Are you wondering if you might be enabling someone?
An enabler is someone who habitually contributes – sometimes without realizing it – to the continuation of someone else’s negative behavior.
An enabler colludes, often unconsciously, to shield another person from experiencing full consequences.
In doing so, the enabler is worsening the situation – rather than helping the other person in need to grow, learn, and heal from mistakes.
Imagine if your life was filled with healthier relationships!
Below are simple, real-life explanations of what enabling and codependency are – and solutions for ending those negative patterns so that you can better thrive in life.
Why Consequences Are a Key Part of Human Development
Consequences are the events or outcomes that follow a particular behavior.
Consequences play a crucial role in understanding and modifying human behavior because they reinforce or discourage a specific behavior in the future.
The importance of consequences lies in their ability to shape and influence conduct:
- Behaviors followed by positive consequences (reinforcement) are more likely to be repeated.
- While behaviors followed by negative consequences (punishment) are less likely to be repeated.
A person who is enabling – intentionally or not – another person’s dysfunctional choices is, therefore, likely interfering with the natural feedback loop that consequences normally provide.
In this sense, enabling can be a bit complex and difficult to identify.
For example, you might be trying to help someone, and in the short term, you are. But in the long term, you might be making matters worse for the person.
Here are three common examples of enabling:
Providing excessive financial support: When a family member or loved one consistently bails someone out financially, it can enable irresponsible spending habits, lack of financial accountability, or even substance abuse:
- For instance, a parent who consistently pays their adult child’s bills or covers their debts may unintentionally reinforce their child’s inability to manage finances responsibly or seek gainful employment.
Making excuses or minimizing consequences: Sometimes, individuals try to protect their loved ones from facing the full consequences of their actions by making excuses or downplaying the severity of their behaviors.
- For example, a spouse who consistently covers up or minimizes their partner’s alcohol abuse or domestic violence incidents may inadvertently enable the continuation of those harmful behaviors by shielding them from the natural consequences.
Taking over responsibilities: In an attempt to help, some individuals may take on too many responsibilities or tasks for someone struggling, ultimately enabling their learned helplessness or lack of motivation.
- For instance, a parent who consistently completes their child’s homework assignments or chores may unintentionally reinforce the child’s dependence and inability to take responsibility for their own obligations.
In all these situations, the well-intentioned individual may believe they are being supportive, but in reality, they are enabling the continuation of poor choices or maladaptive behaviors by shielding the person from experiencing the natural consequences of their actions.
This can ultimately reinforce or prolong the undesirable behaviors, making it more difficult for the individual to develop self-accountability, responsibility, and motivation to change.
“Managing and controlling behaviors, which include caretaking and enabling, violate others’ boundaries. Managing someone’s life shows disrespect. It sends the message that the person is incompetent and needs your help.”–Darlene Lancer, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a Juris Doctor degree
It’s crucial for friends and loved ones to strike a balance:
- On the one hand, providing support.
- On the other hand, encouraging individuals to take responsibility for their actions and decisions.
Setting healthy boundaries, allowing natural consequences to occur, and promoting self-reliance can be more beneficial in the long run, although it may be challenging in the short term.
Below, I provide helpful tips on identifying enabling behavior and solutions for stopping it.
Are You Enabling Someone? How to Break Free & Support Change
Identifying enabling behavior can be difficult, as it often involves subtle actions that seem helpful on the surface.
Here are some signs that you may be engaging in enabling behavior:
- You make excuses for someone’s negative behavior.
- You lie to yourself about the harmful consequences of their actions.
- You avoid conflict and difficult conversations to maintain the relationship.
The Worst Kinds of Lies Are the Lies We Tell Ourselves
Self-deception can often be more harmful than lying to others.
The stories you might tell yourself to justify the unfortunate personality patterns of another person can lead you down a path in which you are no longer serving the greater good.
Self-deception can take many forms, such as:
- denying your own flaws,
- denying the mistakes of others,
- ignoring the negative impact of your actions on others,
- or rationalizing the questionable behavior of others.
These lies can be so subtle and pervasive that you might fail to recognize them consciously, and they can – over time – become deeply ingrained.
