Enabling and Dis-empowering.

Looking a little further into addiction, the topic of enabling is a very important factor in addiction and dysfunctional relationships in general.  Here is a definition of enabling:  give (someone) the authority or means to do something; make it possible for.

We are encouraged to be helpful and kind, so is enabling simply something that nice people do?

Often enablers are co-dependent; basically this means that some people; often with low self-worth, will feel a sense of improved worth if they prioritize the needs of others.  Many enablers (co-dependents) and the people around them may believe that the person enabling is simply kind and loving and caring and most of the time this is the case.  This blog is aimed at outlining when being ‘loving and caring’ can be harmful.

Co-dependent people tend to give, give and give, often they will end up feeling resentful eventually. If people have low self-worth, sometimes giving may help them feel more worthy of love and attention.  Some learn this way of relating in childhood.  Some may want to control relationships so take a lead and take care of everyone and everything to have control. Some may want others dependent on them so they feel more reassurance that the person will not be able to leave them (although in cases of narcissism they will tend to seek out ‘kind’ people, drain them dry then move on to the next more often).  Guilt could drive someone to want to be more giving.


Enabling relationships do not really work for anyone involved and here are some more reasons why; If someone is engaging in negative behaviours, covering up for them, or ‘bailing them out’ is simply enabling those negative behaviours.  Addiction can ruin lives, so helping someone to stay in addiction can not really be considered loving and caring even if a person has genuine good intentions of helping by bailing out for example.  So we need to be careful not to enable irresponsibility and negative behaviours.

The following story is one I use often in counselling sessions:

Once there was a young woman who developed a keen interest in rare butterflies, so she went and paid for a rather expensive specimen.  The butterfly was still in the cocoon phase, so she also purchased lighting and heating equipment, to make the environment just right.  

For weeks she waited patiently for the butterfly to come out of the cocoon.  She checked the lighting was just right and the heating often throughout each day.  Eventually months went by and nothing happened and she was beginning to become disheartened.

Finally after weeks of waiting, she noticed a tiny hole in the cocoon.  She was really excited and could not wait to finally see this beautiful creature.

After a week she was again anxious, as the hole had remained the same size and not got any bigger.  She was worried that the butterfly may be in distress and struggling, so she decided to get a pair of tweezers and pull away a small bit of the cocoon.

Eventually the butterfly did break out of the cocoon, but sadly, not long after it did break out, it died.  The young woman was really upset about this and decided to go and speak to an expert, to see why the butterfly hadn’t survived.  She was told by the expert, that a butterfly gains its strength from breaking out of the cocoon.  As it struggles and fights its way out, it’s blood starts pumping and adrenalin and it begins to gain strength.  Sadly her kindness and care and concern got in the way and stopped the butterfly from gaining the strength it needed to survive.

What do we do if someone we love is struggling, making poor choices and we see someone dis-empower them and take away their strength to survive?  What do we do if someone in addiction tries to put us on guilt trips to try to turn us into enablers?  What do we do when all we want is to see our loved ones thriving but we feel so powerless watching the opposite?  We can be judged harshly by others, for practising tough love, so it is important to fully understand why and how this can really help someone who is caught up in negative behaviours.  That will make it easier for you to dismiss any resistance, judgements or criticism.

When there is dysfunction, often there will be blame directed anywhere and everywhere. This can act as a way to stay in denial and avoid facing any difficult issues head on.

Tough love is not easy, but it can make a huge difference in helping people.  If someone is caught up in negative behaviours, detach with love.  They are free to choose their path, how can it help if you jog alongside them in chaos?  They may play victim, or blame or try to provoke guilt, anything to take the focus off them and their negative behaviours.

I have witnessed people caught up in addiction, start to make positive changes once their loved ones set firm boundaries, break free from denial and refuse to collude and enable. Once loved ones began to practise a tougher love, positive changes can start happening all round.

Pointing out negative behaviours will not necessarily always help, most likely you will face defence mechanisms and denial.  Love is not colluding in helping someone self destruct. Love is not making it easy for someone to stay in addiction, by covering up for them or helping them out. Love is not taking away a persons self-esteem and skills to survive.  Love is not allowing someone to engage in behaviours that could (in extreme cases) kill them, by helping them avoid looking at what they are doing and joining them in finger-pointing and placing the blame elsewhere and distracting from the real issues.

Love is allowing loved ones to make their own choices, and learning to deal with the hurt if they make bad choices and being there waiting to see if there is a way you can help them help themselves.  Love is empowering those we care about to learn how to fend for themselves, with your commitment to be there by their side supporting, but not dis-empowering.  Love is helping loved ones to be able to take responsibility for themselves and their own choices, good and bad.  Love is respecting the free will and choices another makes, without forcing on them what you think is best, but offering your opinion if they want it.  Love is not controlling another, it is allowing space for people to be who they are and to learn from their mistakes and therefore grow.  Love is not placing your insecurities on another.  Love is healthy and freely given and accepting and consistent.

The following link is a great, direct description of empowering and enabling:


Angela Neild

Manchester Counselling.





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