You know that your friend, family member, or loved one has a substance abuse problem and you love them just the same. Time after time when they’ve called on you to cover for them, give them a ride or maybe even asked for some money you’ve followed through for them. After all, it’s important to always be there for your friends and family, isn’t it? Sure, but when dealing with someone with a substance abuse problem there’s a point at which such ‘help’ becomes harmful. Can you tell where that point is? 

Though they seem very similar, helping and enabling are often difficult to differentiate. It’s the ‘helping’ actions provided within clear boundaries encouraging the addict to get themselves healthy and into treatment/recovery that make the most positive change. ‘Enabling’ behaviors, however, can hinder the addict’s progress and may even make them worse.

What is “enabling” and why is it bad for an addict?

Though the word itself sounds positive, in the setting of addiction “enabling” is anything but helpful. In this context enabling refers to the perpetuation of someone’s substance abuse in at least one of three broad ways: tolerating it or making it seem acceptable, managing or hiding their consequences for them or by actually helping them to continue using.

Enabling behaviors come in many forms and often seem reasonable and helpful, at least on the surface. Ignoring someone’s addiction is often justified as avoiding confrontation or giving the addict a “chance to get better on their own.” Being the family member of an addict isn’t easy and many times the addict will make the loved one feel as if they are to blame for current problems or refuse to acknowledge that there are any problems to begin with. Many times the path of least resistance for the loved one of an addict is to look the other way.

Covering for an addict’s bad behavior is another common way to enable them. Whether it’s calling them off for work sick, taking care of their responsibilities for them or repeatedly making excuses for them, none of these are healthy. While they might seem helpful, the reality is the addict is being protected from the natural consequences of their actions. In essence, they are not being allowed to suffer, or hit their ‘bottom.’ We know that consequences alone will not change an addict’s disease process or behavior but a lack of consequences most certainly makes things worse.

Sometimes the enabling is more directly contributory, actually helping feed their addiction. A ride to the liquor store, picking up a “package” for them or loaning them money that is likely to be used for their addiction are common examples. Giving someone a ride or loaning them money can be a pretty routine thing to do for a loved one. But when addiction is involved these simple gestures often become enabling behaviors with serious effects on both the addict and the person enabling them.

Like drug use itself, enabling behavior seem harmless at first and often grows until it feels almost inescapable. Since you’re reading this article right now you are probably already concerned you may be enabling someone’s addiction. Maybe you already find yourself down in the hole of enabling and are not sure what to do to get out. Perhaps you feel it isn’t fair to change the rules and start enforcing boundaries now after enabling for so long. Maybe you think, like many people do, that setting limits and stopping enabling will cause you to “lose” your loved one forever.

If these are your worries you’re not alone. Those thoughts and feelings are very common. We understand that enabling behaviors often come from a place of love and are thought to be helpful, which is part of what makes them so difficult to change. Separating yourself from your loved one’s addiction, not taking ownership of their problem for them and no longer helping them manage it is often seen as “abandoning” them in their time of need. However, setting healthy limits and stopping enabling is often the first step to healing the broken family. At the very least it will help the loved ones of the addict begin to heal and distance themselves from the chaos their family member is causing and ultimately might be what motivates the addict to seek change.

How can I tell if I’m helping or if I’m enabling?

Here are some characteristics of an enabler:

  • You have taken on more and more small responsibilities that the addict they should normally be able to do for themselves.

  • You have put their needs or desires above your own.

  • You have lied or made excuses for them to other friends or family.

  • You have felt resentful towards the person, even while continuing to do more and more for them.

  • You have ignored or made excuses to yourself for their negative behavior, even when that behavior is serious or even dangerous.

  • You have provided money that you are fairly sure is being used for drugs or alcohol.

  • You have covered for them to authority figures or bailed them out of jail, letting them escape the consequences of their actions.

  • You have felt that if you didn’t do something for them then they would leave you, have an emotional outburst, or attack you in some way.

If any of the above sounds like your relationship with someone else, you may very well be enabling instead of helping. Don’t worry, it’s not too late to change those behaviors. In fact, you may have already taken the first step toward healing by reading this blog and understanding how you might be an enabler.

Could I also have become codependent?

If your enabling behavior has gone on for some time, you may be in a common dysfunctional relationship pattern called codependency. A codependent person is someone who has taken unhealthy ownership of someone else’s wellbeing. This typically means the codependent person’s self-esteem and well-being is somehow tied to their ability to take care of their loved one. This often presents as feelings that you will be a failure or a ‘bad’ spouse, parent, or friend if you refuse their requests for help and that you are somehow obligated to fix things for them. But as we know the addict’s requests and ‘needs’ are often unhealthy and not helpful at all! Frequently these ‘needs’ lead to further harm to both the addict and the helper. Doing things for someone else that they CAN and SHOULD be doing for themselves is the definition of codependency and often at the core of enabling.

It can be difficult to overcome codependency, so again remember that ending enabling behaviors doesn’t mean not caring, it means you’re putting both them and you on a path that leads to recovery.

How can I stop enabling and start providing real help?

If you think that you may be enabling your loved one, you’re probably right. It may seem daunting but right now is the time to transform your enabling behavior into real help. To do that you’ll need to set definite, healthy boundaries in your relationship with the addict. Breaking yourself free from enabling and codependency means letting your friend or loved one feel the consequences of their substance abuse. No matter what you think or what your loved one tries to tell you, keep it firmly in your mind that you are doing this because you care about them and this is the way to show you care.

Get yourself help as well. Not only does your loved one need professional help with their addiction but you too may benefit from therapy or counseling. Get into a therapist and start your journey to wellness with these words: “My loved one is addicted and I think I may be enabling them. It’s hurting me greatly and I want to learn how to change.” Your therapist will know just what to do to help you! If you’re not quite ready to see a therapist you can check out an Al-Anon meeting where you will find many people who have gone through exactly what you have.

For more information on ending your enabling or codependency and getting high-quality addiction help for your loved one, please contact Parkdale Center at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Further resources:

Codependent No More, the go-to book on dealing with codependency:

Nar-Anon Family Groups, providing support for friends and family of those with a substance abuse problem:

Al-anon, providing support for friends and family of alcoholics:

Wednesday, 17 October 2018 10:36