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Enabling: It’s not just for families

July 16, 2013
by William D. Anderson, Jr., LCSW, MSW
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Over the last eight years, I have offered education, support and training to families struggling with addiction via the 1-Day Family Seminar at MARR, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Atlanta. In my presentation, family members are exposed to ways in which they enable, rescue and ultimately try to control their addicted loved ones. The more I delivered this lecture, however, the more I realized that counselors in the addiction field—myself included—often exhibit the very same behaviors they encourage families to stop, change or think about.

As therapists, we play a vital role in an addict’s recovery. Sometimes (and unintentionally) professionals try to control addicts rather than provide support and consistent structure. Consequently, the addictive pattern that has been well-established in the family environment is merely exacerbated.

Awareness is the key to change. The professional must identify the fine line between helping/supporting and enabling/controlling.

Helper vs. enabler

Early in my career, I learned about the True Colors personality assessment. Founded by Don Lowry in 1979, this test is comprised of four colors—orange, gold, green and blue—that represent personality types. Everyone’s personality incorporates a unique combination of all four colors, with the dominant two colors illustrating the essence of an individual’s personality.

Those who possess green personality types are logical, curious and independent thinkers; gold personality types are organized, responsible and practical; orange personality types are spontaneous, action-oriented and opportunistic; and blue personality types are compassionate, relationship-oriented and loyal. I believe blue is the dominant color among professionals in the addiction treatment field. We are helpers by nature—we want to offer support to those in need.

Yet while it is our desire to help clients and their families, counselors often muddy the waters between helping and enabling. Helping is doing something for someone that he/she is not capable of doing alone. Enabling, on the other hand, is doing for someone the things he/she could—and should—be doing independently. Simply, enabling creates an atmosphere in which the addict can comfortably continue unacceptable behaviors.

Clients need realistic expectations. As therapists, we sometimes underestimate or overestimate what our clients are capable of doing. They come to us for help with their addiction and, out of a sincere desire to see them succeed, we tend to jump in prematurely. Clients need to be stretched in order to grow. Often, growth comes when they have the time and space to sit in the struggle—the uncomfortable and painful feelings.

When we rush a client through a process that he/she could have experienced on his/her own, we become enablers. We become the parent, the child, the sibling, the spouse or the friend who desperately wants the addict to recover without having to endure much pain.

Counselors and enabling behavior

When a child learns how to ride a bike, the loving parent must first take off the training wheels and let go of the seat. Sure, it may mean skinned knees and other scrapes and bruises, but it’s a beautiful life lesson of letting go and giving up control. This milestone requires some faith from the parent and courage from the child—much like recovery from addiction. Just as family members are encouraged to let go and trust the process, therapists are expected to do the same.

Examples of enabling behavior include figuring out the needs and desires of the addict, resolving the addict’s problems without being asked, making excuses for the addict, and expecting too little from the addict. Why do counselors engage in this type of behavior? I do not believe it’s out of malicious intent. Instead, I think it is the result of their own innocence, uncertainty, guilt, pride, fear or inherent need to control the situation.

The addiction treatment field has made significant progress over the last several decades. We’ve gone from an aggressive, confrontational style of therapy to a gentler, more emotionally driven approach. In so doing, however, therapists often adopt the mindset of, “I’ll take the client where I think he/she ought to go and, in fact, I’ll move him/her there without a lot of work.” This method of rescuing and controlling is counterproductive and can be quite detrimental to the addict’s recovery.

Addicts and manipulative behavior

Whether they realize it or not, addicts invite enabling behavior into their lives. It’s all they know. To keep the disease alive, they must lie, cheat, steal and play the role of victim. They are master manipulators. Nevertheless, this behavior is not so much deliberate as it is learned. Addicts have gotten away with this way of life for so long that it’s deeply rooted in their family system.

As counselors, we can fall prey to this manipulative behavior without even realizing it. We treat the client as a helpless victim by underestimating his/her capabilities (“he/she can’t, therefore I must help”). But in reality, the client is influencing how we respond.

Because these types of behaviors are all that addicts have ever known, it takes time to change them. Long-term addiction treatment is not only ideal for the addict, but for the therapist as well. It provides both individuals ample time to work on core issues and experience recovery together.

Rescuing and controlling