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Ask a Therapist: How Can You Tell If You're Enabling an Addiction?

Relationships, Crisis, Ask a Therapist
4 min read

Dear Therapist:  How can you tell if you're enabling an addiction?

Frame Therapist Susan Herbert weighs in…
According to the National Center for Drug Abuse (NCDAS), more than 140,000 people die every year from the effects of alcohol (this includes drunk driving, alcohol withdrawal, and alcohol poisoning), and almost 97,000 people die from drug overdose.  If nearly 250,000 people in the U.S. die every year as a direct result of addiction, chances are you do or will know someone who is struggling. 

For every per who lives with addiction, there are a host of friends, family members, and partners who love them and want to help.  But where do you cross the line between helping and enabling (to give someone the means to do something)?

"Enabling" is often confused with simply trying to help and can be fronted as “I would do this for anyone in their position.”  It is often more uncomfortable to live with ourselves not helping, than it is to witness the addicts downward spiral. 

Enabling takes on many forms:

- It can include giving money (ostensibly for food, utilities, or even for rent). 

- It may be covering up for the addict – possibly with their job so that they don’t get fired, their kids so they don’t look bad, or with your own friends and family to prevent their looks of disapproval. 

- Often it means cleaning up their ‘messes’ for them – paying off drug debts or debts at the bar or liquor store, bailing them out of jail, allowing them to live with you until they ‘get back on their feet’. 

- You may find yourself justifying their behavior with phrases like, “Well, she’s under a lot of stress right now” or “They had such a rough childhood” or “his boss just rides him all the time”.  

If any of these scenarios sound familiar, it may be time to ask yourself, “What am I getting out of this person’s addiction?”  Do you get to be the savior, the victim, or does it make you look good because they look so bad?  This may sound harsh, but typically, when we are challenged by letting someone we love have their own experiences, it is because we have a role that makes us feel some kind of way. 

Tips to Check the "Why" Behind Your Motivation to Help

Here are some good tips you can use as reminders when you are questioning your own motives:

  • We each have our own Guide in life, and our loved ones have their own.  If we are interfering with their experiences, then they never get the chance to learn the lessons they need to become their best selves.

  • With kids (no matter the age), it’s important to remember that our job is to raise them to become fully operational adults, not to infantilize them.  We have them on loan until they’re old enough to spread their wings, and then they are on their own.

  • If a loved one asks for help with addiction, there are many treatment centers, addiction specialists, and 12-step groups out there to assist.  You can support them in this endeavor, but they need to do their own work.

  • Check in with yourself; review your motives; identify the feelings that come up for you when you are trying to “help” them.

  • Last but not least, if you are stepping into the ring, please remember that just like on an airplane, you have to take care of yourself BEFORE you can take care of someone else.


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About the author: Susan Herbert graduated from the Antioch MAP program in 2019 with a specialization in Community Psychology and a curriculum focus in Trauma. Susan is now a Registered Associate MFT and works as a Program Manager for The People Concerns HSSP. She is certified in Gestalt Experiential Therapy and studied Reality Therapy, as well. Her personal history with homelessness and recovery from addiction, trauma and family dysfunction greatly informed her decision to do this work. Read more content from Susan, or reach out directly by viewing her Frame profile here.