Common Examples of Concealed Enabling
In developed countries today, there is a mental health epidemic:
- Mood disorders are extremely common at the moment, with many people feeling intermittently depressed or anxious.
- However, there is also a dramatic increase in personality disorders.
- People with personality disorders are often habitually self-absorbed (narcissism) or habitually angry (borderline).
Here are two critical points you need to know about the rise in personality disorders:
- Many people suffering from these conditions are high-functioning and covert. In other words, they can hold down jobs and throw dinner parties.
- If you look at any high-functioning narcissist or borderline, they almost always are surrounded by one or more enablers who collude with and normalize that behavior.
Parable of the Biting Dog
An interesting way to look at the dynamic of enabling is to consider the parable of the biting dog.
Dog lovers today often tell you that if an off-leash dog runs up and bites someone, the real fault lies with the dog owner and not the dog.
After all, the dog is just doing what dogs often do when they feel anxious.
The dog owner enabled the bad behavior by not setting clear boundaries with the dog and having it out in public off-leash.
Similarly, it can be interesting to consider which of the two does more harm to the greater good, the narcissist or the people surrounding the narcissist who normalizes the unhealthy behavior.
The Courage to See Things Clearly
The danger of self-deception is that it can prevent you from confronting reality.
The price tags for this might not seem obvious at first, but down the road, you might get a clearer picture of the astronomical cost of this denial.
Self-deception can mess with you so badly because it can create a reinforcement feedback loop.
When you tell yourself a lie repeatedly, you might begin to believe it as absolute truth – and this can lead to a further distortion of your perceptions and judgments until you become almost entirely blind to the negative consequences.
Stop Enabling Toxic Behaviors and Break Those Codependency Cycles
Codependency is a pattern of behavior and thoughts in which your sense of worth and identity is being derived from your ability to gain acceptance or approval from others.
This behavior pattern is not beneficial because it often manifests in one-sided, emotionally destructive relationships in which you neglect your own needs and desires to prioritize and cater to the demands of your partner, friend, or loved one.
This excessive reliance on others for validation and self-esteem can lead to a loss of personal identity, poor boundaries, and a perpetual cycle of enabling harmful behaviors in an attempt to maintain the relationship at any cost.
Codependency is a deeply ingrained condition that requires professional help and a commitment to personal growth to break free from its negative impacts.
Peeling back the layers of the truth onion can be anxiety-producing.
And no one likes anxiety.
Anxiety presents the temptation to self-medicate, so it can often be wise to undertake self-exploration and personal growth under a counselor or therapist’s safe and sober guidance.
Because typically, a therapist will move at the pace of self-discovery that is uniquely right for you.
How Did You Get Pulled into the Orbit of a Narcissist?
You might be wondering how you managed to remain so inside the orbit of someone challenged with narcissism, borderline, or addiction.
Well, it can happen to anyone.
People with psychic wounds are often creative and charismatic. To spend time with someone like this can be interesting and eventful. Often, people such as this are good storytellers and can be a lot of fun. And, of course, if you happen to be related to them, there is already an established connection that would be awkward to break.
One interesting research study on the topic of individuals who pull focus and have to be the center of attention is a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2012 by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Amsterdam (see sources below this article).
The study investigated the underlying motivations and emotional experiences of attention-seeking people.
The researchers conducted two studies, one involving self-reports and another involving behavioral observations, to explore the relationship between attention-seeking behavior, narcissism, and emotional regulation.
The results of the studies suggested that attention-seeking behavior is associated with high levels of grandiose narcissism, which involves a belief in one’s own superiority and entitlement to special treatment.
Interestingly, the study also found that individuals who engage in attention-seeking behavior tend to be more successful in achieving their goals, as they can draw attention to themselves and their achievements.
However, this success may cost their interpersonal relationships, as others perceive attention-seeking behavior as annoying or self-centered.
This study highlights the complex interplay between personality traits, emotional experiences, and attention-seeking behavior. It suggests that attention-seeking behavior may be driven by a need for validation and a desire to compensate for negative emotions and may have both beneficial and negative consequences for individuals’ lives.
