In my nearly 20 years of coaching experience, I have found most often that enabling is best described as “doing something for someone that they can and probably should be doing for themselves”.
While enabling is most often seen in romantic and family relationships, enabling certainly occurs in work, friendship, and other social relationships. For the purposes of this blog, we will focus on enabling that occurs in personal relationships.
While enabling typically has a negative connotation, there is such a thing as positive enabling. Positive enabling is about encouraging someone and/or providing them with an easier path to success. An example of positive enabling would be when you can see that someone is doing the best they can under the circumstances they’re in, but you realize that working alongside them to help them achieve their goals is the boost they may need to be successful.
In contrast, when someone is supporting, defending, or encouraging someone else’s dysfunctional and self-destructive patterns of behavior, the behavior typically worsens and causes additional issues and stressors. The old adage “if nothing changes, nothing changes” certainly applies here in that if you continue to enable dysfunction, you can expect things to get progressively worse.
For example, if someone consistently drinks too much in the evening and can’t get themselves up in the morning, an enabler might call their boss and make excuses for them not being at work.
Most of the time, someone who is enabling another's dysfunctional behaviors has good intentions and might feel that they are helping the person they are enabling. Unfortunately, enabling often exacerbates the underlying dysfunctional issues and behaviors the person is struggling with and prevents them from growth. Additionally, the enabler might begin to form resentment towards the person they are enabling. In the end, enabling has negative effects on both parties and often leaves the enabler feeling emotionally and mentally exhausted.
If you feel like you are an enabler, read on as we dig deeper into the signs of enabling and how to stop enabling so you can ultimately help this person and yourself.
First, it is important to remember that you were doing the best that you could at the time… Don’t beat yourself up about what has happened. Instead, make a commitment to stopping it.
Enabling often occurs in codependent relationships where our happiness, success, or sense of self hinges on this person being a certain way. Enabling someone doesn’t mean you agree with their behavior. You love and care about that person and want to help them. In fact, you may not even be aware that you are negatively enabling them.
The following are signs of negative enabling:
1. Ignoring, Dismissing, or Minimizing Someone’s Self-Destructive Behaviors
If you are ignoring, dismissing, minimizing, or even defending or supporting someone’s self-destructive patterns of behavior, you are most likely enabling them. You may be unconsciously in denial that there is a problem or are actively trying to ignore the problem. You might want to avoid confrontation or conflict with this person. In any case, you are probably hoping the problem will eventually resolve itself.
Realistically, the person you are enabling will feel that they can continue doing what they’re doing because you are probably going to protect them from severe negative consequences. In extreme cases, ignoring or dismissing the behavior may even cause the person to believe they aren’t actually doing anything wrong, therefore encouraging them to continue. If the problem is never faced and discussed, it will manifest itself in a plethora of other ways and eventually become harder to manage.
2. Making Excuses for the Person You Are Enabling
To take it a step further, you might be making excuses for this person’s negative behaviors. Whether you are making excuses to yourself or to others, this is a sure sign of enabling.
For example, maybe you have noticed your young adult is binge drinking on a regular basis but you excuse the behavior because “they are 21 and all 21 year olds drink”. You most likely know deep within that this behavior is destructive and unhealthy, but you are trying to convince yourself that the behavior is normal and there is nothing to worry about.
If you are making excuses to other people, that might involve calling in to your child’s work and telling them your child is sick and cannot come in today, when in reality they are hungover from a night of binging.
In both scenarios, the problem is not being directly addressed and your child is not having to deal with the consequences of their actions.
3. You Are Completing Tasks That Are Your Loved One’s Responsibility
Another sign of negative enabling is taking over responsibilities that the person is not fulfilling due to their dysfunctional behaviors.
For example, if you give your young adult a list of chores and a deadline to complete them but they don't and you do the chores for them, they are again avoiding any consequences and are not being held accountable. This sign of enabling is slightly more serious because you are not just ignoring or excusing their behavior, you are actively helping them continue it.
4. Financially Supporting Your Loved One Who is Capable of Supporting Themselves
If your friend or family member is perfectly capable of working and earning their own money but they are being financially supported by you on a consistent basis, it is another sign of enabling. In this instance, there is no incentive for them to work for themselves because they don’t have to, which allows them to perpetuate their self-destructive behaviors and further avoid responsibility.
Another example could be a family member who mismanages their money by spending it on drugs or alcohol. When you supply them with more money, you could be directly paying for their destructive habits. Providing this type of financial support is just encouraging their addiction and enabling them to continue doing what they are doing.
For example, if this person is spending their money on drugs and alcohol instead of paying their car payment, they don’t have to face the natural consequence of losing their car because they aren’t making the payment. When someone enables, they often remove the natural consequences of a behavior. Other examples include paying their rent or covering for them at work...This protects them from being evicted or losing their job. For a younger adult, making excuses to the school so they don't have to do extra work to improve their grades is an example.
5. You Are Ignoring Your Own Boundaries
If you are negatively enabling someone, you are most likely ignoring your own boundaries and letting this person overstep them. While you may expect or believe that this person will show gratitude or appreciation, the person who is consistently enabled grows to expect to be allowed to ignore boundaries, get their way, and not have to be held accountable or responsible. When they are confronted, they typically get defensive, angry, or blame the enabler.
Oftentimes enablers consciously or subconsciously believe that the person they are enabling won’t love them or remain in the relationship if they say no or try to set boundaries. This sets both parties up for failure and resentment. The person who is doing the enabling is typically taken advantage of, experiences emotional abuse, and ends up feeling frustrated and powerless to change things. Because the enabled person has often been able to escape consequences, they don’t learn to shape their own behaviors that allow them to be independent and self-sufficient.
If you feel that you are enabling a loved one, continue reading as we explain how you can stop enabling and help yourself and your loved one.
How to Stop Enabling
1. You have to be honest with yourself about why you are enabling
Is it because you fear not being loved? Is it because you only feel good about yourself if you are taking care of others? Or is it possibly because you are afraid of exposing your “dirty laundry” to friends, relatives, or people in the community?
If it’s important to you to protect the “perfect family” image to your friends and neighbors, having a kid live at home until they’re thirty is something you might feel judged about so you may choose to pay their rent.
2. You must decide for yourself what your boundaries are
Communicate your boundaries effectively and ensure that the person you are enabling is aware of them. This can be a challenging process because oftentimes enablers are not fully in touch with their own wants, needs, and self care.
A caveat about declaring your boundaries is you must be 100% committed and not willing to back down. If you set a boundary and allow the person you’re enabling to grind you down through threats, tantrums, or rejection, you teach them that you don’t mean what you say and they can eventually get their way.
Mutual respect is important, so be sure that you are also respecting the boundaries of the other person (without enabling their self-destructive behaviors).
3. You must stop making excuses for the person you’re enabling
Although this is hard, you have to let them face the consequences of their behaviors. If they drink all night and know you will call off work for them, they will just continue. If they know that they will have to go into work or call off themselves, they may be more motivated to drink less and go to bed earlier.
4. Again, you must hold them accountable to their responsibilities
Do not complete tasks that are assigned to them. Create a consequence that they will have to face if they don’t fulfill their responsibilities on time. This creates a sense of accountability and shows the person that you will not tolerate their lack of effort and responsibility.
5. Understand that “No” is a complete sentence
All too often, enablers feel compelled to over-explain their reasons and defend their choices to stop enabling. If you are in the habit of saying yes to the person you’re enabling, it won’t be easy saying no, but it is absolutely necessary in order to stop enabling their behavior.