Learn about enabling behaviors and how to change them.
That is a pretty vague definition so far, right? Let’s make it a little more concrete. In general, behaviors that are not healthy for us should have negative consequences for us. If you are late for an important meeting, you could reasonably expect some kind of negative professional consequence. But what if your colleague decides to cover for you, making up an excuse about you being sick that suddenly gets you sympathy instead of a scolding? Suddenly, it is okay that you were late – no harm done. And here’s the important part: you might be even more likely to show up late next time because only good things happened this time. This is an example of enabling. In other words, we can think of enabling as creating a neutral to positive outcome where a negative outcome should have happened. Then, we are more likely to do whatever it was that should have ended badly.
We are most likely to engage in enabling behaviors when we don’t believe we can handle the negative consequences that will befall somebody else (Stillar et al., 2016). In these circumstances, the person we could call the “enabler” may fear what is going to happen or even be ready to blame themselves for not stopping the negative consequences from happening (Stillar et al., 2016). For example, many enablers feel that they are ultimately responsible for the well-being of the person they are enabling (Rotunda et al., 2004), so they will step in with whatever enabling behavior is necessary to avoid negative outcomes.
The clearest examples of enabling come from instances where people protect their loved ones from the immediate negative consequences of behaviors associated with mental illnesses – at the cost of enabling those negative behaviors to continue in the longer term (Rotunda et al., 2004).
Let’s take the example of the family members of an alcoholic. They may hide facts about the alcoholic’s behavior from other people, stay close to or avoid the alcoholic to keep them from getting upset, and go to great lengths to help the alcoholic avoid legal or professional consequences for their drinking (Kala, 2016). Sometimes, family members or partners may even drink with their alcoholic relatives, perhaps with the excuse that their drinking will be easier to manage this way (Rotunda et al., 2004).
Another enabling behavior is to set boundaries and not follow through on them (Rotunda et al., 2004). For example, one partner may say to the other, “If you come home drunk again, I’m kicking you out,” but feel too sympathetic when they see how helpless and upset their partner is the next time they come home drunk.
A lot of enabling behaviors can also look like inaction, or turning a blind eye. For example, if a parent never stops cleaning up for a child as they age, or says nothing when money disappears from their wallet, they are sending a message that certain behaviors – never cleaning up after oneself, taking money without asking – are okay.
Tips to Overcome Enabling
Here are a few key strategies to reduce your engagement in enabling behaviors:
1) Build coping skills (Thomas et al., 1996). It is always hard for our loved ones to suffer. Letting them suffer so that things can change takes a lot of self-restraint and self-control. If you are enabling others, it will get easier not to do so when you have the tools to take care of the negative emotions that come up for you in these moments. Enablers have their own needs, and they need to take care of those needs. Research tells us that it’s easier not to enable when you’re taking good care of yourself (Goddard et al., 2011).
2) Identify your enabling behaviors. With the help of a trusted friend or therapist, reflect on the situations in which you think you might be enabling somebody else. Try to identify (1) what your specific behavior is, (2) what negative emotions you’re trying to avoid, and (3) how this might encourage the other person to keep doing that behavior. If you can, be scientific, not self-judging, in this exercise. We all naturally want to avoid pain.
3) Pick an alternative behavior and practice it. Research tells us that with the right focus and support, people can change a couple of enabling behaviors at a time (Thomas et al., 1996). Pick an enabling behavior that you engage in and ask yourself what an alternative is that allows the natural consequences of the situation to unfold. Then, you might roleplay choosing the other reaction in a conversation with a therapist or friend you trust.
Try to see enabling behaviors as a natural result of the fact that as humans, we can’t help but love and care for each other. It’s painful to see the people you love suffer, and when that pain is acute, you’d probably go to great lengths to stop it. When we stop enabling others, we give them the chance to experience the fruits of their actions; although that can hurt more in the moment, it might be the most loving thing we can do.
Goddard, E., Macdonald, P., Sepulveda, A., Naumann, U., Landau, S., Schmidt, U., … Treasure, J. (2011). Cognitive interpersonal maintenance model of eating disorders: Intervention for carers. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 199, 225–231.
Kala, E. (2016). Enabling: what is it? Enabling behaviors and resources.
Rotunda, R. J., West, L., & O'Farrell, T. J. (2004). Enabling behavior in a clinical sample of alcohol-dependent clients and their partners. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 26(4), 269-276.
Stillar, A., Strahan, E., & Nash, P. (2016). The influence of carer fear and self-blame when supporting a loved one with an eating disorder. In Innovations in Family Therapy for Eating Disorders (pp. 211-222). Routledge.
Thomas, E., Yoshioka, M., & Ager, R. (1996). Spouse enabling of alcohol abuse: Conception, assessment, and modification. Journal of Substance Abuse, 8, 61– 80.