Episode 25

Enabling vs. Helping

January 28th, 2022

Announcer: Welcome to Addiction and the Family, “Episode 25: Enabling vs. Helping.”

Casey Arrillaga: How has addiction affected your family?

Female Speaker: It robbed me of my father.

Female Speaker: Addiction's affected my family in absolutely every way.

Male Speaker: It has caused a lot of turmoil.

Female Speaker: It goes back to what I understand is at least three generations.

Female Speaker: It robbed my daughter of her mother. It robbed my mother of her daughter.

Female Speaker: Addiction has made our family quite challenging.

Male Speaker: Addiction has affected my family tremendously.

Male Speaker: It's affected my relationship with my sister where I wouldn't – I'd go for months without talking to her. It's a very difficult thing for everybody involved. It doesn't just affect the one individual. It's a disease that affects the whole family.

Male Speaker: Addiction is spread not only genetically through some of my relatives and I assume ancestors.

Female Speaker: It's generational.

Female Speaker: I think of him every day.

Casey Arrillaga: Welcome to Addiction and the Family, a podcast by and for family members of anyone with an addiction. My name is Casey Arrillaga, and I'm a clinical social worker and addiction counselor at both Windmill Wellness Ranch and InMindOut Emotional Wellness Centers. I’m the author of Realistic Hope: The Family Survival Guide for Facing Alcoholism and Other Addictions.

Kira Arrillaga: I’m Kira Arrillaga, addiction counselor intern and recovery coach at Windmill. Casey and I were in our addictions together for over ten years and have now been in recovery together for almost twice that long.

Casey Arrillaga: I've led hundreds of family workshops, but just as important is that Kira and I have lived the experience of being family to addiction as both children and adults.

Kira Arrillaga: Join us as we offer experience, strength, and realistic hope about how you and your family can find recovery together.

In this episode, we’ll look at the differences between helping and enabling and what you can do to develop a less enabling and more helpful mindset. For those who are interested, this episode is based heavily on the chapter on enabling versus helping in Casey’s book Realistic Hope. The chapter and the episode explore underlying assumptions that lead to unhealthy enabling and how to challenge these, how Shakespeare can help you move from enabling to helping, and provide some questions you can ask yourself in order to see if you are about to enable someone or help them. First, a word from one of our sponsors.

Casey Arrillaga: Welcome back. A question that I often hear from family members is, how can I tell if I’m enabling or helping? When I first started working with families, I thought there might be a list of behaviors that were enabling and that my job would be to give families that list and help them to avoid those behaviors. As I grew in my understanding of recovery, I came to a different conclusion. I saw that enabling and helping are not two different categories of behavior but are actually two different mindsets. If someone can shift their mindset, their behavior will likely change on its own rather than require them to constantly check an internal or external list of right or wrong actions. Some actions might fall under the category of enabling with one mindset while being helping in another.

Kira Arrillaga: One of the major differences between a helpful mindset and an enabling mindset is that a helpful mindset is based on sticking to your values and being honest with yourself whereas an enabling mindset is based in fear. One great way to keep yourself on track for a helpful mindset is to remember the popular recovery slogan “to thine own self be true.” This Shakespeare quote nicely sums up two ideas. In modern English, it implies that we must be true to our values and who we are. In the original Elizabethan English, it would mean to be honest with yourself. As we’ll see throughout this episode, living by these two concepts can make all the difference.

What makes for an enabling mindset? The underlying assumptions, one assumption is that you can keep someone else from their addiction or cause them to get worse. Another is that, if you challenge the addiction, it will lead to conflict that you can’t withstand. A third is that if you love someone, you should go along with what they want. A fourth is that, based on the previous assumptions, you should set your values aside and do things you would not otherwise do.

Casey Arrillaga: You may not see yourself reflected in every one of these assumptions, but I challenge you to look as deeply as you can into your attitudes and behaviors to see if any fit. Get feedback on this from someone who not only knows you but is also insightful and honest. Ideally, talk to a counselor or recovery fellowship member who has experience with such issues because any one of these assumptions by itself can lead to enabling and distress, and a combination of several will almost certainly do so.

The first assumption of enabling, that you can keep someone else from their addiction or cause them to get worse, is one of the most common misconceptions that family members carry. It’s a common theme on our podcast and it bears a quick review because it can underpan a lot of enabling behavior. If you believe you can keep someone from their addiction, then you’re likely to try to do so by doing things that you would not otherwise do. This might include letting them live with you, even though they pay no rent or can’t be counted on to do so consistently. You might put up with messes around the house or behaviors that would get anyone else kicked out, such as being verbally abusive or stealing from you. Another example might be hiring them at the family business, even though they produce so much less than any other employee, are constantly late or absent, or otherwise don’t act like anyone you have there.

