We usually “mean well” and want to be “helpful.” In fact, in many ways this helps us to work and solve problems together. However, there are times that the ways in which we help other people may actually cause more problems that we solve. This can happen even if we do it out of genuine love and concern. Understanding this concept is critical to our ability to develop healthy lives, friendships and families.

Enabling codependent behaviors actually cause more problems than they solve. We end up feeling like a helpless victim to the other person. Further, the other person never struggles on their own, which is critical to their developing into a mature independent person.

The Enabling Concept

Enabling is a concept that was first coined in the treatment of drug and alcohol addicts. It came from the idea that the non-abusing person may be “unconsciously enabling” the addict to continue their dysfunctional behaviors.

Enablers are also “co-dependents” who are just as dependent (addicted) on “helping others” as is the addict dependent on their chemicals/behaviors. A co-dependent is someone who does all the work, suffers all the consequences, finds that the other person does not grow, while the co-dependent ends up feeling exhausted, fatigued, overwhelmed and confused.

Those who enable others are the ones who are addicted to “enabling” the negative behaviors of others, even without ever knowing it consciously. It is as if they are treating the other person as a child who needs to be watched, guided, supervised, and as inadequate in some manner.

The problems becomes more obvious when the addict “stops their abusive behaviors” and the enabler/co-dependent finds themselves “going through withdrawal symptoms.” For this reason, the person who is addicted to enabling will do anything to “enable” the other person to resume their behaviors again. This is often done in unconscious ways, such as making certain comments, doing certain behaviors or having certain emotional responses.

The problem is that future behaviors are based on past behaviors. This is a fancy way of saying, “What you see is what you get”. If you think you are really going to be able to change them, you are not looking at the historical reality of the problem and the person with the problems.

The problem for enablers is that their “magical thoughts” get in the way: Hoping that with time and effort, the person will change. This is because there is also a panic when one feels out of control over anything, over others, over situations, or over life, that then drives the person to try whatever they can to control in an effort to reduce their internal tensions and insecurities.

This avoidance of reality is not dissimilar to substance abuse. Those struggling with drug or alcohol use are not going to change unless THEY do the work. Further, after years of drinking the brain has been physically changed and they no long can inhibit their behaviors: The frontal lobes of the brain can no longer focus and inhibit their functioning.

Enabling Actually Says More About Who You Are

Enablers have come from families where they “learned” their behaviors from their parents. They feel insecure and vulnerable when they are not in control of the situation and have little tolerance for uncertainty and “waiting” for anything to happen.

Enablers feel that they “have to have control thing to make things happen” or they feel filled with anxiety and tension. Enablers are actually insecure but will never admit it. They gain their self-esteem by helping others and doing everything for others.

The enabler “looks like the saint” as if to have everyone feel sorry for them and what they have to put up with. This allows the enabler to feel good about themselves and how hard they have tried, rather than face the truth about their own behavior.

Enabling is Really About Control

Enablers feel “good” when they are in control and directing the situation. They actually “need” the other person to remain dysfunctional – even though they will complain about this happening while verbalizing their anger at the person for being dysfunctional. Enablers complain that they “need to have the other person taking control of their lives” while subconsciously hoping that this will never happen.

Enabling Makes Us Feel Security

Being an enabler allows one to feel “safe and secure” in life because it “gives them a mission.” When the enabler is feeling out of control, they experience a sense of overwhelming anxiety and uncertainty about the future.

Enablers feel good when they “know” what to expect each day. It makes them feel “wanted and needed” and fills some internal, probably unresolved, need or issue.

It becomes the only way that they can feel happy and “fulfilled” – that is, when they are needed. It is an “addictive over-involvement” that “fills a never-ending need” inside the person and goes on and on without stopping.

It is a “stuck identity” where one keeps repeating the same behaviors and “knows that they are right.” It is a “recreation of what the person feels NEEDS to happen to make things right” even when others protest against it.

Enabling is a Secret Way to Avoid Intimacy

Enabling is actually a way of “distancing” oneself from intimate relationships and interactions with others. This is because the enabler “functions in the family as the competent and critical parent” who has to remind the “less functional one” how to “behave.” Enabling creates a “safe distance” so that the issues of intimacy can be controlled and kept at a “safe distance.”

The enabler can then “pretend” that they are giving and giving and giving. However, what they are really doing is distancing themselves from the other person who “really needs their parental help and understanding.”

Becoming a parent figure is empowering because there are two people – one who is the powerful parent and the other is in the childish, helpless, or incompetent role. Such an interaction only creates “generational distance” in a relationship because it is not a realistic relationship between two equals who are working together.

