Why the Word “Enabling” Is Hurting Instead of Helping – and What You Need to Do About It.

The label of “Enabler” is often often applied to individuals close to a person with substance use disorder (SUD), such as parents or a spouse, who, often without realizing it, might be contributing to the progression of their loved one’s substance use disorder through certain actions and inactions. These behaviors and interaction patterns can take many forms, such as giving money to a person that has been using while knowing they will likely spend it on drugs or alcohol, avoiding addressing the use so long as certain life goals are achieved (school and work), making excuses for the using person’s behaviors, or allowing a person to use substances in the home.

At Encore, we prefer not to use the word “enabler” when working with families because the term often carries a negative connotation. As a trauma-informed program, we are sensitive to the words we use. We’ve found that labeling family members and friends as enablers often creates a sense of blame, shame, and guilt for those to whom the label is applied. 

Instead of using the terms enabling, or enabler, we’ve found it more effective to understand how these behaviors developed, and to address the various patterns that are detracting from relationships with loved ones, foregoing the use of any one term to describe such behaviors. 

In most other life circumstances where a family steps in to help their loved one navigate crisis, the instinctive actions they take are considered appropriate and effective. Caring for a loved one that is sick or injured may often involve helping them financially, filling in to help them with self-care and the management of daily life, putting your needs secondary to ensure their welfare, or denying your own fears and emotions to avoid them impacting the sick person. Unfortunately, in the case of substance use disorder, these instinctive responses often allow for the problem to continue while decreasing the direct consequences of substance use that may provide the necessary insight to promote recovery.  As consequences are not realized, the potential for even greater consequences increases, and a maladaptive pattern of behaviors is strengthened in the family system. Again, in most other crisis situations, these adaptive behaviors are necessary, but in the case of substance us, they can allow it to continue for longer than necessary.

Common Adaptive Behaviors Associated with SUD in a Family System

  • Prioritizing your loved ones needs before your own
    • Just as a person suffering from SUD often lacks critical self-care, so too can a loved one begin to focus so much on another’s actions, that they begin to neglect themselves. Lack of self-care can take many forms, from changes in sleep, eating, or personal hygiene, to not reaching out to friends, family, and professional help for emotional and spiritual support.
  • Blaming other people or situations other than your loved one
    • A characteristic common to many people with SUD is difficulty in seeing one own’s behaviors and how that affects situations and other people. Therefore, it can be common for those in the life of a person that is using to also want to place blame on others or on circumstances for whatever it is their loved one many be facing. However, this denial of the loved one’s part in their lives makes it more difficult for behavior to change, including the usage of alcohol and drugs.
  • Acting out of fear
    • Fear can be a common motivator for many of the behaviors common to those trying to help those with SUD. Often, loved ones will allow the person suffering from SUD to live in their house for fear they would having a dangerous housing situation or no housing whatsoever otherwise. Another example may be giving money to a person that has been using, knowing they may use it to purchase alcohol or drugs.  This is often done out of fear they may use a more dangerous method to obtain money if they do not receive it from their loved ones. Making decisions out of fear can make one feel as though they are trapped, unable to break free from their situation.
  • Rationalizing Behavior
    • SUD cannot continue the same path if the family is no longer unaware of or avoiding the truth of what is really going on. While rationalizing others’ behaviors can help make us feel safe, ultimately it often creates an environment where addiction thrives, which can lead to fatal consequences for the person suffering from addiction. Ultimately, avoiding the actual nature of SUD puts off the problems of today and allows them to fester into bigger problems for tomorrow.

How to Break the Cycle

  • Gaining a Support System
    • It is common for those who surround a person suffering from substance use disorder to feel isolated and ashamed of their situation; however, having others whom you can speak to is critical to take care of your own health, and is ultimately important to helping take care of your loved one, too. Support can take many forms, from a therapist, support group, spiritual counselor, and even family and friends. The internet provides wonderful tools for finding support groups and professionals in your area.
  • Setting Clear Boundaries – and Following Through
    • Setting clear boundaries, along with consequences for not respecting those boundaries, is key to showing your loved one that their behavior and actions directly affect their lives. This important lesson is only communicated effectively if those who are setting the boundaries follow through with the consequences when the boundaries are broken. Otherwise, the opposite lesson of one’s actions not affecting outcomes is demonstrated, and the cycle continues. Setting boundaries as well as following through with them can be extremely difficult for many and having a support system to offer emotional support and guidance can provide the extra support needed to make boundaries effective.
    • To set a limit with someone, state it clearly, with only a few words. Avoid justifying, rationalizing, apologizing, or entering into argument. Offer a brief explanation for why you are setting the boundary and know that “No.” is a complete sentence. The one with whom you are setting the boundaries with will test the limits of the boundary, so plan on it. Be prepared to carry out your plan to act if the boundary is crossed again. It is important to explain simply what your reaction will be if the boundary is crossed. For example, “if you are using substances you will not have access to the family vehicle.” Have a plan for how to follow through on the consequences that you set.
  • Asking for Help
    • Just as asking for help is a vital for anyone in recovery from SUD, so too is it an important part of the family’s recovery. Asking for help can range from the largest tasks to the smallest, and the key is remembering that recovery does not need to me, and can not be, a path one walks alone.
  • Reflection
    • It is important to recognize that we cannot set a boundary and take care of another person’s feelings at the same time. The two issues are separate. Setting boundaries helps take care of our feelings and may not please the other person. That’s okay. The other person will want to negotiate. Be prepared, and don’t compromise your positive. Plan responses such as “no, that’s not acceptable.” Reflect on setting boundaries and recognize that it is okay if they provoke feelings of fear or anxiety. It is important to remember that people will respect us more when they believe we will hold firm. In the long run, setting boundaries appropriately is about helping get our loved ones to the help they need, as well as respecting ourselves enough to take care of ourselves. Boundaries are the mechanisms that bring safety into our lives by establishing healthy structure.

Encore Recovery is a Virginia treatment program specializing in trauma, dual-diagnosis, and complex cases. For more information, call us today at: 703.594.7398 or visit us at encorerecovery.com

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