Helping vs. Enabling

If you’ve been on the outside looking in on someone suffering from addiction, it’s hard to understand why your advice, financial favors, or words of encouragement seem to go unnoticed, unappreciated, or worse – don’t fix the problem you intended to help with in the slightest. Parents and family members, especially, will often go to the ends of the earth to help their loved one suffering from substance use disorder and assist them in any way they can. Are they behind on bills or rent? Surely covering those expenses for a month or two will help them get out of their rut. Have they been kicked out of their home for some reason? A couch or spare room will always be available for them, no matter the circumstances. Even with all this encouragement and assistance that you may have offered your loved one – they still struggle with drinking and/or using drugs and it has most likely started to take a toll on your personal life. Having something to fall back on, no matter how dire the consequences of their actions are, may be exactly what keeps the person struggling from getting the help they need.

Enabling a loved one with addiction

You may have heard of the term “enabling” and wondered what it means exactly. In the management of addiction, enabling is one of the most common behaviors and consequently, one of the many reasons people struggling do not get the help they desperately need. If they always have an escape or will always have someone they can go to for money or shelter, they will never face the truth – they have a problem that needs serious attention and self-advocacy.

So, What is Enabling Exactly?

Enabling refers to the actions of a person or persons within a sufferer of substance use disorder’s close circle of family or friends that indirectly encourages the continued use of substances through certain behaviors. This sounds terrible and no one would be quick to admit they are an enabler to their loved one’s addiction, but it is often subconscious behaviors that are driven by an intense love for, and desire to fix, the person suffering. In short, enabling restricts a person’s ability to recover due to the protective bubble that shields them from experiencing the consequences of their actions as a result of substance use. Enabling behaviors aren’t always obvious, which is one of the reasons it may be hard to recognize as something you, a family member, or friend may be doing.

Enabling Behaviors

As mentioned before, enabling behaviors are those behaviors that may inadvertently support our loved one’s chemical use by not allowing the person to accept the consequences for their actions. By providing a pillow each time they stumble or fall, we are enabling their chemical use. According to University of Pennsylvania Health System (UPHS), enabling behaviors can be classified within certain definitive actions that limit one’s ability to recover from substance use disorder. You may have heard addiction referred to as a “family disease”, which is largely attributed to the impact one person’s substance use has on a family. But perhaps more importantly, addiction as a family disease exists through the subconscious behaviors that one or many family members engage in. Let’s now go over some of these behaviors detailed by UPHS and how they relate both to the person suffering from substance use disorder as well as their family members.


“Expecting the person suffering from substance use disorder to be rational or to be able to control their use is denial. Accepting blame for their use is denial.” – UPHS

An example of this would be to say to yourself, “My loved one isn’t like the alcoholics I see in the movies or begging for change on the street – they have a job and are responsible most of the time. Clearly it’s not that bad.” Denial is a powerful process of thought that disconnects us from seeing things as they really are and in turn, allows us to convince ourselves that there isn’t a problem at all. If we allow ourselves as an observer of a loved one’s addiction to take a step back and look at the facts – such as how often are they using, how has their using impacted their and our own personal lives, or how much of the family’s time and attention is dedicated to “fixing” the problems created during their active use – it will we be easier to admit that there is a problem and a clear need for recovery.

Drinking or Using With the Person Suffering From Substance Use Disorder

“So we can watch them, limit their intake, make sure they don’t drive drunk. We don’t have to worry about where they are, who they’re with, if they’re coming home.” – UPHS

Drinking or using with someone with substance use disorder as a way to monitor them may seem like a no-brainer in a “things not to do” list, but this is more common than you may think. This behavior is especially common in families that have a history of substance use disorder. Not only is it counter-productive in a recovery sense, it gives the person suffering justification for continued use. Which brings us to the next enabling behavior on this list: justification.


“Agreeing with their rationalizations — [they] have a stressful job so he/she deserves two martinis after work. They’re in college — everybody does it. I did it and I’m not an alcoholic.” – UPHS

One thing people with substance use disorder are notoriously good at is manipulating both their own thoughts as well as the thoughts of others to justify their continued use. These kinds of excuses can be meticulously thought out as a way to change the perception of how people view their using. The problem lies in attributing characteristics of someone who doesn’t suffer from substance use disorder onto someone who does — it’s important to remember people with addiction aren’t like “everybody else”.