Becoming “the Saint enabler” allows one to “die for the cause” because it “sets them apart” from others – they are different, distant from others, and above others in a “safe” way. The reality is that the “victim” is so good at playing the “incompetent role” that it sets them apart from others in such a way that they “need the help of parental enabling figures.” It is a “mutual dance between two dysfunctional partners.”

Enabling is a Lack of Boundaries

There is a lack of appropriate boundaries, lines, and limits in how an enabler relates to the other person. There is an “over-involvement” in the needs and issues of others. Yet, limits and boundaries are important for healthy functioning. They need to be flexible yet consistent if they are to help the person grow.

Enabling is really just “spoiling” the other person to the point that they “get away with stuff” because they are “only children for such a short period of time.” Always making excuses for them rather than helping them face reality and life the way it is and to participate well in the daily life and reality of existence and family.

Enabling is a clever way of saying “yes, but.” There is no stepping back and looking at all the issues in the situation and how the person realistically needs to be more responsible for themselves.

An addiction is a “compulsion and drive” to do an activity, and to maintain the “sameness,” of the situation, even in the midst of knowing that what one is doing is “not right,” and causing more troubles in the long run. However, the person is addicted to quick solutions, quick emotions, panic dramatic responses, and “stuck in denial of the reality of their lives.”

Cures for the Enabling Mindset

Enablers can help in finding the cure to problems by not being overly helpful, providing extra money, bailing others out of problems, and allowing others to suffer their own consequences to problems no matter how hard it may be on you.

The 12 Step programs clearly state that there should be no food, clothing, shelter, or money unless the addict (non-functioner) is in treatment, rehab and ongoing after-care. If those conditions are not met, the addict gets nothing – no help, no way, no exceptions.

Enablers have to know how “dependent, helpless ones,” such as addicts, lie, manipulate, beg and steal. It is important in dealing with such “non-functioners” to know that any approach requires authority and control, strict discipline and sometimes force. Democratic permissiveness is not allowed if the person is not able to be consistently responsible for their proper functioning.

Enablers have to let go of their “need to save” others by “making excuses” as to “why it happened,” or “why one must help this time,” and so on. It requires a sufficient amount of strength and effort if we are to see the other person’s life as worthy.

Being permissive means we see the other person’s life as expendable and lacking human responsibility to themselves. We can “move toward positive constructive behaviors” and “withdraw from negative destructive behaviors.” When we make excuses for others we are “allowing” them to avoid responsibility for their own lives which leads them on a course of self-destruction.

How to Stop Being an Enabler

  1. The most important change that you have to make is to learn to “tolerate uncertainty” while allowing yourself to feel the anxiety connected to “not knowing” or being able to control what others are doing, or not doing, in life. You are turning control over to the other person who should have been learning self-control at the age of two years old on!
  2. You have to learn to “trust others” to figure things out for themselves even though they may make decisions that are not in your best interests. They have to learn from their own mistakes and “try over and over again” until they figure it out for themselves.
  3. You have to focus on developing yourself, understanding your fears and vulnerabilities, while working on making improvements that benefit your life, and family, in positive ways. Stop focusing on others – that is your addiction – you are addicted to helping and rescuing.
  4. Focus on “taking your time” and “pacing yourself” rather than feeling that “you have to do it all yourself because you are the only one who can do it “right.”
  5. You have to tolerate “how others will change over time.” You will have to feel this period of “uncertainty” for a long time knowing that “life and learning is a journey” that can only be handled to each traveler.
  6. Remember that you “felt more comfortable” with the “old negative dysfunctional behaviors” because it allowed you to “be in control” and to “make all the decisions.”
  7. Realize that you are on a “new journey” in life toward new behaviors, ways of relating, and ways of handling life and others as you let go of enabling behaviors.
  8. You have to realize that life is difficult, uncertain, and confusing. However, it is through our struggles that we each develop and grow into “full human beings.”
  9. It is critical to know that being an “enabler” means that you are also “an addict” who has become “addicted to helping and enabling others.” You will always have to monitor your responses because they can happen so automatically for any type of addict.
  10. It is important that you celebrate life, change, and the chance for everyone to grow to a new level even when it is happening under difficult circumstances and times.
  11. Learn to “just be” rather than have “the need to be needed.” Remember, there is something “seductive about dependency.” However, this is not action oriented on your part, it is diagnostic to tell you about the other person’s needs and inadequacies. When you feel a panic, it is only an awareness that you are growing by “not doing” for others and allowing them to “save themselves and to be responsible for their own lives,” and the other person is not being responsible, the helper will become exhausted and overwhelmed.
  12. Finally, remember that “the goal of all behaviors is to involve you.” The question to ask yourself is, do you want to be involved positively or negatively? Constructively or destructively? Only by withdrawing from negative destructive behaviors will you ultimately find a better path forward in relating to others.

Additional Resources

the enabler
codependent no more
setting boundaries adult children

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