With the disease of addiction, enabling is considered a bad thing – it’s called codependency. They make excuses, rescue, cover-up, and otherwise protect the impaired person from the consequences of their behavior. But the terms enabling and codependent are misleading. To enable someone to accomplish something is generally a good thing. One might think co-dependency (mutual needs) is also positive. But with addiction, someone who enables an addict is a co-addict, not codependent. They have become addicted to managing someone else. Just like any other addict, they are afraid to let go. They repeatedly try to control someone despite suffering the same consequences.
When a co-addict loves someone, they don’t want to see their loved one suffer. And they are afraid that if they let go, the addict with wind up homeless or dead. In fact, they are confident there are no other possibilities, even though most addicts get better when the co-addicts stop disabling them with too much help. They remain trapped in the illusion that if they keep giving, the addict will eventually get better and appreciate all the help. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the only thing the co-addict ever gets from an addict is resentment. It’s always a lose-lose outcome. When the co-addict stops disabling, the addict is forced to experience reality, followed by wellness and gratitude.
The co-addict deserves to be appreciated, but they’ve taught people to walk all over them. Only when the co-addict begins to change their own behavior is the addict likely to get better, too. But before that can happen, the co-addict must understand the difference between enabling and disabling.
#1 Disabling is when you see weakness; enabling is seeing strength. When you focus on a person’s weaknesses (or your own) – incapable, sick, deranged, mentally ill, helpless, etc., that’s what you get. When you focus on their ability to get out of the mess they’ve gotten themselves into, that’s what you get. Addicts dig their holes, and co-addicts provide the shovel – money, bailouts, sympathy, and so forth. Take away the shovel, and the addict must find their way out of the hole.
#2 Disabling is protecting someone from the consequences of bad choices, enabling allows them to face the consequences. People allowed to suffer their mistakes are less likely to repeat them. Otherwise, they become dependent rather than independent and mature. If you focus on someone floundering rather than affirming, they can do better; they won’t. Once you say, “I’ve helped you enough – with debt, jail, danger, and you keep finding yourself in the same situation. I now see that I haven’t helped you. I’m not going to do this anymore,” you’ve then begun the process of enabling healing and disabling addiction.
#3 Disabling comes from anger, blame, and fear, and enabling comes from love. Pent-up frustration, sorrow, grief, and resentment are the toxins forever bubbling beneath the surface in addictive relationships. Co-addicts and addicts react to one another and stay locked into a relationship that kills both. Addiction has a stranglehold that won’t let go. Once, the co-addict says, “I love you too much to remain stuck in these behaviors that hurt us both. Your addiction has prevented you from success and fulfilling your purpose. I will get out of the way until you’re ready to get help. Until then, I must let go.” Follow through with your actions. Don’t listen to the begging, the blaming, the cajoling. Just keep saying, “I love you too much. I haven’t helped you, or you wouldn’t remain in this position. Let me know when you’re ready for professional help.”
People often confuse love with addiction. Love supports change, and it never fuels addiction. It takes the power of love to address and disable addiction. Naturally, there will be tears and tantrums for a while. But when you love your child enough to stop disabling them, something incredible can happen. That child hijacked by addiction can eventually be returned to you. Only then will you feel the mutual pride and appreciation for a healed relationship.
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Dr. Donna Marks has been an author, consultant, public speaker, and psychotherapist for over thirty years. She was licensed as a Mental Health Counselor in 1987 and then certified in Addiction, Gestalt Therapy, Hypnosis, Sex Therapy, and Psychoanalysis. She currently has a concierge psychotherapy practice in Palm Beach, Florida.
She has appeared on numerous podcasts and local television. She is the author of two books, Learn Grow Forgive – A Path to Spiritual Success, and Exit the Maze: One Addiction, One Cause, One Solution (revised), and winner of multiple book awards. Her next book, The Healing Moment: Seven Keys to Turn Messes into Miracles, will be released in 2023.
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