Recovery, sobriety expert shares how to know the difference between supporting and enabling

The impact of drug addiction on individuals, families and communities demands both our attention and compassion. In our quest to assist those struggling with addiction, we often find ourselves navigating a delicate line between providing genuine support and inadvertently enabling destructive behavior. When it comes to the complex dynamics of supporting versus enabling drug addiction, exploring the fine distinction between these approaches and highlighting the crucial role of empathy, understanding, and effective interventions can help individuals on their path to recovery.

In my work as CEO of 12 South Recovery, an addiction and mental health services program in Orange County, California, I’ve learned that unwavering support can make all the difference in the journey of walking with someone on their path to recovery.

If we know someone who is in recovery, or maybe on their path to rehabilitation, we know it’s equally challenging to know when we’re supporting and when we’re instead enabling. To be clear, it’s crucial to see the distinction because support actually helps our loved ones get better. When you’re enabling, on the other hand, there’s really no telling what could happen.

Why it’s key to know this difference
With your support, the healing journey becomes less laborious to navigate. We start to see that addiction has not ruined all the relationships in our lives — and your loved one can start to see themselves as worthy of having those relationships again. For instance, someone with support will be more likely to open up about their feelings instead of shutting down and turning to previous poisons.

However, if we, as loved ones, are treading into the dangerous territory of enabling, we may be inadvertently creating a breeding ground for addiction. Before you cast me off as dramatic, allow me to explain.

In greater society, enabling means “to provide with the means or opportunity,” and we typically associate a positive connotation with that. Let’s say you got a lucrative contract. One might say that it enabled you to spend more time with your family. In the rehabilitation and patient care world, though, we define enabling as behaviors that support our loved one’s chemical use.

You know that old saying, “No good deed goes unpunished?” Enabling behaviors might be the best example of that. That’s because when we enable our loved ones, we genuinely mean well — our intention is to help. What we don’t realize, unfortunately, is that we’re accidentally giving them the green light to go on in their addiction.

Below, I’ll share what support tends to look like as well as what enabling behaviors usually are. We’ll end with a side-by-side list of three behaviors that are supportive and the behaviors that are their enabling counterparts.

Supporting versus enabling your loved one: how to know the difference
We covered the definitions of supporting and enabling as they pertain to addiction and recovery. As a professional who interacts with myriad personality types daily, I also know that some folks learn better when they’re given concrete examples. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at support.

When we’re supporting a loved one on their healing or recovery journey, it’s important to encourage them to keep their social appointments. For instance, if there’s a birthday party, graduation, or family get-together, we should invite our loved ones.

Support also takes the form of an open and vulnerable conversation. That chat should notably include some boundary-setting on both sides, like perhaps talking about off-limits topics so we each know not to bring those up. Or maybe we support our loved one by educating ourselves, which we might do by reading some addiction and recovery books. (My recommendation? In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Maté, MD.)

Here’s where I might lose some of you, and while I’d rather I didn’t, I understand we’re not all ready to hear that we’re actually doing more harm than good when trying to “help” our loved ones.

Examples of supportive behavior versus enabling behavior
Regarding treatment programs
Supporting: Helping your loved one find the treatment program that works best for them.
Enabling: Saying your loved one doesn’t have to do treatment if it’s overwhelming.

When it comes to communication
Supporting: Having open lines of communication and being honest with each other.
Enabling: Keeping secrets from each other, making excuses, accepting lies.

Dynamics of interpersonal interactions
Supporting: Caring for yourself as a family member and engaging in your own recovery.
Enabling: Tending to your loved ones’ needs more than your own.

Navigating the line between supporting versus enabling can be challenging, as the dynamics are often different from person to person. Despite the well-intentioned desire to help or alleviate distress, enabling can perpetuate the cycle. By understanding the critical difference between supporting and enabling when it comes drug addiction and recovery, we can effectively address the root causes, break the cycle, and pave the way for a future of healing, recovery, and resilience.