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When most people think of enabling, they most likely think of someone helping an addict, alcoholic, or loved one with mental health disorders. Rarely, if ever, does the discussion focus on why the person is enabling. It is not difficult to understand what enabling does for someone on the receiving end; it makes them comfortable and shields them from consequences and accountability. We must start talking about why the person sacrifices themselves to provide comfort to the loved one with addiction and mental health disorders.
At Family First Intervention, our Addiction and Mental Health Intervention Services go well beyond an interventionist, simply stating the obvious. In addition to bringing your loved one to the point of accepting help, our entire S.A.F.E. (Self-Awareness Family Education Intervention and Family Recovery Coaching Curriculum focuses on the family learning and understanding how their behaviors and family roles have potentially compromised their loved ones’ decision to address the problem. We are not at all saying the family has caused the addiction or mental health disorders. We seek to help you understand the underlying factors of why your loved one has not addressed their problem while fueling your fears of them saying no during the intervention.
“Families often ask what if our loved one says no during the intervention. As strange as this may sound, some family members are more fearful of their loved one saying yes.”
Why Do I Enable My Loved One with Mental Health or Addiction Problems?
Let’s face it: no family is perfect, nor are they free from family secrets, guilt, and shame. Every parent or spouse wishes they could have done things differently. No matter what has happened, we can’t go back in time and change it.
Families often act out their beliefs and dysfunction based on their family of origin and learned behaviors that occurred during childhood. When this happens, certain family members may feel responsible for their loved ones’ problems and see no alternative other than to comfort and help their loved ones.
One of the many goals of our intervention services is to help you understand how to change while understanding that the unhealthy roles that have formed are not helping anyone forge ahead and get better. Once the family, starting with the primary enabler sees how their helping hurts, progress and change can occur.
Family members can ineffectively support loved ones with addiction and mental health disorders for many reasons. Many family members will tell us it is because it is their child, and it is their parental instinct and responsibility to protect their loved ones. There is some truth to that, and for the many here at Family First Intervention who are parents themselves, we understand and respect that.
From a clinical standpoint and knowing what providing comfort is doing, we know as clinicians and parents, we wouldn’t be helping them or protecting them by assisting them to stay sick. You are putting them closer to danger and drastically reducing their ability to see the need to address their problem when you selfishly make them comfortable. The reason we used the word selfishly is that it is precisely what enabling is.
Enabling is a selfish act because it uses someone else’s problem to feed the codependent narrative. To take it a step further, a person who is providing comfort gets more from providing the comfort than the person who is receiving the comfort. Both are in a codependent relationship, and both are receiving an unhealthy benefit, making the situation worse for both sides and for others who are affected by the enmeshed relationship.
Enabling is an unhealthy cycle fueled by the person with an addiction, alcoholism, or mental health disorders. The excuses and manipulations help create the four building blocks of enabling: guilt, hope, fear, and victim. Once the excuses and manipulations take hold, the enabler believes the problem is their fault and feels responsible. Some act out with guilt on behalf of the acts of others because they did not address the family secret and turned the other way when problems occurred early on. The natural human instinct at this point is to comfort and shelter a loved one. This approach not only makes the problem worse, but it will eventually affect the rest of the family. So why would someone do this if they know or are being told the effects?
The enabler now believes that if not for them, the person would not be this way, and if not for their help and support, they would get worse. The point is unhealthy family members, in a distorted reality, do not truly understand or believe they are hurting their loved one. The enabler starts to feel they now have a purpose to keep their loved one alive with love and comfort. Additionally, it is believed that by helping, they are needed in the relationship. If anything is done differently, the loved one with addiction and mental health concerns will hate them or even end up in jail or deceased. Some act this way to keep the family secrets buried. This overwhelming stress on the primary enabler takes a tremendous toll on themselves and others in the family. We are often asked, “What if they say no?” at the intervention. It is not about them saying no; it is about them saying yes, going to treatment, and exposing the family secrets and dysfunction.
“Unbeknownst to themselves, family members are keeping someone sick because they fear having the truth exposed.”
How Does Enabling Create a Ripple Effect of Dysfunctional Family Roles and Cause Family Members to Feel Neglected?
Addiction and mental health is not a victimless crime; it affects the whole family. Families are often angry with the behaviors and actions of their loved one’s addiction or mental health disorders.
Calls and inquiries pour into our office with all the attention on fixing the one who needs help. As we listen to the anger, frustration, and resentments, they appear to all be pointed at the one who is believed to be disrupting the lives of others. What is interesting is they have no idea who they are mad at, and it isn’t the one with addiction and mental health problems; it is the primary enabler. If we were to ask a room full of people who the problem is, they would instantly point at the person who needs help. The same people would tell me I was crazy when I told them they were pointing at the wrong person.
Before we get any further, please let us make one thing clear. A person with addiction and mental health disorders is a significant source of anger, frustration, and resentment. Families must understand that anger, frustration, and resentment equally come from the primary enablers for focusing all their attention on the one person acting out. The behavior is precisely how unhealthy and dysfunctional family roles form.