Sometimes, It’s Good to Be an Enabler
Enabling isn’t always bad.
For example, senior citizens can respond positively when supported. The research study “Enabling and Disabling Behaviors in the Social Environment and Their Association with Physical Activity Among Older People,” published in BMC Public Health, investigates the impact of social behaviors on physical activity among older individuals.
The study found that enabling behaviors within one’s social environment significantly increases the likelihood of older adults being physically active, while disabling behaviors have the opposite effect.
These behaviors can range from informational influence, such as advising on the benefits of walking, to practical support, like actually accompanying someone on a walk.
This suggests that interventions aimed at increasing physical activity among older adults should consider involving family members and friends to foster an environment that supports active aging through actual enabling behaviors.
Another common example of positive enabling is the intervention.
An intervention is when a group of concerned people does a surprise meet-up with an addict to confront the other person on their habit patterns and to express concern.
Though interventions are, in essence, a group of people deliberately trying to interfere in the life of another, the circumstances are often warranted because the addict may be on the path to a lethal overdose or to destroy their life irreparably.
So, every situation is different, and therefore, it’s hard to make generalizations about when enabling is good and when it is bad.
A mental health therapist can be helpful in many situations to help a person obtain a professional and objective opinion on when enabling is beneficial and when it isn’t.
How to Stop Enabling
If you have identified that you are engaging in enabling behavior, it’s vital to take action to address the situation. Here are some steps you can take:
Take Responsibility: Acknowledge that your behavior is enabling and accept responsibility for your actions.
Set Boundaries: Establish clear boundaries with the person you are enabling. Let them know that you will no longer enable their behavior and that they must take responsibility for their actions.
Seek Support: Reach out to friends, family members, or a therapist for support and guidance. Talking with others can help you stay accountable and avoid slipping back into old patterns.
Encourage Accountability: Hold the person you are enabling accountable for their actions. Allow them to experience the natural consequences of their behavior and encourage them to seek help if necessary.
Take Care of Yourself: It’s essential to prioritize your own needs and well-being. Engage in self-care activities, set boundaries, and seek support as needed.
Conclusion on The Perils of Enabling
Enabling is an unconscious pattern of behavior that helps individuals continue to act poorly by shielding them from the consequences of their actions.
In a sense, the enabler normalizes the other person’s negative habits by making them seem less impactful or harmful than they really are.
Enabling behavior can be seen in many different contexts:
- For example, a parent who constantly bails out an offspring from financial troubles.
- Or, conversely, an adult child who makes excuses for a parent’s toxic behavior.
- Or, an adult who subliminally encourages a spouse’s heavy drinking.
Though there are many contexts for what an enabler can look like, enabling behavior is almost always done with the best intentions.
Many enablers believe they’re helping the person in need by providing support.
However, enabling behavior often worsens the problem in the long term.
An enabler unintentionally prevents a person from taking responsibility for their actions and making changes that could lead to healing and recovery.
One advantage to being an enabler is that by focusing on providing support for someone else, you distract yourself from whatever it is about your own life that needs tending.
In that sense, being an enabler cannot only negatively impact the development of the person you are enabling, but it can also impact your own psychological development.
In conclusion, enabling behavior is a pattern that can harm both the enabler and the person being enabled.
By taking responsibility for your actions and setting clear boundaries, you can break free from enabling behavior and encourage those you care about to take responsibility for their own actions.
Remember, taking care of yourself is crucial to help others effectively.
Additional Resources on Enabling:
Codependency and 14 Tips for Letting Go. Lancer, Darlene. – https://whatiscodependency.com/
Relationship between Attention-Seeking Behavior and Narcissism – Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2012). “The Dark Triad of Personality,” Journal of Research in Personality, 36(6), 556-563.
Oishi, S., Diener, E., Lucas, R. E., & Suh, E. M. (1999). Cross-cultural variations in predictors of life satisfaction: Perspectives from needs and values. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(8), 980-990.
On Empathy and Boundaries – Jade Wu Ph.D. – https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-savvy-psychologist/202007/how-recognize-and-correct-enabling-behavior
What is Emotional Regulation? https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00877/full – Research Study on Emotional Regulation in Everyday Life