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Break the Cycle! How to Recognize and Break Free from Enabling Patterns

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 person in need to grow, learn, and heal from mistakes.

Below, I provide helpful tips on identifying enabling behavior and solutions for stopping it.

What 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.

How to Know Whether You Are Enabling

Identifying enabling behavior can be difficult, as it often involves subtle actions that seem helpful on the surface.

woman in denial of being enabling

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:

  1. Many people suffering from these conditions are high-functioning and covert. In other words, they can hold down jobs and throw dinner parties.
  2. 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.

parable of the see-no-evil monkey, an enabler who will not see negative impact of harmful behavior
Parable of the “see no evil” monkey symbolizes the act of turning a blind eye to negative behavior. It shines light on the human tendency to not see what we don’t want to see.

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.

Ultimately, you create positive change and growth in yourself and your relationships by acknowledging the truth.


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.

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.

Additionally, attention-seeking behavior was associated with poor emotional regulation, including high levels of negative emotions such as anxiety, shame, and anger.

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.

How to Stop Enabling

If you have identified that you are engaging in enabling behavior, it is 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 is essential to prioritize your own needs and well-being. Engage in self-care activities, set boundaries, and seek support as needed.

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:

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.

What is Emotional Regulation? https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00877/full – Research Study on Emotional Regulation in Everyday Life