I’ve struggled all my life with confusion about the difference between enabling and love. Most of us think of enabling in the context of addiction, and we’re familiar with the idea that helping an addict avoid the consequences of their addiction is not, in the long run, useful.
It’s a pretty clear idea in theory. In practice, however, it’s a whole different story.
Enabling, denying, or allowing destructive patterns of behavior to continue extends far beyond the issue of addiction. Compassionate, loving people who sincerely want to help and support others wind up enabling all kinds of toxic behavior with the best intentions in the world, or completely unconsciously.
That’s the problem. Enabling can look and feel so much like love. Choosing not to enable can look and feel so much like rejection, selfishness, or even hate.
I’ve spent years of my life enabling toxic behavior in the name of love, duty, and loyalty. I’ve truly believed with enough modeling and patience I could heal the destructive behavior of others. For most of my life I’ve lived with the delusional belief my unconditional love is enough to keep my loved ones happy and healthy.
I only wish I had that much power.
Choosing not to enable or deny is heartbreaking. It’s a choice I’ve made, and I feel daily anguish over it, even as I know in my heart I’m doing the right thing for myself and those I love.
Those of us who are intimately familiar with patterns of addiction and toxic behavior know the unrelenting pressure from well-meaning but clueless onlookers to excuse and/or rescue loved ones from the consequences of their choices.
People who expect or demand to be enabled do everything they can to keep the dynamic alive. Remember those who punish us for our boundaries are the ones who gain the most from their absence. One of the important patterns that helps identify relationships in which enabling is taking place is when we make any kind of excuse for a pattern of destructive behavior. So-and-so is not loved. Nobody has ever understood them (but us). They’ve had various kinds of trauma. The world is against them. Nothing ever works out for them. They’re disenfranchised and alienated. They’re suffering and nobody cares. They have no one to turn to. They can’t afford to get help.
Solving or covering up someone else’s problems is very different from empowering them. We empower when we teach skills, share resources or give someone tools that support them in solving their own challenges. The difficulty is someone stuck in a chronic pattern of destructive behavior doesn’t always want this kind of power. Resources, tools and skills are of no use if we aren’t prepared to take responsibility for our troubles, and it’s so much easier and more comfortable to deny or blame someone or something else for our destructive patterns and their consequences.
Unfortunately, the emotional dynamics of enabling are hard to fully understand until and unless we’ve experienced them for ourselves. I want to protect loved ones from going through the pain and damage that occurs to relationships when toxic behavior is present. I never want them to feel as torn apart as I have. I want them to use the resources and tools I can offer and learn from my mistakes.
Again, I only wish I had that much power.
As a lifelong caregiver, I’ve abdicated rescuing myself in favor of rescuing others. This is the shadow side of caregiving. Enabling others, entering into an unspoken agreement to work harder on their problems and lives than they do, is a dead end that keeps us nicely distracted from coming to terms with our own challenges. Even worse are relationships based on an unwritten agreement to mutually enable one another’s dysfunction.
Another part of why we choose to enable can be to help soothe our own anxiety. We don’t want to be in conflict with those we love. We don’t want to lose relationships dear to us. We don’t want to deal with a lot of trauma and drama. It’s easier and quicker just to write another check to help out one more time because our family member or friend can’t stay employed due to their substance abuse. It’s easier to manage their lives ourselves than watch them muddle along without clean socks and food in the fridge or listen to their constant complaining.
You’re an enabler if you’re asking why they keep doing it. Ask instead why you keep allowing it. As long as you allow it, they’ll probably do it. They’ve got no motivation to do anything else.
Enabling is painful, stressful, and will burn us out. It might take a long time, but eventually it will eat us up and drain us dry. It may feel like love, or duty, or loyalty, but it isn’t. It’s destructive for everyone involved.
For me, one of the most insidious aspects of enabling is keeping secrets. I’m not talking about protecting personal privacy or keeping confidences. I mean pretending not to notice that Brent is high again on the job, or looking the other way when a loved one drives home drunk from the bar. The biggest reasons I’ve kept secrets are shame (I must be a terrible person if someone I’m closely connected to is in such trouble), loyalty, and my effort to protect others.
You’d think I’d learn.
Keeping secrets implies tolerance, and it allows destructive patterns to continue and worsen. Every single time we pretend not to see, cover up or make excuses, we’re making the inevitable crash worse for everyone involved. Another reason I’ve kept secrets is for fear of no one believing me, or being told I’m overreacting (which masks their own denial). It’s easier to just avoid the whole issue and say nothing. Then everyone is more comfortable. Everyone except me. All that unsaid feeling and horror becomes a stone I carry in my heart, mute, but agonizing.
As counterintuitive and inadequate as it seems, the best thing we can do for loved ones struggling with toxic patterns of behavior, including addiction, is care for ourselves and stay firmly rooted in our own lives. If our offers of skills, tools and/or resources are rejected, we have no further power in the lives of others. We can only meet our own needs and solve our own problems, even if it means we must walk away from relationships in order to save ourselves.
Not everyone will understand or support us in refusing to enable, particularly the person we’ve been enabling. However, making the choice to live another day in our own lives means we can continue to be available to appropriately love and support someone when they’re ready for it, and at the very least provides a model of empowerment and self-responsibility.
Enabling is not love. It may seem like the easiest choice, but love requires much more than easy choices.