Swetha, Spencer, and Kelli talk about enabling. We start by defining our understanding of the term, enabling. Early on, Swetha wondered whether anything nice she did for someone was enabling. Her sponsor helped her by giving her this definition: “getting between someone and the consequences of their choices or actions.” Kelli also had this confusion. Her codependency had distorted her thinking so that she always thought she was being helpful, whether she was really just being nice, or she was enabling. The concept of enabling did not come naturally to her, because of the codependency in her family growing up. Spencer is pretty sure he had no idea what “enabling” meant before coming to the program. If he drove to the store to buy more wine, so that his loved one would not be driving drunk, he thought he was doing a good thing, even though he might have resented doing it at the same time. He struggled with the difference between enabling and keeping his family safe, at times.
When Swetha was growing up, she thought that preventing others from feeling the consequences of their actions was just being loving and caring for them. She shared some stories about doing things for the people she loved, and what the consequences were for her when her efforts were not appreciated. Kelli suggests that enabling is often tied to a desire to control the some outcome. She also sees that when she is being an enabler, she prevents the other person from being able to take care of themselves, and she also neglects her own self-care. Spencer agrees and adds that enabling also denies the other person’s dignity by implying that they cannot take care of their own stuff.
Mark called to ask us for our comments on where parental responsibilities end, and where enabling or codependent behavior begins. Spencer responds by recounting an experience where his 20-year old son had a problem with some relatively severe consequences. Spencer flew out to support his son as he dealt with the things he had to deal with, to provide the things, such as a hotel room and transportation, that his son was not able to provide for himself. Spencer feels that he was supporting, not enabling, in that experience. He also talks about how he was not able to set hard boundaries when his children were younger – he was not willing to follow through with the consequences of the boundaries being broken. Kelli relates the experience of a young relative of hers who gets “kicked out” of her home when she uses, but then when she gets in trouble, she can come back home. She things that her relative is not learning from her experience, because she knows it will never get too bad, that she has a safe place to return to. Swetha talks about “rescuing” her sister from academic overload, time and time again. She got resentful, especially when it seemed that her sister just wanted someone else to do her homework. She was able to set a boundary, that she would not do her sister’s homework, that she was willing to sit down and help her, but also not at the last minute. She needed to do that for her own sanity.
Spencer asks whether we might expect that if we stop enabling, then our loved one will start to feel consequences, and as a result will change their behavior. Do we need to guard against such expectations?
Sometimes when we set a boundary about not enabling, we might need to move it. Spencer had decided that he was not going to continue to wake his kids up in the morning and drive them to school – that they needed to figure out how to do that on their own or suffer the consequences of being late. Eventually, his son came and asked for help, because he had been getting detentions for being tardy. Spencer said he would wake him once, what time should he do that? In that way, he was able to provide the help that was asked for, without feeling that he was enabling. Kelli has a story about doing the dishes – her husband was not doing them when she thought they should be done, so she would do them and resent it. Her sponsor explained that when she gives a task to another person, then she needs to let go of the way in which it is done. Swetha asks herself, when someone asks for help, “in what way can I provide help without harming my self-care and without being resentful?” Setting appropriate boundaries is really important in this situation, for her.
Some questions we might ask ourselves, or maybe a sponsee, to determine whether we might be enabling are: Am I getting between someone and the consequences of their action? What is my motivation? Am I trying to reduce their pain or fear? Or am I trying to control my own pain or fear? Is this something that is mine to control? Answering these questions can help determine where to set boundaries. For example, “why do I want my son to be on time to school?”, which I might answer, “Because I don’t want him to get in trouble.” Well, that’s about him, not about me, and so I am probably enabling.
Kelli suggests that we can be supportive without enabling by having some faith in the other person, that they want to do the right thing. In relationships with an addict, our trust has been broken so many times that it is hard to have that faith. But we can still try. Swetha closes with a reminder from Al-Anon literature: “Get off his back, get out of his way, get onto yourself, get to meetings, and give him to God.”
Our next topic is detachment. Due to our recording schedule, we will be unable to add your feedback to that episode, but we’d still love to hear from you, and we will respond to your inputs.