What is the difference between helping someone and enabling them?

Helping is doing for someone what they cannot do for themselves. It might include caring for a sick person, going to the store for an elderly neighbor, or driving someone who has no transportation to an AA meeting.

When we do something for someone that they could and should — or perhaps should not — be doing for themselves, we are enabling. Enabling is anything that helps someone avoid the consequences of their own unacceptable behavior.  Examples would be paying an addict’s rent so that she will have a place to stay, buying liquor for an alcoholic to keep him off the streets, buying ice cream for an overweight diabetic, or remaining silent about suspected child abuse because “it’s none of my business.”

Enabling is the dark side of helping. Small children, the elderly and the sick need some degree of caretaking. Healthy, reasonably mature people — and those who are unhealthy because of their own unwise choices — do not. They may need assistance, but that is quite different from relieving them of the responsibility for their own lives. There is a huge difference between arranging an intervention to get someone into detox or rehab, and welcoming them back with open arms after they leave against professional advice.

Enabling can also involve helping someone to continue unacceptable and/or irresponsible behavior: making excuses for a drunken spouse’s absence at family gatherings; writing an excuse for a child because she was up until 3:00 AM playing video games and is too sleepy to function at school, and so forth. These and similar actions encourage further harmful behavior by making it easier for the person to go on doing as they please. People who do not have to face the results of their actions have no reason to change the way they live their lives.

These principles apply to situations besides addiction: the over-protective mother who keeps her children from learning to deal with life on their own, the boss who puts up with sub-standard work in order to seem like a nice guy, the teacher who makes excuses for students’ poor achievement instead of demanding that they perform at their best — all of these are enablers.

Enabling prevents people from growing — from learning to do the next right thing. It can even prevent the growth, and damage the health, of the enabler. A father who constantly tries to control the behavior of an addicted child will sooner or later see the effects on his own social and emotional growth. Putting up with emotional abuse from a spouse, or drinking with an alcoholic to “keep him company,” will eventually lead to stress-related disorders and diseases. Those folks often die before their addicts. That degree of enabling is called codependency, and in many ways it qualifies as an addiction in its own right.

The best rule of thumb about enabling is common sense: if what you are doing is preventing someone from facing the consequences of their own actions and protecting them from pressure to change for the better, it is enabling. Even if it seems like a kindness, if it makes it easier for them to keep doing what they’re doing, it is enabling. Stick with that rule, and you won’t go far wrong.

Copyright 2011 Sunrise Detoxification Center LLC