What is an Enabler?

Most people who suffer from a substance use disorder have an enabler in their life. According to the American Psychological Association, an enabler is someone who contributes to poor behavior in another person. In most situations, the enabler is a close friend or family member. Many times, it’s the spouse or parents of an addict. The enabler is not necessarily a bad person; they’re simply someone who either passively permits poor behavior or unknowingly encourages the addiction through their words and actions.

How Do You Know If You’ve Become an Enabler?

Even if they have good intentions, an enabler actually does more harm than good to an addict who wants to recover. Their intent is pure, but their words and actions harm instead of help. If you have a loved one suffering from a substance use disorder, you should try to evaluate your behavior to determine if you’re an enabler. Nearly 20 million American adults battled a substance use disorder in 2017, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. It’s tough to say just how many millions of enablers are out there. There are steps you can take to become a helper rather than an enabler, but you have to acknowledge the problem first.

There are no specific personality types that make an enabler. Rather, it is your emotional connection to the addict that can cause you to turn into an enabler. The closer a person is to an addict, the more likely they are to become an unwitting enabler. The thoughts and opinions of the enabler are very important to the addict. Oftentimes, it’s someone who the user looks up to or respects. The enabler does not want to lose this trust, so they continue to deny that there is a problem.

Many enablers have difficulty understanding the process of addiction and recovery. It is very important that an addict receiving treatment has a solid support group. However, an enabler can be detrimental to this recovery because they’re afraid to hurt the addict or push them further away.

Here are seven signs you or someone you know is an enabler as well as tips on how to correct the behavior so you can become a helper instead.

Sign 1: Denying or Ignoring Your Loved One’s Poor Behavior

Shifty behavior is often noticed by household members first. If your spouse is continually coming home late or leaving and not telling you where they are going, it may be a sign of hiding something. Sometimes, they become suddenly more private with their phone and computer use or start missing work when this is not a normal pattern for them. Any change in a normal pattern should be confronted and talked about.

The problem comes when you deny what is happening right before your eyes. There are many possible reasons you may deny what you are seeing. You may be scared of what will happen or are under the false hope that if you simply ignore it, it will go away. Ignoring never helps an addict. The sooner a user is confronted and steps are taken to get help, the smoother recovery they will have.

If you are unable to confront the addict, talk to someone else close to the situation. They can help you see if there’s actually a problem. Knowing that someone else knows can help you in the future by not allowing you to make excuses for them. You are also setting the stage for support when an intervention is needed or treatment is started.

Sign 2: Feeling Resentful Toward the Addict

As an enabler continues to ignore the evidence and denies that anything is going on, it creates resentment. Especially if the addict is your partner, you may feel a sense of betrayal. When you feel this way, it will come out in how you treat the person. The addict will pick up on these feelings and will turn to their drug of choice to drown away the sorrow and pain they feel.

The actions of an addict certainly will affect their partner or family. However, the family must not allow these actions to control their feelings and behaviors. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You think your partner is a loser and has no self-will, but this only causes them to sink further into depression. Addictions affect the entire family, which is why treatment centers have programs that provide help to everyone involved.

Remind yourself of the person the user was before the drug overtook their life. You know who they are, even if their current actions are confusing. Acknowledge that the drugs are what is causing the change, not some crazy shift in personality. Love them as the person they were before so you don’t feel angry and resentful all the time.

Sign 3: Putting Blame on Others

In a misguided attempt to help the addict feel better, an enabler will often find other people or situations to blame for the person’s behavior. If you find yourself saying things such as, “Well, if he wouldn’t have lost his job, he wouldn’t be drinking so much,” you are probably an enabler. Part of the recovery process for an addict is acknowledging their own actions and taking steps to improve those actions. By continually blaming other people or situations, you are telling the individual that this behavior is OK even when it’s clearly not. This could lead them into denying there’s a problem.