All of this might be done with the thought that if you ask them to leave, their addiction will get worse. Perhaps you tell yourself that they just need a change of scenery, that this will keep them from their old patterns. This could lead to planning an elaborate family vacation, one you’re sure will bring the family together, and help them see that there’s a life better than addiction. You may then come to find out that they have their own plans for that trip, seeing it as a chance to indulge in their addiction with fewer of life’s usual responsibilities and pressures. Perhaps you go even farther than planning a vacation and instead think that you can solve their problems by giving them a fresh start in a new city. This may be their idea or yours, but unless they’re already showing concrete actions of a new resolve in their recovery, their problems will likely follow them to their new address or be recreated there from scratch.

If you think you have the power to make their addiction worse, you will naturally try to avoid this. This may take the form of staying silent when you see things you don’t approve of or even taking abuse, all out of fear that speaking up will worsen their addiction. Perhaps they’ve even told you that they would get better if you stopped bothering them about things. This silent enabling can wear at your soul, leave you feeling more and more helpless, reinforce itself by leading to more tolerance of intolerable behavior, and still make no improvement in their condition.

Kira Arrillaga: Likewise, if you believe you have the power to make their addiction worse, then you might be tempted to try to avoid this by giving them money or a place to stay even though you don’t approve of anything they’re doing with these things. You may give them access to your car or give them one of their own, even though you know they may drive under the influence. Perhaps they have made promises that this will never happen again if you give them one more chance. They may even mean it with all their hearts but you may both come to learn that this resolve will crumble if the addiction takes over. You may find that your own resolve crumbles if you tell yourself that you can make their addiction worse by withholding the money, the shelter, or the vehicle. What if you withhold such things from your loved one and their condition does get worse? Does that make it your fault? Tempting or scary as it may be to think so, it is simply not true.

No matter how much you or your loved one believe you’re the cause of their struggles, the reality is that they chart their own course. If that course does not include vigorous recovery efforts, then nothing you do or say will make any real difference. Does this mean you should never offer any money or other assistance? Not necessarily. Instead, use “to thine own self be true” as your guide. Ask yourself if the money or other assistance is guaranteed to be used for something you believe in. For instance, I believe in counseling as an effective way to improve a situation, therefore I have no problem pulling out my wallet to pay for counseling for my daughter. You may feel the same way about bigger things, like helping your loved one go to treatment, or smaller things, such as giving them a ride to a recovery meeting. Remember that you have no obligation to help and that doing these things is not guaranteed to make things better for your loved one, but you can rest your head on the pillow at night knowing that the actions you took matched your values. In the end, that is the best any of us can do. Let’s look at a way this first assumption might lead to enabling and what someone could do instead. We’re going to eavesdrop on a conversation between Cindy and her old friend Bob.

Casey Arrillaga: Hey, Cindy, long time. It’s great to hear from you. You said there’s something you wanted help with?

Kira Arrillaga: Bob, how would you feel about coming along with me while a buy a car for Jim?

Casey Arrillaga: It’s finally time to get your kid that car for graduation, huh? I thought you were going to do that a couple of months ago.

Kira Arrillaga: I did, actually, but he – well, he totaled it. He’s okay, but he needs a new car.

Casey Arrillaga: It must be nice. If I had trouble with a car my parents bought me, there’s no way they would’ve bought me another one.

Kira Arrillaga: I know. Me neither, but you don’t know how Jim has been lately. He hasn’t moved out yet and he hasn’t done much for getting a job. He seems like he’s been drinking more and more. I’m pretty worried, to be honest. He said he’ll turn things around if I just get him another car.

Casey Arrillaga: You got him that car a couple of months ago. Why didn’t he get on top of his game then?

Kira Arrillaga: I don’t know. He always has an excuse. To be honest, he sounds like my dad. He never took responsibility for anything either.

Casey Arrillaga: Your dad was an alcoholic. You said Jim’s drinking a lot, too.

Kira Arrillaga: Don’t remind me. It makes me sick to my stomach to think about it, but he’s only 18. He doesn’t know what he wants in life and that stresses him out. I always hope he’ll drink less when he’s happy so I try to make him happy.

Casey Arrillaga: Does it work?

Kira Arrillaga: Not really, but I have to try something to get him to stop.

Casey Arrillaga: Did you do that with your dad?

Kira Arrillaga: What do you mean?

Casey Arrillaga: Did you try to make him happy so he would drink less.

