When Does Helping Become Enabling?

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor who assists those struggling with substance abuse, gambling, gaming, and internet addiction.

Are you trying to help someone, but it is only enabling the problem to continue? This is a common question among persons trying to help someone with an addiction, but it also applies to other areas of life.

This article will help you understand whether or not your attempts to help are actually helpful, or if they are based in codependency, enabling boundary violations and perpetuating unwanted behavior.

In simple terms, when does helping become enabling?

Helping becomes enabling when you diminish someone else’s responsibility by not allowing them to experience the natural consequences of their behavior. 

Helping allows someone to gain further responsibility, whereas enabling takes away pain in the short-term, making a problem worse in the long term.

Let’s take a deeper dive into this distinction.

The Difference Between Helping and Enabling

It is important to emphasize the similarity between the definition of addiction and the definition of enabling.

Addiction is a behavior resulting in short-term relief at a long term-cost. Enabling consists of the same process.

Consider the tiger metaphor I shared in my article on Why Responsibility is So Important:

Imagine you invited a tiger cub into your home. It is cute, cuddly, and harmless. You notice it begins to purr loudly, and the only way you can make it stop is to feed it red meat. Over the months and years, you keep doing this, but the tiger is now several hundred pounds, requiring whole sides of beef. Rather than a cute purr, the tiger roars ferociously for its meat. You are terrified, so you keep giving him the meat so he will leave you alone. The more you feed it, the larger it gets, and the more trapped you become.

Helping the tiger stay fed keeps it quiet in the short-term, but you soon realize you’re only enabling its growth. Eventually, you’re trapped with a huge roaring tiger, feeling like you have no choice but to “help” it.

Are you really “helping” the tiger? On one level, it looks helpful, but is this “helping” really about the tiger? Or is it about you.

Are you feeding the tiger out of genuine compassion? Or are you feeding the tiger based on your own fears and insecurities?

Are there safe boundaries between you and the tiger? Or are there no boundaries, leaving you at the mercy of its appetite?

Are you taking care of your own needs? Or is your eye always on the tiger, anticipating its next move?

If the tiger becoming dependant on you for food? Or are you allowing it to develop long-term independence in the wild?

As you have probably noticed by now, this is not really about tigers; it is about your relationship to other people who require your help.

Helping comes from a place of firm healthy boundaries, encouraging the other person to take further responsibility, allowing for long-term growth.

Enabling comes from a place of weak personal boundaries, encouraging the other person to continue sidestepping responsibility, preventing long-term growth.

Going beyond metaphor and theory, let’s take a look at what helping and enabling look like in the real world.

Enabling Someone With an Addiction

Enabling looks different in each circumstance, but common scenarios include the following:

  • Lending money to someone with a gambling issue
  • Making excuses for a partner who neglects family obligations due to substance use
  • Treating repeated hangovers as merely being “sick”
  • Taking on a partners portion of family obligations to keep everything together
  • Paying for an adult son or daughter’s food and living expenses, when their funds are going to a substance or addictive behavior
  • Turning a blind eye to red flags to avoid conflict
  • Putting the needs of others before your own, causing severe self-neglect and potential loss of one’s own self-identity
  • Attempting to gain self-esteem and respect through continually doing things for others or trying to be “the hero”
  • Gradually building an underlying resentment toward persons one is trying to “help”
  • Making empty threats after repeated boundary violations
  • Feeling an underlying sense of needing to be needed, attempting to fill the void through several of the “helping” behaviors listed above

Enabling can look like helping, on the surface, but as you can see, there is a pattern in this list.

Enabling means doing things for someone when they can do it for themselves. This diminishes their responsibility due to the lack of natural consequences, leading to continued violations.

Enabling comes from a place of “good intentions” without healthy boundaries. At the extreme end, codependency keeps people trapped in destructive relationships due to their underlying unhealthy need to feel needed due to low self-esteem.

To learn more about healthy and unhealthy versions of this universal human need to be needed, check out my popular article: The Need to Be Needed.

Helping Someone With an Addiction

Helping consists of doing things someone can not do for themselves, leading to long-term growth and responsibility. Helping behaviors consist of the following:

  • Listening to someone’s experience without judgment and assumptions
  • Not overlooking red flags and holding someone accountable for their actions
  • Setting clear and firm boundaries regarding responsibilities and expectations
  • Collaborating on potential treatment options
  • Seeking your own form of support
  • Engaging in effective communication

To learn more about effective communication, check out my in-depth article: The Ultimate Guide to Helping Someone Change.

Helping is compassionate, not manipulative. It comes from a place of genuine giving rather than an attempt to receive external validation. Although it is giving, it comes from a place of firm personal boundaries, and one’s own needs are not being compromised in the process.

Helping is like a cast for a broken arm. It allows the bone to repair itself, simply by being there. Like a cast, helping becomes enabling when the cast is on too long. Rather than giving strength, the cast is now making the arm weaker as muscle tissue becomes depleted since it does not need to hold itself up.

Conclusion

Letting other people learn to hold themselves up is one of the greatest gifts we can give them. Enabling keeps a person dependent on you. Although enabling fuels underlying resentment in the “helper,” both parties in a codependent relationship are dependent on one another. The helper needs the person to stay in need of help to artificially fulfill their need to be needed.

Helping is collaborative and compassionate, but also careful. It comes from a place of genuine giving, while maintaining personal boundaries. It helps the other person build the strength to help themselves, fueling a sense of purpose, responsibility, and motivation for long-term change.

If you are interested in learning more about what causes people to change, I’ve written about the psychology of motivation in my article titled, What Causes People to Change?

If you’re frustrated, trying to help someone who refuses to change, that article explains why, giving a detailed account of what contributes to real lasting change.

Looking for General Support?

BetterHelp.com provides online counseling. Check out their site here to see if their services are right for you Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily if you don’t feel supported.

Online-therapy.com is currently offering free support for persons looking to optimize their mental toolbox. Check out their free worksheets based on the evidence-based practice of Cognitive-behavioral Therapy (CBT).

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help and Online-therapy.com, I may receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

To find local support, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors and therapists are not consistent. Also, one of the most important factors in successful treatment is the quality of the therapeutic relationship. If you are not feeling supported, it is important to seek out another practitioner.

Curious if online therapy works? I wrote an article here, looking at the evidence.

If you’re just bored and looking for a new hobby, check out Skillshare. with thousands of classes to choose from, this online community allows you to gain new skills, network with peers, and find new opportunities. Check out their free trial here.

*As an affiliate partner, I may receive a commission if you sign up for a free trial. 


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6 Comments

  1. dwordslayer

    Thank you for this. Think it can be applied to parent / child relationships. Greatly appreciate🌴🌴🌴

    Reply
    • Steve Rose

      Can for sure apply to that as well, even when addiction is not involved!

      Reply
  2. Paul Valentine

    Fantastic stuff Dr Rose.
    Well done, keep up your great work in increasing awareness on silent but very important issues facing us humans
    Thank you
    Paul e Valentine

    Reply
  3. taurusingemini

    Helping becomes enabling, when we operate under the savior complex, believing we are able, have the capabilities, to change someone else’s behavior, and we don’t realize that our beliefs about helping that certain someone, is actually, what the other individual is, feeding off of, and we get, sucked, into, that, vicious cycle, until we struggle, too hard to break free, but we can’t, because, we are now, trapped…

    Reply
    • Steve Rose

      Exactly! Thanks for the comment!

      Reply

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