.

How To Support Without Enabling Addiction?

So, how do you actually help an addict without falling into the trap of enabling addiction? The first thing you should do make sure you’re solid, then offer the addict actual help too. It may seem like there are more important things that need to be focused on, but it’s extremely important that you make sure that you’re taking care of yourself emotionally. 

Dealing with an addict can be extremely difficult and will require extensive emotional reserves. See a therapist if you are having trouble controlling your own feelings of anger, frustration, or even guilt. It also may be useful to seek professional help if you have trouble with assertiveness or holding boundaries.

When you’re ready, it’s time to hold a one-on-one conversation with your loved one. Calmly but firmly tell them that they are clearly in trouble and need to seek professional help. Ideally, you should research nearby facilities for an outpatient rehab center in Los Angeles beforehand or offer to help them find an appropriate place, starting with detox if applicable. Unfortunately, you do need to be prepared for the addict to refuse, especially the first time. 

How do you prepare to be refused when you offer help someone in need? Emotionally, it can be difficult. The best thing you can do for both yourself and the individual struggling with addiction is to decide what you will and won’t allow in your life. Draw the line and be prepared to enforce it. Sticking to clearly defined boundaries of what is acceptable is easier said than done but as painful as it can be, it is in everyone’s best interest, despite a struggling addict’s attempts to try and convince you otherwise.

While the “line” may be different depending on your particular situation, err on the side of caution. It’s very important to protect your own emotional and mental health as well as that of any dependent family members from the tremendous amount of damage that active addicts can cause. Remember, the person that you used to trust is gone, even if it’s only temporary. 

As has been stated above, addicts need to abstain 100% from whichever substance(s) is being abused because they literally cannot control themselves. This lack of control means that actions that would previously unthinkable, like stealing money, medication, or valuables, become instead completely possible. If you continue to allow the addict in your life, be prepared for dishonesty at the least, and much worse behavior in more severe cases.

Avoiding Enablement is Worth it in the Long Run

Enabling addiction is a simple concept, but something that is incredibly difficult to avoid—because it goes against so many of our instincts when it comes to how we treat those we love. With some education and preparation, you stand a better chance of doing the right thing for both yourself and the addict that you care about by not enabling their behavior. The old adage “you can lead a horse to water but can’t make it drink” sums it up; there is simply no way to get an addict to understand that he or she needs help unless they are willing to accept reality.

Given the situation, fight for the best outcome by taking care of yourself, doing research, and not being afraid to hold your boundaries. Although tough love may be more difficult in the short-term, remember the long-term benefits for the addict and your own well-being. Indeed, for many addicts, it was getting cut off from their loved ones that proved to be part of their “rock bottom” and a turning point in their addiction. Having important relationships suddenly evaporate is an extremely serious negative consequence that can provide a much-needed reality check. 

Stop Enabling Drug Addiction

Additionally, struggling to continue living the same way without help from family or friends can also force many addicts to understand how serious the problem has gotten. This type of reality check can often serve as the catalyst for change bringing to light the harsh reality of how bad things have gotten. This can be a humbling experience that pushes someone in the directions of seeking treatment and making some serious changes in their life. Is hard as it is sometimes letting someone reach that point is the best thing you can do for them.

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Written By: Linda Whiteside

Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who has been providing mental health services for over 10 years.

Medically reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson

Went to medical school at The George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

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