Children, even adult children, look to their parents as role models and for guidance. When a parental unit stops providing attention and affirmation to their children, this impacts them emotionally and mentally. We know it is not the parent’s intention to do this, and it still happens. So, when mom or dad starts diverting all their attention to one person or even one thing, such as a job, the children suffer. The example is no different than a child who grows up with a father who is never there because they work too much or due to a divorce; it has an impact.
Once the primary enabler is consumed with the one who has addiction and mental health disorder concerns, the other family members acquire unhealthy, maladaptive coping skills and counterproductive family roles to help balance out the dysfunctional family shift.
The Hero Role – Becomes a perfectionist and goes opposite of the others acting out. They are fighting for attention by being perfect in every way. The Hero must be the one who comes up with the solutions, and all other solutions will only work if they are those of the hero.
A perfect example is when family members call our office. If the Hero makes the call, it is guaranteed to result in an intervention because it was their idea. If anyone other than the hero calls, the hero will sabotage all efforts because the idea wasn’t theirs. We have people we intervened with years ago who are still sober, and the hero still says we went about this the wrong way, but why? Because the hero’s biggest fear is that the person gets better and steals the spotlight. If they get better and it wasn’t their idea, then what does that say about them?
If the family member with addiction or mental health disorders gets better and the solution is the hero’s idea, then the spotlight is on the fact that they got the job done for the family. The behaviors of the hero explain the depth of insanity that primary enablers cause on other family members when they divert all their attention away from the others.
The Scapegoat – Acts out in negative behaviors to draw attention away from the one with addiction and mental health problems. The scapegoat will do just about anything to be recognized because they are in pain due to believing nobody in the family cares about them. Although we know the others care about them, this is not what the scapegoat sees and feels.
The Lost Child – This role isolates and fades away into the backdrop. Many think the lost child role acts this way to stay away from the chaos and drama. They are doing this to be chased and found by others. They want nothing more than for others to ask them if they are okay. They seek affirmation and want to be noticed and loved, and they do not feel that they are.
The Mascot – Tries to put on a show of normalcy. The mascot often acts as if everything is okay and uses humor to mask the pain of themselves and others. The mascot may even minimize the problem and make light of it at times.
The Martyr – Becomes a forever victim and screams for help as they shoot down almost every solution offered. The Martyr knows no other way to live other than to be the victim in the situation. What they are doing is acting as if their struggle is worse than their loved one’s addiction and mental health, and they are not wrong; it is at least equally as worse. The problem is they will not allow anyone to address it. Their biggest fear is that if the loved one gets better, they will no longer attract chaos and drama, and no one will ask how they are doing anymore. The Martyr is terrified that if their loved one gets better, they may not love them anymore and want to leave the relationship. The Martyr is more concerned about what will happen to themselves while their loved one is in treatment than they are worried about their loved one being in treatment.
All these roles can be cycled through; in other words, any family member can have more than one or multiple roles at a time. A loved one with addiction and mental health will cycle through these roles, too. Remember that no matter the role, the family is greatly affected by the primary enabler’s behavior. Each family member must acknowledge their dysfunctional family role, and it must be corrected if the family and the loved one with mental health and substance use disorders are to get better.
Does Enabling Encourage Negative Behaviors or Positive Change?
As of this writing, we have never heard of one case or incident where the family comforted the addict or alcoholic, and the situation improved. Furthermore, we have never witnessed a person who is sober walk up to a podium when sharing their story and say they are sober because people helped them stay sick or comforted their behaviors. The success rates of recovery were once approximately 50%.
Today, recovery success rates are about 3%. Included in this 3% are harm reduction models and medically assisted treatment methods. Factoring in additional ways and models, this translates to about 1% of people becoming and remaining sober with complete abstinence. How is this, and when and why did this happen? In 1960, Dr. Jellinek pioneered the disease model of addiction.
Now, there is no way to provide direct evidence as to whether or not the disease model is solely responsible for declining success rates; the success rates of recovery did slowly fall from this point forward. Addiction treatment, even just twenty years ago, was much more accountability-based than it is today. Today’s clinician is taught to roll with resistance and to meet people where they are at.
Addiction and mental health therapists are also led to believe that the patient is a victim of a disease, and it is not their fault, all while considering the patient is the most qualified person to determine what it is they need to recover. Couple this with a family of unhealthy family roles, and you have success rates at an all-time low. So, does enabling encourage negative behaviors or positive change? The answer, in our experience, would be no.
When families detach, they are not detaching from their loved ones; they are detaching from the chaos, confusion, and negative behaviors of addiction and mental health disorders. Detachment is a way to love someone without negatively assisting them. While detaching, you can still love someone and disapprove of what they are doing.
