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Enabling...A Form of Addiction

Have you ever witnessed someone enabling their loved one and confused on how they could knowingly do this, but yet continue? Maybe you are the enabler and you feel helpless to stop. Being an enabler in itself can be an addiction, an enabling addiction.

Developing a child into an autonomous adult is a goal that most parents hope to achieve by means of nurture, discipline, and support. It is a process met with various obstacles in order to foster responsibility and growth while also preparing a child for a successful life experience.

Consequences of failing to prepare a child for adulthood can range from mild to severe and have an outcome to deeply impair the ability for a person to achieve individuation. Individuation's definition is the process by which an individual becomes distinct. Individuation distinguishes you from everybody else.

One detrimental type of behavior exhibited by parents that may result in the lack of individuation is known a,"enabling." Enabling behavior is not only found in parental interactions with children, but it is also a component that may exist within any relationship or family unit.

So, what exactly is enabling behavior? Psychology Today writer, Jeffery Bernstein PhD, describes enabling as, “fixing problems for others and doing so in a way that interferes with responsibility and growth” (2014). If this sounds familiar, then it may be helpful to gain a deeper understanding as to why enabling behavior occurs and how to recognize it.

First, it is essential to understand the purpose of enabling. What is the trade-off? Simply put, it alleviates guilt in the enabler. If an enabler is able to “clean up” the other person’s mess well enough, the negative consequences of the other’s actions will be gone or minimized. This is all too familiar in family systems in which a member is in active addiction. Kyle King (2013) states, “A parent or spouse may excuse, justify, ignore, deny, or smooth over the addiction.”

The outcomes resulting from this are many, but the point to be made clear is the person who is actively addicted will fail to face the consequences of their addiction and the behavior will continue. So, it boils down to this: enabling allows a maladaptive behavior, not providing adequate or appropriate adjustment to the environment or situation, to continue and progress.

In relationships between two adults, a member who enables may lessen the number of negative consequences the other partner experiences; creating a rescuer and the recipient of the enabling to learn how to be helpless or dependent. It’s a cycle that can and will become more difficult to navigate and modify the longer it exists.

So, what are some barriers that may inhibit the ability of a person to refrain from enabling another? Guilt has already been discussed above, but it is a key component to understanding the underpinning of enabling others.

Let’s begin with an example of a family in which an adult member is struggling to pay their own bills. This adult member is the eldest son in the family and just turned 26. He moved out of the house roughly 6 months ago and has been working as a server in order to pay his bills and rent; which is usually late. The son calls his parents when he realizes he has spent all his earnings on clothes instead of rent. He does this because he knows his parents will fold and give him the cash no matter what the circumstance is. His parents answer the phone anxiously and agree to give him money even if they do not want to.

The guilt they would feel if their son lost his apartment would be greater than the financial inconvenience. By continuing to give their son money whenever he calls they are enabling his personal irresponsibility. Due to this behavior from the parents the son never learns the skills required to live independently and the parents will continue to be taken advantage of.

It is important to note here that tragedies do occur in families. A member may need assistance and reach out for help related to a single event. Life is unpredictable, right? Helping others and helping family members is an essential part of showing care and compassion; however, when tragedy becomes habitual, something else is happening and that might be due to enabling relationship themes resulting in dependence.

What other enabling barrier is related to guilt? Love. This concept can be difficult to understand in the context of enabling. A parent or partner is stuck between expressing love and escaping guilt. Not only does the act of “love,” become burdening to the enabler, but the recipient may also develop a distorted understanding of how relationships work. The example above makes one wonder what other relationships the son manipulates in order to have his needs met for him. The son may or may not be conscious of his behavior.

This type of relationship could perhaps become normalized. Enabling typically runs deep in families, and it may require a professional to examine and point out the history of patterns each member engages in. If enabling is something you feel is becoming out of control or if you perceive you are being taken advantage of then don’t hesitate to contact Tennessee Advocacy Talk for help and guidance to navigate your concerns. Now we have examined enabling, stay tuned for the next article where we discuss differentiating between enabling and empowering, as well as, learn steps to help break the enabling addiction.


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