Kira Arrillaga: Oh, my God, all the time. I was the perfect kid. I got perfect grades. I never complained. I was there when he wanted to see me and I left him alone when he didn’t. None of it made any difference, really. He would still get as drunk as ever.

Casey Arrillaga: Now you’re trying to do the same thing with your son.

Kira Arrillaga: When you put it like that, I guess so.

Casey Arrillaga: Ouch.

Kira Arrillaga: I know. Sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it?

Casey Arrillaga: It sounds like you think it’s up to you.

Kira Arrillaga: What?

Casey Arrillaga: You seem to think that you are going to influence whether he drinks and how much.

Kira Arrillaga: Isn’t that true? If I don’t get him the car, he’ll probably drink more and then it’ll be all my fault.

Casey Arrillaga: What if you accepted that you can’t influence his addiction?

Kira Arrillaga: I hate to think it’s an addiction at all, but I guess you’re right.

Casey Arrillaga: What I learned in my recovery fellowship is that I didn’t cause someone else’s drinking. I can’t control it. I can’t cure it.

Kira Arrillaga: What’s left then?

Casey Arrillaga: I try and love them where they are while keeping my boundaries and following my values.

Kira Arrillaga: That sounds great but also hard.

Casey Arrillaga: That’s why I still go to meetings.

Kira Arrillaga: Tell you what, Bob. How about if you take me to a meeting instead of a car dealership?

Casey Arrillaga: You got it.

Kira Arrillaga: As you can hear, Cindy was stuck in the first assumption, thinking she could make her son drink if she said or did the wrong things or stop him if she played her cards right. When she was able to see that this wasn’t true, it freed her up to make decisions that would benefit her own recovery while avoiding doing something, in this case, buying a second car, that she really didn’t want to do anyway. So far so good. Let’s move on to the second assumption.

Casey Arrillaga: The second assumption on our list is that if you challenge the addiction, it will lead to conflict that you can’t withstand. It’s true that challenging someone’s addiction will likely produce conflict. In fact, all relationships involve some conflict. This doesn’t have to be awful and it doesn’t have to be avoided. Problems come when you assume the conflict is something that you must dodge at all costs or that it will automatically make the situation worse. If you tend to avoid conflict in all relationships, it may be hard to challenge these assumptions, but challenge them you must. If you don’t, then the addiction is likely to win more of the time because your loved one only needs to push that button to get you to back off. This allows them to continue their addiction while you feel helpless to do anything to stand up for yourself, your safety, and your values.

This means that you’ll have to find a way to break through the idea that conflict must be avoided. If this belief seems to apply mostly to your relationship with your loved one who has an addiction, then you may be able to challenge your belief through better information. Some people think they must avoid upsetting their loved one because their loved one seems to act out in their addiction more when upset. This is likely true, but if you’re listening to this podcast, chances are that your loved one acts out in their addiction no matter what mood they’re in. They may even be using conflict and anger as excuses to use more. This shows that conflict is not really why they’re using or acting out, and that if they don’t have that excuse, they will likely find another. In fact, without some kind of conflict or discomfort, your loved one will likely never change. You don’t have to manufacture conflict to get them to change. Remember, you don’t have that power, but you don’t need to avoid it either.

If, on the other hand, you avoid conflict in most relationships, then this is a deeper issue that needs to be addressed, not only for this relationship but also for your overall safety and comfort in life. As mentioned earlier, all relationships include some conflict and disagreement. This does not have to mean fighting or ugliness. It does mean that you either learn to stand up for your safety and your values or you’re likely to live a life of anxiety and being manipulated by people who exploit this avoidance. Fear may push you to choose the avoidance anyway but this fear is probably an exaggerated artifact from childhood. As with many [00:14:16] beliefs, it likely does not fit your adult life as well as you think. Nonetheless, childhood beliefs are not easy to set aside so most people need help to let them go. Such help may come through recovery fellowships or self-help books, but for many people, there’ll be nothing speedier and more effective than individual therapy.