An evidence-based treatment that is becoming increasingly popular is the CRAFT model of intervention, counseling, and treatment. The CRAFT model stands for Community Reinforcement & Family Training. The CRAFT model applies the theory of operant conditioning. In lay terms, if something works, reward and do more of it; if not, do not reward it and try something different. At no point does the model suggest rewarding bad behavior; it states the opposite. Families should focus more on why they are helping rather than what the helping is doing for their loved ones.
“Enabling is much more about the one providing comfort than it is about the one receiving it.”
Will Enabling Make them go to Treatment for Mental Health Disorders, Alcoholism, or Drug Addiction Quicker?
As established in the section above, the short answer is no. Some families believe that if they help their loved one a last time, they will surrender and make good on their promise to address their addiction or mental health disorders. To best address this topic, we will provide our experience that proves the theory that enabling will not make your loved one go to treatment to address their alcoholism, drug addiction, or mental health disorders any faster.
When we complete an intervention with the intended patient refusing treatment, negotiations and promises made by the loved one intensify. At this point, families are in the most vulnerable position, willing to do or say anything to get them to check into treatment.
Our entire aftercare team is on deck during this phase while constantly working with the family to interpret the words of their loved one while keeping the family grounded and not caving in. We have never once had a family provide comfort to the person with the hopes of them saying yes and ending with the loved one checking into treatment, not once. When a family does this, they can rarely recover from the mistake, and the loved one with addiction and mental health concerns takes back control. See, that is all that is wanted by the family’s loved one: to fight for the status quo to remain the same or return. The intended patient who has no intention of going to treatment will fight for one last request for help, and they are testing to see if the family will hold the boundaries of not enabling.
When families do not detach and comfort their loved ones, they prevent their loved ones from moving through the stages of change in addiction recovery. The second stage of change called the contemplation stage, is where the loved one gets stuck and where an unhealthy family keeps them stuck. To move past the second stage of change, the person who is an alcoholic or has an addiction or mental health concern must see the need to do something different.
The contemplation stage requires ambivalence, which means looking at both sides of something and weighing the positives and negatives of doing something different. When help and comfort are provided and present, it prevents the person from contemplating change. Providing comfort will not allow the person to see more cons than pros about addressing the problem and doing something about it.
People are entitled to their opinions, and some reading this will disagree and continue to hide behind their agenda while continuing to enable their loved ones. What we state is not an opinion, and the information is textbook. Yet, somehow, clinicians, treatment centers, and other addiction and mental health professionals have forgotten about this part of their education when applying treatment plans and solutions.
The environment, which includes the family system and the client-counselor relationship, is the number one predictor of outcomes. Clinicians must remember the importance of focusing on the environment and not believing that being the patient’s friend rather than their counselor will strengthen the client-counselor relationship.
“Many Addiction and Mental Health Professionals have forgotten how this works. Several operate with blinders on and only see the finite situation before them. When success rates of addiction and mental health were much higher, clinicians saw the problem from a global perspective. In other words, they did not focus on the watered-down omission story of how their client sees things. Clinicians focused on everyone and everything that got hurt along the way and what contributed to their client being there, and in cases of enabling, not being there.”
Enabling Will Cause Family to Become Emotionally, Spiritually, Mentally, Physically, and Financially Bankrupt
We seek to move the discussion about enabling to the effects on the family rather than the impact on the loved one. As we have stated several times in this article and as part of our S.A.F.E. (Self Awareness Family Education) Intervention & Family Recovery Coaching Services, we discuss enabling from the inside out. What does helping and providing comfort to a loved one do for the enabler, why do you do it, what benefit do you receive from it, and what effects does it have on you and other family members?
Families who have a primary enabler are dismantled and turned upside down. In our “How Does Enabling Create a Ripple Effect of Dysfunctional Family Roles and Cause Family Members to Feel Neglected” section above, you read about how enabling creates family dysfunction, maladaptive coping skills, and unhealthy family roles. In addition to the problems ineffective helping causes, it makes everyone involved emotionally, mentally, physically, and financially sick. The family feels this way because, at their core, they know what we are saying is true.
The enabler hides behind excuses to justify the enabling, and it is known what they are doing isn’t right. Family members are aware some are acting selfishly and not helping the loved one with addiction or mental health disorder problems. Enabling can and will strip the family of their mental sanity, cause them not to eat or sleep, and go into debt, all while slowly eating away at them. Families must address the problem internally with a professional. If we can’t handle the why, there is little chance of addressing the who, what, where, and how.
At Family First Intervention, our name says it all. We address addiction and mental health, starting with the affected family first. We will never say that the problem with your loved one is your fault. We will say that many things the family is doing prevent your loved one from addressing the issue.
When families learn and understand addiction and mental health and their role in the problem, it allows both the family and the affected loved one to make a change. If nothing changes, then nothing changes. Several families who call for help have been through this for a long time.
Many families have watched their loved ones cycle in and out of treatment centers and institutions. The common denominator in all these families is they did nothing different. We can’t expect a family to improve because one person does or tries alone. Addiction and mental health are family problems and should be addressed and treated as such.
Published On: May 31, 2017
Updated On: November 14, 2023