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How Do I Stop Enabling an Addict?

This entry was posted in Addiction Recovery and tagged addict, Addiction, enabling on November 13, 2023 by Justin Baksh, MS, LMHC, MCAP, Chief Clinical Officer.


Are you deeply concerned about a loved one who is struggling with addiction? The emotional weight of their struggle can be overwhelming, and the natural instinct is to do whatever you can to help. However, sometimes what we perceive as helping can actually get in the way of their journey to recovery. Navigating this fine line between genuine support and harmful enabling is difficult, emotionally and practically.

What is Enabling?

Enabling is a situation where we unintentionally support or allow a person’s destructive habits or addiction to continue. We often think we are helping or caring for that person. It’s complicated. There are emotional factors, expectations from others and usually, a genuine misunderstanding of what helpful behaviour actually looks like. While the intention is often rooted in love, concern, or fear of losing the person, enabling can ultimately make the problem worse and stand in the way of recovery.

How Does Enabling Differ from Support?

The line between supporting and enabling can be thin and blurry, making it difficult to discern one from the other. Support involves actions and attitudes that genuinely encourage recovery and self-betterment. These could include encouraging professional help, maintaining emotional boundaries, and promoting responsible behaviour.

Unlike support, enabling acts as a safety net that keeps the individual from confronting the full impact of their choices. This often manifests in various ways such as providing financial support for their addictive habits, making excuses for their behavior, or taking over responsibilities that they should be handling themselves.

Why Do People Enable Addicts?

There are many reasons why someone would enable an addict. Understanding these reasons will help you to explore your own feelings and motivations, and give your loved one the best possible support.

Emotional Factors

  1. Love: One of the most powerful motivators, love can make people go to great lengths to keep their loved ones safe and happy—even if the actions are bad for them in the long run.
  2. Fear: The fear of losing a loved one to addiction or its consequences can cloud your thinking and push you to make poor decisions.
  3. Guilt: Some enablers feel that they are partially responsible for the loved one’s addiction or believe they have a moral duty to fix the situation.

Psychological Factors

  1. Denial: Sometimes, admitting that a loved one is struggling with addiction is too painful, leading to denial, which in turn leads to enabling.
  2. Control: Enablers may feel that by taking over responsibilities or protecting their loved ones from the consequences of their actions, they can control the situation better.
  3. Low Self-Esteem: The enabler may sometimes increase their own sense of self-worth or identity from their caregiving role, even if it is dysfunctional. This is not healthy.

Societal and Cultural Factors

  1. Stigma: The shame that society puts on addiction can compel people to cover up or make excuses for their loved one’s behaviour.
  2. Social and Familial Expectations: In some cultures or families, it’s expected that you stand by your family “no matter what.” This can lead to behaviours that are actually enabling, rather than helpful.

Lack of Education

Often, people are enabled simply because they don’t know what else to do. They may not understand the difference between enabling and supporting.


In some situations, the enabler might be codependent. This means their emotional wellbeing comes from caring for their loved ones. This can lead to a cycle where both people are dependent on the dysfunctional relationship.

Common Enabling Behaviors and More Helpful Options

  1. Giving money that you know or suspect will be used to support the addiction. You can better support your loved one by offering to pay for things that directly contribute to recovery, like a therapy session or a rehab program.
  2. Covering up or lying about the addict’s actions to friends, family, or employers. It’s better to be honest about the situation when it’s appropriate and encourage your loved one to take responsibility for their own actions.
  3. Completing tasks that the addict should be responsible for, like paying their bills or taking care of their commitments. Allowing them to experience the natural consequences of neglecting their responsibilities, can help them realize that addiction is harmful, and they need to change.
  4. Downplaying the extent of the problem, often with phrases like, “It’s not that bad,” or “They’re just going through a rough patch.”
    Honesty is one of the best ways to truly support them. Acknowledge the seriousness of the situation and encourage them to seek professional help.
  5. Choosing not to confront the addict about their behaviour to avoid conflict.
    It’s important to have open and honest conversations about the impact of their addiction, even if it’s uncomfortable.
  6. Rescuing them from situations they’ve gotten themselves into because of their addiction, like settling debts or getting them out of legal troubles.

As painful as it may be, letting them face the legal, financial and social consequences of their actions can be a valuable lesson in accountability. Facing these consequences can also be a powerful motivation for them to seek help for their addiction and get their life back on track.

The Emotional Toll of Enabling

Enabling someone with an addiction is not just harmful to the person being enabled. It is also hard on the enabler themselves.

Emotional Exhaustion

Constantly worrying about the addicted person, covering up for them, or handling their responsibilities can be emotionally exhausting. Over time, this kind of stress can even cause physical symptoms such as fatigue, stress-related illnesses, or chronic anxiety.

Neglect of Self-Care

The focus on the addict’s needs often causes the enabler to neglect their own self-care. This neglect can lead to neglect of other relationships, personal responsibilities and joys.

Conflicting Emotions

Enablers frequently struggle with conflicting feelings—love for the person they’re enabling, resentment at the toll it’s taking, guilt for wanting to stop, and fear of what will happen if they do. This internal turmoil can make it difficult to make rational decisions.

Development of Codependency

In some cases, the enabler can become codependent, feeling their sense of self-worth and identity are their role as a caregiver. This not only sustains the cycle of enabling but also makes breaking free that much more difficult.

If you find yourself in an enabling role, it may be helpful to seek professional counselling or peer support.

How to Set Boundaries to Prevent Enabling an Addict

Dealing with addiction is a delicate balancing act, and it’s easy to slip into behaviours that actually make the situation worse. To prevent this, setting up boundaries is crucial for both you and the addicted person.

