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When Helping is Hindering - Understanding Enabling

"When the dance between the addicted person and their loved one becomes chronically anxious, the ‘help’ tends towards coercion and control, and the ‘love’ becomes entangled with an obfuscating level of fear about what could unfold".

Enabling is the word most often used to describe the behaviours of …

- being over-responsible in another person’s life whilst they are under-responsible.

- perceiving a loved one to be less capable than ourselves and doing for them what they are capable of doing for themselves.

- protecting our loved one from the natural consequences of their own behaviour and absorbing these consequences for them.

- engaging in a level of care or involvement in the person’s life and problems that is not age-appropriate, or that is out of alignment with the person’s reality needs.

When working with alcohol and drug-addicted people, and the families who desperately try to help them, I prefer not to diagnose family members as ‘enablers’. In the wider rehab industry, the concept of enabling has come to have a pathologizing flavor that seems to subtly dishonor the exquisite relationship sensitivities that exist between people who are important to each other, and the powerful impulses we have wired into us as social mammals to move into protecting when we perceive a threat to the wellbeing or life of someone close to us. We are wired up to be powerfully stirred and want to do something if we see, or even sense, that a member of our tribe is in danger. When we see our addicted loved one under threat, or even just perceive a threat, hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary biology are at play in our responses. Does it make sense to pathologise that?

I much prefer the concept of participating. In families and other relationship systems where the amount of stress/pressure/anxiety has exceeded both the individual’s and the family’s capacity to cope, and the system has been thrown into some level of disequilibrium, people are prone to predictable anxiety-driven responses: losing functioning, becoming under-responsible and descending into helplessness, despair and addiction is one response; their counterpoint: over-functioning, over-responsibility, over-protectiveness, control and rigidity is another. Who ends up in what role is not so much determined by the innate character traits or level of functioning each person possesses, but by a relationship process that everyone participates in. Neither person is ‘doing this’ to the other. One is not the victim of the other. Both are mutual participants.

For the helper, participation in their loved one’s addiction is a systemic relationship phenomenon, not a personality trait, so labelling one’s self ‘an enabler’ misses the boat and can have the unintended consequence of actually fixing the behaviour more inside of us, or inside our self-concept. When I hear people say “I’m an enabler”, what I tend to think is…”No, you are a person who is embedded in a relationship system under stress, and at this time, under this amount of pressure, in relationship with this particular person/group of people, you have attempted to manage the disequilibrium of that by engaging in a particular cluster of behaviours”…

- Becoming preoccupied with the safety or wellbeing of another.

- Trying to seize control of the uncontrollable (another’s alcoholism or addiction).

- Drawing strength from the fantasy of being more powerful than you actually are and the belief that you could save people from themselves if you tried hard enough.

- Borrowing a sense of capability and value from doing too much for someone or becoming too important for someone else.

These are all very human responses to the perception of threat. Not pathology, just humanity. That said, when the dance between the addicted person and their loved one becomes chronically anxious, the ‘help’ tends towards coercion and control, and the ‘love’ becomes entangled with an obfuscating level of fear about what could unfold. The helper takes over and assumes so much responsibility for the addicted person that they unwittingly invite a surrendering of the addicted person’s autonomy, a diminished sense of self, and a compromised sense of being capable of managing their own life. It is endlessly fascinating for me to see the degree of helplessness and diminished functioning a person can slump into as the recipient of so much ‘love’ and ‘help’.

For those of us who are helpers, the starting point for change is being able to see this dance, …to be able to open our eyes to our own humanness… our fears, our terror, our desperate efforts to feel safe and our intense need to know that our loved ones are safe and well. If we can refrain from diagnosing and pathologizing ourselves, and just mindfully watch our humanity unfolding, we can take a really good look at our own participation in our loved one’s alcoholism and addiction, and work towards dancing differently. If one person changes their part in the dance, the dance ceases to be the same dance, and new possibilities emerge for the both the addicted person and their family.

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