Keeping Feelings Inside

“The person with addiction’s rationalizations deny our feelings — ‘Oh, I would never drink with the kids in the car.’ We get our feelings of fear denied and we begin to keep our feelings inside.” – UPHS

Bottling up our feelings can happen for a variety of reasons. Commonly, we do so when we are met with aggression, anger, or hostility when we confront a person with addiction. This leads to not wanting to “poke the bear” and avoiding confrontation with this person. As a result, we often keep those thoughts, feelings, and concerns to ourselves to preserve relative peace. This allows the person with substance use disorder to continue on with their destructive behaviors uncontested.

Minimizing the Situation

“It’s not so bad…things will get better when…” – UPHS

Acknowledging that there is a problem is a tough obstacle to overcome. Often times when we are met with something negative that is impacting us, we minimize the severity of the situation to relieve some of the mental and/or physical toll it will take on our personal lives. The same can be said when dealing with a loved one during their active use. If we trivialize the severity of the problem, it “goes away” or is at least manageable to deal with psychologically.


“We tranquilize our feelings with medication, work, food, exercise. The more perfectly decorated and manicured our home and lawn are, the better we look and don’t have to look at the issues.” – UPHS

Finding a way to escape the negative emotions is something everyone experiences and is not limited to substance use. We “use” or dedicate time to things that make us feel good, whether it be work, school, eating, exercise, or we use substances ourselves. The issue, however, lies in the way we, as observers, respond to the fact that our loved one is suffering from addiction. If we avoid the truth – that there is a problem – we are enabling the user to share that same sentiment, making it even harder for everyone in the family to take the steps necessary to recover.

Taking Over Responsibilities

“He’s hung over, so I’ll take out the trash, cut the grass, etc.” – UPHS

Appropriating the responsibilities of someone with addiction is one of the most common and often detrimental behaviors we can take part in as an enabler. When someone is suffering from addiction, anything not related to procuring or using substances is put on the back burner. This can range from seemingly trivial responsibilities such as chores or personal hygiene, to more serious cases like paying bills or taking care of a child. The love we have for the person with substance use disorder often takes precedence and is “easier” to handle than leaving them to their own devices. However, the more we allow the one using substances to rely on the safety net we may have created for them – the harder it will be for them when that family member inevitably reaches the point of no longer being able to be used as a resource of financial, emotional, or physical support.

You Are Not Alone

The last enabling behavior on the list is also one of the most poignant – enduring. The notion that if we love someone, we will put up with their substance use and their behavior while under the influence. This behavior can be abusive, traumatic, and soul crushing. The toll of putting up with a loved one’s addiction is monumental both physically and mentally. There’s one thing that most people will cling to when experiencing discomfort, pain, and sadness: hope. We shroud ourselves in hope that one day, this pain will be comforted either by divine intervention or self-actualized fulfillment. Unfortunately, rarely is anyone released from the pain of someone’s addiction through the act of endurance – in fact, closure too often comes in the form of a worst nightmare in which the battle of addiction has been lost and we are left to bury our loved one along with our hopes that things would someday get better. Parents or spouses often realize too late that addiction left untreated is a death sentence.

Enabling a person with addiction

No matter what way you look at it, loving someone with addiction is to endure hardship. However, educating yourself and realizing the behaviors that enable someone with substance use disorder can be the first real step in getting them the help they desperately need. Also know that when it comes to enabling, you, other family members, or friends are not alone. In fact, almost all families have members that exhibit at least one enabling behavior when dealing with their loved one’s addiction. It can be very difficult to release the reins and allow our loved ones to experience the consequences of their actions in active addiction, but it is a necessary catalyst for things to actually get better as they experience the full spectrum of the effects of addiction for themselves. It is crucial to remember that it is never anyone’s fault that their loved one has substance use disorder. However, if we take a step back, look at our own behaviors and how we handle a loved one’s substance use, a change in those behaviors can be the greatest form of help we can give in guiding them towards a life in recovery.

As we often say, addiction is a family disease and at Herren Project we offer a variety of programs and groups that address the family specifically. If you are a family member of someone that is suffering from substance use disorder, Herren Project offers many free resources like 15-minute family consultations, online support groups and webinars to discuss and educate on addiction and learn about effective ways you can help your loved one.

Always remember that you are not alone.

For more information on enabling behaviors, including the ones in this article, visit