Make Boundaries Clear and Specific

Be straightforward with your boundaries to minimize confusion. For instance, instead of vaguely stating, “I can’t support your addiction,” be more specific: “I won’t give you money or take you to places where you can get substances.”

Consistency is Key

It’s crucial to be consistent in maintaining your boundaries. Inconsistent rules may send mixed messages, which could worsen the situation.

Communicate Openly

Once you’ve settled on your boundaries, discuss them openly with the addicted person. This helps prevent misunderstandings.

Implement Consequences

A boundary without a consequence won’t work. Make sure you outline what will happen if a boundary is crossed and be prepared to follow through.

Seek Professional Guidance

Setting boundaries can be emotionally taxing. A counsellor or therapist can give you helpful advice and ways to handle this situation better.

Regularly Reassess the Boundaries

Your boundaries might need adjustments as circumstances change. Keep an eye on the situation and make changes as needed.

Self-Care is Vital

Remember, these boundaries are not only for the addicted person’s benefit but also for your own emotional well-being. Always make time for self-care and don’t hesitate to seek emotional support when you need it.

Support for Loved Ones of Addicts

Finding support as a loved one of an addict is crucial for your own well-being and to help you effectively support the person battling addiction. Having a support system allows you to better understand addiction. It also provides emotional relief and equips you with the tools you’ll need to handle this challenging time.

Support Groups

One of the most common ways people find support are groups like Al-Anon and Nar-Anon., These gatherings offer a safe space for loved ones to share their experiences and learn ways to cope and help their loved ones in positive ways.

Online Communities and Forums

There are various online platforms where individuals can anonymously share their experiences, seek advice, and offer support to others in similar situations.

Professional Guidance

Speaking to therapists or counsellors who specialize in addiction can offer more personalized coping strategies. Sometimes family therapy is recommended, where loved ones can join in the counselling sessions.

Educational Materials

Books, articles, and other forms of literature can provide a structured understanding of addiction and how to cope with it. Titles like “Codependent No More” by Melody Beattie or “Beautiful Boy” by David Sheff can be very helpful.

Local Health Services

Many communities have public health services that provide resources and references for support, which can include workshops, lectures, or pamphlets on addiction and recovery.

Social Support

A strong social network is a powerful thing. Friends and other family members who are not directly involved with the addict can offer emotional support and a much-needed break from the situation.

What are the Warning Signs of Addiction

Maybe you’re not sure if your loved one has an addiction problem. Although addiction must be diagnosed by a healthcare professional, here are some common signs you might see in a person struggling with it.

Behavior Changes

  1. Neglecting their work, school, or household duties can be an early sign.
  2. Abandoning old friends in favour of new ones who share their addiction.
  3. Loss of interest in things they usually enjoy.
  4. Lying about where they are, their activities, or their finances.
  5. Participating in hazardous activities, including driving impaired or stealing, to sustain the addiction.

Emotional Indicators

  1. Unexplained or exaggerated changes in mood, often triggered by the need for the substance or activity.
  2. Becoming overly defensive when questioned about the addictive behaviour.
  3. Lack of motivation or general disinterest in achieving goals or participating in life events.

Physical Signs

  1. Changes in physical appearance, such as weight loss or gain, poor skin, or bloodshot eyes.
  2. Changes in sleep patterns, insomnia or oversleeping can all be warning signs.
  3. Having to use larger quantities of the substance to feel the same effects, or suffering from withdrawal when it’s not used.

Financial Troubles

Unexplained expenses, frequent borrowing of money, sale of possessions, or unaccounted-for financial losses can indicate an addiction.

Conflict with Loved Ones

Arguments or tension arising from the addictive behaviour, often resulting in strained relationships.

Encouraging Your Loved One to Seek Help for Addiction

When a loved one is struggling with addiction, the desire to help them can be overwhelming. However, encouraging them to seek professional help can be a complicated, and always requires a balance of compassion and firmness.

Choose the Right Place and Time

Timing is everything. Choose a time when your loved one is sober and when both of you have time for a meaningful conversation. The setting should be private and there should be no distractions, so you can talk openly.

Use “I” Statements

Beginning your statements with “I” allows you to express concern without sounding accusatory. For example, instead of saying, “You’re neglecting your responsibilities,” you could say, “I notice that you’ve been missing work and important dates, and it worries me.”

Offer Support, Not Solutions

Don’t forget that your support, while important, isn’t a replacement for professional guidance. Offer your support in finding that help but don’t offer solutions to the addiction itself.

Emphasize the Benefits of Help

Often, people avoid getting help because they’re scared of what might happen. Help them understand how seeking professional help can lead to a better quality of life, improved health, and healthier relationships.

Discuss Different Treatment Options

Be prepared with information about different types of treatment, whether it’s outpatient therapy, inpatient rehab, or support groups. Seeing the available options can encourage people who aren’t sure where to turn.

Be Prepared for Resistance

Resistance to the idea isn’t unusual. Be prepared for it and have a response that stresses your concern and the importance of professional help.

Gather a Support Network

Sometimes the message is better received when it comes from multiple people. Consider an intervention if appropriate, but ensure it is well-planned and guided by a professional.

A Path Forward

Supporting a loved one through addiction is a tough journey, but it’s important to know you’re not alone. Support and help are out there for both you and the person you care about. By taking the time to learn and find support, you’re already making meaningful steps toward a better future.

The goal is clear: a life without the weight of addiction, for both you and your loved one. With the right guidance and a strong will, improvement isn’t just a hope—it’s a real possibility. Even in hard times, don’t forget that there’s a path forward filled with hope.

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