Kira Arrillaga: The third assumption is that if you love someone, you should go along with what they want. This may be rooted in fear of conflict Casey talked about. In this case, you may hope that going along with your loved one’s desire will keep you safe from conflict. It may also come from a belief that your loved one should be happy at all times and that it is up to you to make this happen. At first glance, you may think this doesn’t apply to you, but check your actions. Do you find yourself doing things to appease them if they seem unhappy? Do you feel uncomfortable when they seem uncomfortable? Do you try to correct this by doing things you don’t really want to do? Do you try to talk them into feeling better by agreeing with them out loud even when you don’t agree in your heart? Do you let them talk you into things that don’t match your own values and desired outcomes?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you are falling for the third assumption. If so, ask yourself what makes this seem like a good idea. Perhaps you fear that not going along with what they want will only make things worse. Note that this is based in the first two assumptions because it implies that you can make things better or worse and that you should avoid the natural conflict of not agreeing to do what they want. Perhaps you were raised to think that giving someone whatever they want, whether possessions or permission, is a true expression of love. Whether this is true in most relationships is debatable, but when faced with a loved one in the grip of addiction, it can be deadly. It is arguably a much better expression of love to set and keep healthy boundaries since people with active addiction are prone to wanting things that are patently self-destructive.

I totally did this with Casey when he was in his addictions. Every time he wanted to spend money on something, I thought it was my job to make it happen. When he led someone on or broke their heart, I took his side and told myself the other person was delusional. When he went to strip clubs or watched porn, I pretended it didn’t bother me even though those things were destructive to him as a sex addict. I couldn’t just let him be unhappy or uncomfortable. I had to fix whatever was wrong, whether that was something that needed to be fixed or just a natural consequence of his actions.

Casey Arrillaga: I’m really glad that overtime we moved out of those patterns so that I could learn from the natural consequences of my own actions. Before we talk about the fourth assumption, let’s take just a moment and hear from one of our sponsors.

Welcome back. We talked about the first three assumptions, that you can keep someone else from their addiction or cause them to get worse, that if you challenge the addiction, it will lead to conflict that you can’t withstand, and that if you love someone, you should go along with what they want. This all leads to the fourth assumption, that based on the first three assumptions, you should set your values aside and do things that you would not otherwise do. This is where “to thine own self be true” becomes a potent rule.

If the first three assumptions of unhealthy enabling are followed, then you will likely find yourself doing things that don’t match with your values and standards. This is the heart of unhealthy enabling. Thus to move out of unhealthy enabling and into healthy helping, stick with actions that match your values and who you are as a person. If you can do this, then the first three assumptions won’t cause you anywhere near as much trouble. That might leave you wanting to do things that will not work out well, but you are not going to follow through on those regrettable actions because you will only do things that you believe in.

As mentioned above, one of the best ways to stick to this standard is to be honest with yourself. That starts with being honest about what values are most important to you. We all hold several such values and they sometimes come into conflict with one another, or at least seem to do so. For instance, I may highly value keeping my family out of pain, but also treasure honesty. When confronted with a situation in which I want to save my loved one from pain, I may be tempted to bend or even break the truth and will then have to decide which value will win because they don’t seem compatible in that moment. If I decide honesty is the most important, I can still use my other value to guide me to being honest in the least painful way. If I decide that protecting them from pain is most important, I may use the other value to stay as honest as I can while keeping them from pain. Either way, I will regret my actions least when I make sure I’m honoring my values and acknowledging which are held most dear.

Kira Arrillaga: SMART Recovery has a great tool called the hierarchy of values. The general idea is to clarify what your values really are and to see how well you’ve been doing in honoring those values and then to improve how you’re doing in honoring those values. Here’s an exercise that borrows from the hierarchy of values concept. Write down as many of your values as you can think of. Your list might include examples such as family, financial security, mental and physical health, recreation, friendship, romantic partnership, religion and spirituality, recovery, or career. You can also include some of the character strengths that are most important to you, such as humility, integrity, love of learning, teamwork, or any others that point towards being your best self. Next, rank your top five values. That might look like, one, family, two, religion, three, integrity, four, romantic partnership, and five, career advancement. If you’re in recovery, you might make that your number one value.

Now take a minute to look at how your actions stack up in relation to your top five values when you’re dealing with your addicted loved one. Are you letting them live with you even though it puts a strain on the rest of your family? Does the situation have you so stressed out that your state of mind puts a strain on the family? Have you been as active in your religious practices lately as you once were? Are you allowing yourself to receive the peace and serenity your beliefs have given you in the past? Maybe you’ve resorted to manipulation to control your loved one or been dishonest to protect them from the consequences of their actions. Have you let your situation put a strain on your romantic partnership? Are you paying enough attention to your career?

I think most of us who deal with addiction, whether we’re addicted or co-addicted, have been less than perfect in adhering to our personal values. I know I was. In my addiction, I thought only of myself, not my family, partner, or friends, and I would not have called my job a career at all. My value of integrity became a value of other people thinking I had integrity. As a coaddict, it was pretty much the same. My husband had to be protected from consequences and protecting him was more important to me than my integrity, my job, or any person besides my husband, including myself.