To stop blaming others, you have to acknowledge that hiding the user’s behavior has backfired. People around you may truly believe that your loved one is simply under a lot of stress at work and that’s why they’re acting strangely. If you had told the truth in the beginning, they could help you see that other people’s behaviors are not the problem. You may have caused some tension if you’ve specifically pointed out a person you hold responsible. By doing this, you could gain an ally in the fight against the addiction.

Sign 4: Covering up for the Addict

An enabler is often trying their best to control the situation. You don’t want people talking poorly about your loved one, so you continually make excuses for the behavior. There are two ways an enabler may deal with the addict missing an important event. First, you may make no effort to encourage them to fulfill previous commitments. You may feel that it is too much effort to convince them. The reverse option is to overly berate them for not going, thinking the guilt trip will help. This normally backfires as an addict turns to their drugs when feeling guilty.

The second step is the cover-up. When you attend an event that your partner said they would be at, people will question their absence. If you find yourself continually making statements such as, “She’s been working a lot lately,” you may be an enabler.

Once you realize you’re doing this, it’s important to try very hard to stop. It doesn’t mean that you have to tell everyone that you suspect your partner is doing drugs. Perhaps a simple, “He’s not been himself lately and I’m not sure what to do,” would be sufficient. Then, the people who truly care may open up and also express their fears about the situation. Together, you may be able to stage an intervention.

Sign 5: Unable to Express Emotions

Many times, an enabler has difficulty in expressing their emotions. You may have considered confronting your loved one, but your desire to keep the peace overrode your desire for confrontation. Partners in this position will suddenly find themselves unable to tell the addict how they feel, even if they’ve never had communication issues. Instead, they make excuses, both to themselves and others.

An enabler is living a life with a lot of fear, and hiding from their emotions is one way of ignoring that fear. However, an addict needs to see that their actions are affecting those around them. They need to see the depth of emotions that are affecting their loved ones. It’s often these emotions that can spur them to seek help.

If you really can’t share your emotions with the addict, enlist some help. Perhaps a counselor or some other type of intervention is needed. Including a neutral third party can often help an addict and an enabler express their emotions freely instead of holding back.

Sign 6: Letting Fear Overtake Everything Else

As mentioned, fear is often the motivation behind an enabler’s actions. There are many types of fears that an enabler may confront. There may be fear of physical or emotional repercussions if you speak out. You may fear that you’ll lose the addict forever if you express your true feelings about the situation. You may fear that confronting them will only increase their desire to slip away and get high. When fear has overtaken your life, you are no longer acting like yourself.

If you’re an enabler, you are not a bad person. You’re reacting to a negative situation. By seeking help from a counselor, you can learn to control your fear and be yourself again. Only by getting your own fears under control will you be able to help the addict through the process of recovery.

The partners and family members of substance abusers have to be courageous. It can be a long fight, but it’s worth every step. Remind yourself that this addiction, if not brought under control, could go so far as to lead to their death. Fearing they will die from the addiction could be healthy if it spurs you to take action.

Sign 7: Priorities Get Jumbled

When you are an enabler, your priorities may become out of order. Perhaps your loved one has asked for some money, and you give it to them even though you know it’s going straight to drugs. Perhaps you do this even if you’ll be struggling to pay rent the next month. Any time you put the priorities of yourself and the rest of the family behind those of the addict’s need for drugs, you are hurting them, even if you intended to help.

If this has been a pattern going on over an extended period of time, it can be very difficult to stop. The user may get upset when you suddenly decide to not give them any more money. Stay strong and explain that you’re trying to help. Even if they can’t see it in the moment, they’ll be grateful later.

So, Are You an Enabler?

If you see yourself in any of these seven scenarios, you may be enabling the addict in your life. Don’t lose hope yet, though. By using the methods described, you can overcome the enabling behavior and get true help for your loved one.

Rehab facilities such as the Green Mountain Treatment Center offer treatment that focuses on both the addict and the people in their lives who are affected. Treatment specialists could help you identify ways in which you are an enabler and give you tools to stop enabling the addict. As for the addict, professional counselors will help them navigate the road of recovery so that both you and your loved one come out stronger in the end.

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