Enabling, Helping and Controlling

In last week’s webinar, “AFTER REHAB: Making Sense of Aftercare Recommendations to Avoid Relapse,” a participant asked us to clarify the differences between enabling and helping behaviors. We thought it was a great question, so we thought we’d share our answers.
Enabling is the equivalent of rescuing someone from the mess they’ve made for themselves. Enabling allows the defiant or sick people we love to believe that they can keep doing what caused problems in their lives – in part because they desperately want to believe that the problems won’t happen again. You too may believe that everyone deserves a second chance, and we would agree. But seriously folks! We all know that we’re not talking about 2nd or even 3rd chances! Enabling may be driven by love and hopefulness, but it’s really about preventing more pain. What families often fail to appreciate we are depriving them of the very pain that could create the motivation for the person to do something different. And then we wonder why they keep making the same decisions? Enabling may be intended to help, but in truth, enabling hurts.
Helping, on the other hand, is focused on the basic psychological principle of positive reinforcement (although not necessarily with the reward component). It’s a great idea to give time, attention and (sometimes) funds to help someone we love who has made the decision to make positive changes (ie. go to rehab, get a public job, accept consequences). Sometimes that means taking time off your own job to participate in the famiy program where they’re in treatment. Sometimes that means helping them stay in treatment longer even though it will take them even longer to get back on their feet. Sometimes that means paying some bills WHILE THEY’RE GETTING HELP until they can be stable enough to get back to work. Sometimes it just means showing compassion for all the pain they’ve brought on themselves without lecturing or shaming. When we help them do positive things, THEN we are helping, but NOT hurting.
And often controlling behaviors can be tempting when we are enabling OR helping! What? How annoying is that?  It’s possible to make a good choice (ie. NOT enabling negative behavior and/or helping positive behavior) but screw it up by being controlling. For example, I can choose to not rescue my daughter from the consequences of her drug use, choose to help her get counseling/rehab/sober living, but then refuse to pay for treatment unless she goes to the one and only place I want her to go even when the place she’s chosen is at the same level of care. Or I can encourage participation in 12-step meetings, then become controlling by getting into the spy business of sneaking around to see if she is actually at the meetings. The first step of a 12-step program for family members is to accept that we are powerless over the actions of another person. We can only control our responses to their actions.
Most of us prefer to have choices in life, and part of loving those who are struggling means giving them choices too. And yet their disease may make it too hard. The very disease that they are suffering from prevents them from being able to see that they need help. My earliest mentor taught me that “we can’t be mad at those who deny what they really do not know.” It’s sometimes hard to know the difference between defiance and sickness. Ultimately, when we can see that someone is in great pain and still making those same self-destructive decisions over and over again, it’s pretty likely that they are genuinely sick.
When addiction or delusion or depression is so severe, the person who makes unfortunate decisions may sometimes be acting with best intentions and acting with desperation at others. Those who are sick need compassion, and they need those who love them to be as healthy, as well-informed, and as rational as possible. So when they cannot make healthy, well-informed decisions, sometimes they need others to identify an array of good options from which to choose. Then everyone has a chance to start getting better!
Just remember:
  • Enabling is rescuing people from their own negative choices.  So rather than rescue from the pain of negative choices, how about helping reinforce positive choices instead!
  • Helping is providing the words of encouragement, time to learn and understand, time to visit, and (sometimes) the funds to help someone help themselves by getting professional help and continue their journey of recovery once they begin.
  • And lastly, each person is responsible for their own recovery. You can stop enabling, start helping and still give your loved one choices. They still may not make good choices, but even then, those choices simply help you know that they are still sick and still need help. That means that you keep helping with positive choices, not rescuing from the consequences of negative choices and fight the temptation to believe that you can control another human being.
Love can cause well-intentioned, smart people to do the wrong things for the right reasons. But then again, we are all capable of change and recovery. We can all choose to help by doing the right things for the right reasons!
Full Life is committed to supporting individuals and families affected by the disease of addiction and other self-destructive behaviors by offering hope, guidance and support. When folks go looking for help on the internet, it’s a bit like reading a product insert for any prescription medication. They find themselves feeling more confused, doubtful about the wisdom of taking action and at risk for doing nothing. We invite you to let the counselors and coaches at Full Life help and let us be a part of your family’s solution. Give us a call at 336-923-7526 or email holly@full-life-counseling.com to get started today.

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