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Am I an enabler? | What is enabling behavior?

  • Hey guys. Romany Malco here, and today I want to walk you through the ten traits of an enabler. Now, if you’ve not heard of this term before, an enabler is someone who encourages the negative or self-destructive behavior of another person through what they perceive to be acts of helping.

    Often, when psychologists refer to enabling behaviors, they talk about them in the context of enabling addictions, such as alcoholism or drug abuse. While this is one type of setting where we can fall into the trap of enabling, there are others, too.

    For example, an enabler may be the father who always finds himself coming to the rescue of his adult child when they recklessly spend all their money and can’t afford to make rent.

    Alternatively, it could be the wife, who spends all her time picking up after her husband’s messes and doesn’t trust him with the responsibility of looking after their children.

    Many of us fall into the trap of enabling because we mistake our behavior as being helpful. But in the long run, enabling behaviors can lead us to be taken advantage of and deny the enabled person the opportunity to learn independence.

    Let’s now look closer at the ten signs that you may be an enabler and consider how these signs differ from those of a helper.

    The first sign that you might be an enabler is if you regularly find yourself denying your own needs. Enablers will often sink their time, money and energy into another person and actively deny him or herself the self-care they deserve.

    In severe cases, such as in the stress of dealing with an addict, this may translate into health problems and financial trouble. In contrast, those who help recognize that taking sufficient care of oneself is a necessity if we are to be a sustainable source of support for another person.

    The second trait of an enabler is that they struggle to tell others ‘no.’ For many of us, saying ‘no’ is inherently uncomfortable. Psychologist and author Dr. Ellen Hendriksen notes that when we say no,

    “Our brains jump to the worst-case scenario... we often feel guilty because not only do we think we’re hurting the other person, but we expect retaliation.”

    This is particularly true in the mind of someone in an enabling spiral. The helper, on the other hand, will recognize the importance of setting boundaries and not just giving in to another person’s wants all the time.

    The third trait is a deep love for the enabled person. Enablers often take the form of romantic partners or parents. Whereas others in the enabler’s life may recognize they are sacrificing everything to care for the needs of the person they are enabling, the enabler’s deep concern blinds them to the fact that they are ultimately doing more harm than good.

    In contrast, a person who helps understands that loving someone is not synonymous with catering to their every want and need.

    Fourth is a history of caregiving. Those who grew up in environments where they were forced to subjugate their needs to take care of another person, such as an alcoholic parent or younger sibling, may find themselves more likely to slip into the role of the enabler.

    In this kind of environment, caring for others becomes wired into the brain as a survival instinct, so the pattern of caring continues into adulthood. Unlike the

    enabler, the helper does not help out of the same deeply wired compulsion and can make smart judgments about when it is and is not appropriate to help.

    The fifth trait is that the enabler feels they need to be needed. In the context of romantic or familial relationships, the dynamic between the enabler and the enabled is often referred to as codependency.

    Author and expert on the subject, Melody Beattie defines codependency as “a way of approaching intimate relationships characterized by a focus on the needs of others, self-sacrifice and dysfunctional coping behaviors.”

    For the codependent person, their self-esteem and self-worth are rooted in the sacrifices they make for the enabled, which is partially why they continue enabling them. In contrast, the self-image of someone who simply helps will be internal, rather than contingent on how they can serve another.

    Sixth, the enabler will make excuses for the enabled. Often, the enabler will deny the severity of the enabled’s behavior and instead make excuses for the person, such as by trying to convince him or herself and others that their bad behavior is just a phase.

    The helper, on the other hand, will recognize when they need to respectfully confront the other person about their behavior, rather than making excuses that allow it to continue.

    Number seven — enablers will bail others out of sticky situations. The enabler is likely to find him or herself cleaning up the enabled’s messes, and possibly even disguising or lying about the fact that there was a mess in the first place.

    This may mean loaning the person money, taking on their important responsibilities, chauffeuring them around at crazy hours or even getting them out of trouble with the law.

    The helper, on the other hand, knows when it is appropriate to take a step back and let a person face the consequences of their actions, which is more likely to motivate a person to change than simply swooping in to fix all their problems.

    The eighth sign that you may be enabling is if you find yourself experiencing resentment toward the other person. Despite the compulsion the enabler may feel to serve others, the lack of reciprocity shown by the enabled may lead them to resent the person because everything they do for them begins to feel like a duty or an obligation.

    In contrast, helping relationships, such as that between two friends, are characterized by a healthy balance of give and take — when one person helps the other, there is a willingness to return the favor.

    Number nine — the enabler will feel like the most capable person in the room while viewing the person they enable as helpless. The enabler may find that, over time, and particularly in the context of intimate relationships, they have picked up more and more of the other person’s responsibilities.

    Having forgotten what life looked like before they did, they may begin to doubt whether the person they are enabling is even capable of picking up the slack, which may lead to an ongoing cycle of enabling. In contrast, the helper will trust the capabilities of the other person, rather than seeing their helping as a necessity.

    The final sign that you might be an enabler is if you find yourself in an abusive relationship. According to the DSM-5 — The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — someone with dependent personality disorder possesses

    “ excessive and pervasive need to be taken care of that leads to submissive, clinging, needy behavior due to fear of abandonment.”

    One study estimated that up to 20% of the population might possess the disorder, making it one of the most prevalent personality disorders, and it has been shown to be linked with domestic abuse. While those who help will do so in such a way that prioritizes their safety, the enabler may find him or herself a victim to someone with this disorder, which can be incredibly dangerous, particularly in cases where alcohol or drugs are thrown into the mix.

    As children, we’re all taught that helping others is the right thing to do, but, hopefully, this discussion has helped you recognize when helping may have crossed the line to become enabling.

    Now, if you feel that you see some of these traits in yourself, here are three tips that psychologists recommend to help you break the habit of enabling today.

    First, set firm boundaries. Write a list, making a commitment to yourself about what you will and will not do for the person you have been enabling. By doing this, you are prioritizing yourself and your well-being. You are recognizing that the other person is an adult who should be capable of looking after him or herself.

    So, create a list as a reminder to yourself and communicate it assertively to the other person, so they know where you now draw the line.

    Then, when the person next finds him or herself in trouble, let them feel the brunt of their actions. When we give in to our compulsive desire to rescue the enabled, we deny that person an opportunity to learn from their actions.

    So, next time you get that call at midnight or find the person begging you to cover their rent, instead of giving in, let the person know that it’s time for them to help him or herself.

    Finally, consider reaching out for professional help. Many cities offer support groups for those who find themselves in the position of an enabler, and many counselors specialize in supporting families and couples who are struggling with codependency.

    In fact, research suggests that including partners and other family members in professional assessments and the development of strategies to help the enabled can improve their likelihood of success. So, if safe to do so, consider reaching out to a professional today.

    And that brings us to the end of another discussion. So, the key takeaways from today: When trying to determine whether you are an enabler, consider how your acts of service to the other person make you feel and ask yourself whether you feel any frustration or resentment toward that person.

    When you need to put a stop to your enabling, remind yourself that tough love is still love and that by taking a step back, you’re allowing the other person to step up and learn from their actions.

    And lastly, if you’re dealing with somebody volatile, always prioritize your safety and seek help as soon as possible. 

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    How to say no (without feeling guilty):


    Codependent no more: How to stop controlling others and start caring for yourself:


    Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM–5)


    Dependent personality disorder: A review of etiology and treatment


    The complicated relationship between dependency and domestic violence: Converging psychological factors and social forces.

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