Am I Helping Or Enabling?


Many times I have participated in family recovery circles and heard the heart-wrenching frustration from parents or significant others as they try to grasp an understanding of the term “enabling.” They seem trapped in a form of “No-win guilt”; the kind of guilt that says, “If I do this nice thing for my child, then I am helping him to continue using drugs” and “If I do not do this nice thing, then I am discouraging his motivation to get sober”. These people are seemingly paralyzed by the fear of doing the wrong thing. As if the emotional turmoil of addiction isn't enough, parents, spouses and others heap upon themselves the lies (we call this "stinking thinking") that give them a false sense of power; telling themselves they are responsible for outcomes and that they can actually create results.

Families are an extremely important component of the recovery process. According to the Johnson Institute studies show that when the family is involved, the chances their loved one will experience recovery increases greatly. For this reason alone, it is important to "step" into the recovery arena; however, don’t expect your personal recovery to focus on your loved one. In recovery we learn to set our own boundaries - thus discovering where our enabling behaviors contribute to our loved ones’ destructive behaviors. We begin to recognize the difference between what we can change and what we cannot change and then act accordingly. We are introduced to tools that will help us to respond rather than react, taking ownership for our personal growth, including how we feel and how we act.  Our peace of mind is no longer held hostage by fear.

As a parent and spouse, I have come to understand that the things I do (or not do) for my children and husband have more to do with me and less to do with them. Sometimes the line between helping and enabling is subtle. Honestly, I’m not sure if there is a right or wrong thing to do (certainly there is no magic wand). However, there are always right and wrong things we can do for ourselves. When we enable we compromise our personal values. When we practice recovery for ourselves we are not only modeling integrity, but also helping to motivate our families recovery. Working the steps, having a sponsor, asking others to hold us accountable, and "the love of the group" are tools that help us become spiritually fit. As we put this insight into practice we become less fearful, more hopeful, and generally more confident in our family roles.

The following are 10 questions that you might ask yourself before making an, “Am I helping or enabling” decision:


1.  Will doing (or not doing) this help my loved one stay sick?  Sometimes our best intentions allow the disease of addiction to continue.

2.  Am I considering my needs first?  When we compromise our own needs in order to make others comfortable, we not only compromise ourselves, but our loved ones as well.

3.  Am I compromising my personal values?  Standing behind our values is the single most important thing we can do for ourselves and our loved ones.  Everything else is negotiable.  Compromising our values is not.

4.  What are my expectations?  If I believe I can control or have a predicted outcome I have work to do first. Having expectations is a guaranteed set-up for resentments later.

5.  Do I want to do it?  It is not wrong to want to help our loved ones.  Is it okay to do nice things for them?  Doing something out of the kindness of our hearts is one thing.  Doing something to avoid fear, discomfort, rejection, or guilt is another thing.

6.  Is this something they are able to do for themselves?  There is a big difference between not being capable and being uncomfortable.

7.  Whose responsibility is this?  It is important to allow our loved ones to experience the natural consequences of their actions.  By doing so, we empower them to grow and take responsibility for themselves.  Not only will you be giving them an opportunity to learn a lesson, they will also get to experience their own successes.

8.  Have I checked with an accountability partner (sponsor, counselor) before making my decision?  Often those people can offer a different perspective, providing us with a clearer vision on which to base our decision.

9.  Have we been here before?  According to Albert Einstein, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is practicing insanity.

10.  Have I taken time to think and pray about this?  Making an immediate decision sets us up to make an emotional decision.  Actions based on mindfulness, prayer and meditation rather than emotion are always more productive.

By: Trish Frye, LCDC, CDW-F,  CAI

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