Another way to be honest with yourself is to see where you may fall into old family enabling patterns rather than making decisions based on who you are. Such patterns may include trying to keep everyone happy and swooping in to rescue family members who don’t seem as happy as we think they should be. Unfortunately, this can lead to family members not knowing how to tolerate distress in life without expecting to be rescued from it. Alternatively, they may learn to hide any unhappiness from you in order to keep you from the apparent distress of trying to keep them happy. This can become an endless cycle of caretaking each other and it flies in the face of an open honest relationship.

To get out of this pattern, you may need to be honest in ways that are new for you. For instance, rather than rescuing your loved one, you might think to yourself or even say to them, “I am tempted to fall into my old pattern of trying to keep you happy all the time. Instead, I can be there for you as you go through your natural emotions.” This is being honest with yourself and others about your motivations and temptations while being true to who you are by honoring your willingness to change.

A second family enabling pattern is trying to protect family members from the natural consequences of their actions. This could range from something as simple as cleaning up after someone’s drunken mess all the way to paying endless legal bills to keep them from feeling the sting of their transgressions. Each time you might say, “This is the last time I do this,” or “I hope you’ve learned your lesson.” Unfortunately, the lesson they may learn is that someone will always save them from themselves. No matter how remorseful they may feel, their addiction will whisper in their ear that they can get away with it one more time since it’s always worked out so far.

If you choose to cut off the support, or at least the finances, keep in mind that they may find someone else to keep rescuing them, but at least you can take yourself out of that unhealthy role. Getting out of this family pattern will involve being honest with yourself. To keep rescuing someone over and over relies on fooling yourself into thinking this time will be the one that opens their eyes when the evidence has shown you otherwise. This is understandable the first time your loved one gets into a scrape, but with each repetition, it takes more and more denial on your part, which is to say not being honest with yourself.

Casey Arrillaga: The third family enabling pattern is being willing to debate every decision. This pattern means you allow yourself to get drawn into back-and-forth debates over anything your loved one does not like, especially any of your thoughts or decisions that threaten their addictive status quo. They may argue a point until they find an angle that gets you to back down or they may just debate until you give in out of frustration. Either way, their main objective is to keep you engaged in the argument, not actually to find the best idea.

Thus, your escape from this pattern is not to find better arguments in hopes they will change their mind but instead to side step their entire pattern by not engaging in the debate. You can say, “I’m not interested in arguing about this. I’ve made my point of view clear and it is not up for debate.” Don’t expect them to leave you alone right away. You may have to repeat these words several times. In fact, saying the same thing in response to anything they present is a clear message that they aren’t going to draw you in again. You may have to stick to your guns for a while before they get frustrated and give up. They may resort to other tactics, such as yelling at you, insulting you or calling you names, throwing a tantrum, or storming off to punish you. Stay the course and they’ll eventually come to the conclusion that you’re not going in for the same old trap.

Notice that in all of these family enabling patterns, the solution is to be true to your values and honest with yourself and others. That can be hard, especially if you’re not used to making decisions this way. This is one reason why enlisting help in your recovery is so important. Both trained professionals and people in recovery fellowships can offer perspectives you might not have considered. They can give you opinions based in experience with the types of struggles you are facing and bring perspective to the emotions many of us feel so strongly when it comes to making decisions that affect the people we love. They can also offer support as you try these new behaviors and write out the initial discomfort, especially if your loved one tries various ways to push you back into your old behaviors.

To review, here are questions to ask yourself if you are uncertain about whether you are about to head into unhealthy enabling or healthy helping. Is the action I’m considering true to my values? Am I being honest with myself? Am I doing this out of fear? Am I honoring my own needs and feelings in making this decision? Am I telling myself that if I do or don’t do this it will make my loved one’s addiction better or worse? If I’m feeling uncertain, have I gotten a second opinion from someone who’s experienced with such issues and decisions? Answer these questions as honestly as you can so that you can move out of unhealthy enabling and into healthy helping.

Thanks for being with us through another episode of Addiction and the Family. As they say in many recovery meetings, take what you liked and leave the rest. Go out and explore the possibilities for recovery in your life and give your loved ones the space and dignity to make their own choices. If you liked this podcast, please subscribe. It means a lot to us. If you know anyone else who could use what we have to offer, please tell them about Addiction and the Family. If you have comments about this podcast, have a question you’d like answered on the show, or want to contribute your voice, or just want to say hi, you can write to us at addictionandthefamily@gmail.com. We’re also happy to be your friend on Facebook and we can be found tweeting on Twitter.