How to Know When Helping is Hurting
If you have an addicted person in your life, naturally you want to do whatever you can to help. But it’s important to remember that when it comes to addiction, sometimes “helping” does more harm than good. There is a fine line between assisting the person and enabling the addictive behavior, and sometimes the steps you take to try to help a loved one through the crisis of addiction are actually the most detrimental. To ease your frustrations and help you recognize which behaviors may be doing more harm than good, here’s some advice:
If you are enabling, you are hurting.
An enabling behavior is any action that keeps the addiction going. Examples of enabling behaviors include giving your addicted loved one money, providing him or her with a place to live or continuously providing a ride when he or she is too intoxicated to drive. Enabling behaviors can directly support the addiction (for example, giving someone money for drugs), or indirectly support the addiction (giving the person money to pay his electricity bill because he spent all the money on drugs and the electric company cut off his power). Ignoring the addiction and hoping it goes away on its own is also a form of enabling because there is no direct action taken to make the addiction stop.
Here are some common actions of enablers. Think about whether or not you identify with any of these behaviors:
- You dismiss the addiction, claiming your loved one is just going through “a phase.”
- You feel like you are parenting your addicted loved one, even though the person is your partner or spouse.
- You find yourself making excuses for your loved one’s behavior.
- You have loaned money to or paid bills for your loved one.
- You have bailed your loved one out of jail.
- You participate in risky behaviors or substance abuse alongside your addicted loved one
- You handle responsibilities for your loved one, such as calling his boss to say he won’t be at work because he is sick (when really, he is hungover or high).
- You like feeling needed by your loved one and are afraid of disappointing them by not providing help.
- You have given your loved one ultimatums that have not been taken seriously, followed by too many second chances
If you are “people-pleasing,” you are hurting.
A co-dependent person, or a “people pleaser,” consistently puts other people’s needs before his or her own. People-pleasers often convince themselves they do this because they are a nice person. In most cases, people pleasers are nice people, but they also have ulterior motives. Most people-pleasers say yes when they really want to say no because they fear conflict and will do whatever it takes to avoid it. People-pleasers avoid conflict and arguments because they never learned to deal with other people’s negative emotions. In other words, co-dependent people behave in this way to protect themselves. By failing to set up appropriate boundaries for the addict, you allow that person to continue an addiction that is dangerous and unhealthy. If you identify yourself as a people-pleaser, the sooner you take a realistic look at your behavior and the ways it fuels the addict in your life, the better.
If you avoid conflict, you are hurting.
Addicts need their loved ones to refuse to tolerate their substance abuse and all the unpleasantness that goes along with it. They need their loved ones to hold them to a higher standard and expect meaningful change. And they need their loved ones to make the courageous, caring decision to say, “I care about you so much that I am no longer willing to support your addiction.”
If you blame yourself, you are hurting.
In many cases, guilt is what fuels enabling behavior. You feel guilty about the addiction, and in some ways, you feel responsible. But you are not to blame; the only person responsible for an addiction is the person with the substance abuse problem. What you are responsible for are any actions that may be contributing the addiction.
If you are afraid to make things uncomfortable for your addicted loved one, you are hurting.
Addicts need their friends and family members to make it as uncomfortable as possible for them to remain addicted. In reality, the most loving thing you can do for the addicted person in your life is hold him to higher standards and force him to take responsibility for their actions.
If you’re not facing the danger your loved one is in, you are hurting.
If your loved one is addicted to mind-altering street drugs or alcohol, the reality is the person could overdose and die at any time. By pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and encouraging the addict to get help, you may make an overdose less likely.
Know that you are not alone in struggling with the challenge of how to help without making the problem worse. Addiction is a complex disease, and much of the dance between loved ones and addicts or alcoholics involves enabling to some degree. It can be useful to seek out an objective opinion or professional help to sort out your feelings and plan your responses. The decisions you make can mean life or death for the person you love.