It was harder for me to stop being an enabler than it was to change any other bad habit in my life. Yes, enabling is a bad habit, but it can be much more than that. It can be an addiction which hurts both the enabler and the person the enabler wants to help. But let’s look at the word, which can be confusing. Enabling is helpful and necessary in some situations. With technology enabling apps, for example, means turning them on. It has a good connotation.

But what about enabling humans? What’s the difference between helping, supporting, empowering, and enabling? Here’s where you may be confused because it’s complicated. People with disabilities including mental illnesses need extra support throughout their lives. And frankly, we all need support and help and guidance. We all need to be empowered to be the best that we can be. There’s a big difference, however, between helping in a supportive way, empowering which is letting go, and enabling which is the very opposite of what we intend.

What is an enabler anyway

In a nutshell being an enabler is doing things for others that they can do themselves. Enabling may start as kindness. It may start as a necessity. As parents we help toddlers and children with tasks they can’t do alone. But once they learn to use the bathroom and tie their shoes, we don’t have to tie their shoes or wipe their bottoms for them anymore. In fact, quite rightly they get mad at us if we try. But often, we move on to helping teens and young adults do things they can do for themselves. It may feel easier and more satisfying for you to make their breakfast and lunch. Do their laundry for them. Pay for their needs when they could get jobs and pay for themselves. But once family members learn that you will do it for them, they will continue to rely on you to take care of things as long as they can get away with it. 

What does brain function have to do with enabling

In the case of people with disabilities, of course, more help is needed. That may be the reason that enabling is such a problem in families where there is addiction (Substance or Alcohol or Behavior Use Disorders). Addiction is a disability. It is defined as a chronic, relapsing, progressive disease of brain reward. That’s a mouthful. What it means is there is a change in brain function which makes those struggling with an addiction or destructive behavior addiction unable to listen or even know there is something wrong. Arguing, reasoning, screaming doesn’t work.

How to stop enabling when you’re not sure

Just to clarify. Enabling can be as simple as giving diabetics and dieters foods they shouldn’t have because they love it and it makes them happy. I enable the family sweet tooth because I love baking. I could stop baking. Without cookies, cakes, and ice cream in the house, the caloric intake of the family would go way down. I’m the enabler. I’m the one who’s doing it. In this instance, however, we all have stop buttons and no one is a binge eater. But what if I were enabling a drinker That would mean I was supplying the alcohol, or pills or other problem substance that could kill my loved one. And what if I were a fixer?

Enabling is common in families with addiction

In families where there is addiction (now called substance or alcohol use disorder, there are crises that need attending almost every day. Things go wrong and tempers flare. One crisis follows another. Lost keys, lost credit cards, unpaid bills, run-ins at school, at work, with the law, overdrawn bank accounts are all common occurrences. And so are late night calls to the fixer. The one who deals with problems also becomes the driver of the person(s) who lost the license, credit card, job, etc, and runs the errands that can no longer be performed by the person who may or may not have helped out before. The fixer is a workhorse, and is always waiting for the next shoe to drop. As long as the fixer keeps the status quo going, no one can heal. A habit loop has been developed.

 Enabling Has No Rewards

Jenna, a mom fixer like me said,

“My children, for whom I worked so hard didn’t appreciate my efforts at all. My husband only gave me grief by finding fault when everything wasn’t perfect. And our household was far from perfect. I was always upset.”

We don’t talk much about the impact of addiction on family members. We’re so busy trying to save our loved ones we don’t realize that we have developed an addiction to saving them. Often loved ones want more than any human could possibly give, and the enabler pays the price for trying. There are a lot of moms and dads and sisters and brothers and daughters and sons who try really hard and feel worse and worse as the years go by.  Enablers never feel good about themselves.

How to stop being an enabler

It takes time for addiction and enabling to take hold, and it takes time to let go of destructive conditioning and habits.  It seems unfair that the recovery work for an enabler is just as hard as the recovery work for behavior or substance addiction. Enabling, while it seems helpful at the time, over a long period of time is actually not allowing others to take responsibility for their own actions and poor decisions. If your loved ones expect you to be the fixer and can’t give anything back, you’re the loser. But so are they. So what can you do to stop?

Get Help to stop being an enabler

This is always number one on my list. Go to a counselor, therapist, psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker to assess your situation. Your loved one needs therapy and treatment not your fixing. Now there are online and other resources to help you assess what’s happening and what you need to do. Prayers are useful, but prayers are not enough to make family changes and to heal.

Create some boundaries

No one will like you for changing the status quo. Where there are no boundaries, you will never be appreciated or feel at peace. Here’s how to create boundaries.

Go to Al-anon

Check out family resources. It doesn’t have to be al-anon. It could be Codependents Anonymous, CODA or some other support group. Just learn about people who have experienced what you’re going through. The more i

When you stop being an enabler you’re empowering everyone

Yes, you can retire from the fix-it job, but it means giving up giving up your own addiction. It’s a tough transition for everyone. People you love may become really mad at you. That feels even worse than not being appreciated. You feel guilty…and scared.  Bad things could happen to people you love. You might fear that their consequences are your fault. They would certainly like you to believe that. As a retired enabler, you’re getting something back, and it feels a lot like hate. That is the cost of recovery and freedom. Hate can turn to love again when the family gets healthier.



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Leslie Glass

Leslie Glass became a recovery advocate and co-founder of Reach Out Recovery in 2011, encouraged by her daughter Lindsey who had struggled with substances as a teen and young adult. Learning how to manage the family disease of addiction with no roadmap to follow inspired the mother and daughter to create Reach Out Recovery's website to help others experiencing the same life-threatening problems. Together they produced the the 2016 ASAM Media Award winning documentary, The Secret World of Recovery, and the teen prevention documentary, The Silent Majority, distributed by American Public Television. In her career, Leslie has worked in advertising, publishing, and magazines as a writer of both fiction and non fiction. She is the author of 9 bestselling crime novels, featuring NYPD Dt.Sgt. April Woo. Leslie has has served as a Public Member of the Middle States Commission of Higher Education and as a Trustee of the New York City Police Foundation. For from 1990 to 2017, Leslie was the Trustee of the Leslie Glass Foundation. Leslie is a proud member of Rotary International.

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