Helping VS. Enabling: How To Help An Addict Without Enabling?

Last Updated: July 6, 2020

Authored by Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

What does it mean to enable someone? As friends or family of a person dealing with codependency, it can be tough to identify when the line between helping out and enabling is crossed. It might seem for friends or family that they know how to help an addict to recover, but when the ties of familiarity are involved, emotions can cloud the fair judgment. Find out the difference between helping and enabling, and how to stop enabling an addict?

Enabling Behavior: What Is It?

It’s very easy to mix enabling and helping up. Friends or family of a person dealing with codependency or addiction often go to the lengths of taking over activities that the person should perform. Here it stops being helping and becomes enabling. This does not suggest that addicts should be left to do everything alone; the main idea is to recognize the things that genuinely require help.
Using a domestic example of a situation where an alcoholic lives with a friend, here’s what enabling an alcoholic looks like. The alcoholic and the friend typically share responsibilities and chores around the house. Now, if the alcoholic is indisposed, the friend may decide to step in temporarily and provide assistance with chores that the alcoholic would normally do – that is helping. On the flip side, if the only reason that the friend is helping out is that the alcoholic forgets about duties due to constantly being drunk. This is how a friend is enabling the alcoholic by performing those duties.

middle-aged party maker having hangover
Enabling is not always black or white like that – many times, the changes happen subtly over a period of time, but the consequences remain the same.

Enabling Behavior And Codependency Connections

Enabling addiction is not only harmful to the person dealing with the problem. It also affects the friends and family around that person negatively. A good example is the issue of codependency here. Individuals tend to mirror the codependent behaviors shown by observing people close to them. Codependency is a very unhealthy way of having a relationship with anybody and, more often than not, it negatively impacts the quality of life of the parties involved.
In a situation where the codependent person is helping an addict who is a friend or family member, this person tends to focus on doing everything that the other party wants. The motive for doing this might be reasonable, like supporting the addict in recovery or changing his behavior by being kind to them, but the approach does more harm than good. At the end of the day, the need to keep an addict satisfied all the time will end up affecting the happiness, welfare, and safety of enabler. It’s a lose-lose situation.
It begins like this; a person dealing with substance abuse or disorder may reach out to a friend or family for help. That is absolutely fine, and it is within the walls of reason to help out when the demands are reasonable and achievable. However, when the person is demanding help with something that is a direct result of the bad habit of substance abuse, then it is perfectly okay to refuse instead of enabling.

In these situations, alcoholics or substance abusers can be very convincing. Manipulation is a trait that these types of people learn to master over time. Promises to quit the bad habits and turn a new leaf will be made – with the caveat that the request for help is granted.

man suffering from alcoholism at home
It will require a lot of mental strength and willpower to say NO, but it must be done. If one gives in to those requests because of the fear of turning against friends and family, then one becomes codependent too. In fact, this is one of the biggest fears of people that have friends or family living with addiction or substance abuse disorders.

When One Acts As Enabler?

The fear that something terrible would happen if the needs and demands of the addict are not met constantly overshadows the will to say no. However, the reality is that enabling behaviors such as lending money or performing their responsibilities for them is only likely to prolong the length of addiction and substance abuse.

wife giving a beer to addicted husband

Here are some examples of situations enabling behavior to a family member or friend:

  • Helping an addict out of a financial mess resulting from their habit of spending all their money on substance abuse.
  • Making threats to cut the addict off if they do not work towards recovery, but never following through on those threats.
  • Making excuses and apologizing on behalf of the person for bad behavior resulting from their substance abuse.
  • Getting into the habit of spending a lot of money to enabling one’s addiction by paying legal charges resulting from illegal use or possession of prohibited substances.
  • Sympathizing with an addict that continues to complain about their substance abuse disorders without really doing anything to recover from it.
  • Enabling an addict to purchase drugs or alcohol, either by providing the money for it or just accompany them to purchase the substances.
  • Making excuses and enabling bad behavior based on the notion that “they are not in their right senses and probably do not mean to.”
  • Allowing the addict to abuse drugs or substances in one’s home because it might be “safer” than if they did it elsewhere.
  • Performing their regular household chores for them because they are not in the right physical state to do so.
  • Cleaning up the mess that an addict made in their state of drug-induced misbehavior.
  • Failing to acknowledge drug exchanges that happen on school grounds.
  • Failure to report any sightings of students exhibiting signs of drug or alcohol abuse.
  • Failure to establish strict rules and guidelines about drug use on the school grounds.
  • Failure to provide qualified counselors that can speak to any students caught in the act of substance abuse.
  • Cultivating a habit of looking the other way due to the academic excellence of the student. A student that gets straight A’s can be guilty of substance abuse, and such a student needs to be treated appropriately too.

These are only some examples to give a general idea of what enabling drug addiction looks like. There are more of them, depending on the context.One needs to watch out to ensure that these mistakes are not made when dealing with an addict anywhere.
The most important things for the addict to learn are:

  • to face the consequences of their actions
  • not become complacent under the false sense of security that help will always be provided when it is needed.

The Risk Associated With Enabling Addiction

As a person with no professional knowledge of dealing appropriately with addicts and substance abusers, the experience can be overwhelming. It can lead to emotional and psychological stress or trauma, which in turn may lead the person to start using substances to deal with the pressure too.

woman feeling deressed
This makes it important for friends or family of addicts to keep a close watch of personal mental health to avoid getting caught up in the web of anxiety, stress, and depression.

Codependency And Enabling: Recognizing Codependency In A Loved One

There is a pattern to the behavior of codependent people, especially in families or other contexts where there is a person dealing with substance abuse and mental disorder. In these situations, there is a high chance for the people involved to become codependent.
Typically, there are five behavioral patterns that are common to codependent people. These are:

  • Denial: the person pretends that they do not need help from anyone. They act as they’ve got everything under control and mask their pain with false emotions like humor or anger. They tend to be very passive-aggressive too.
  • Avoidance: Here, the person pretends to be emotionally impenetrable. They act as if showing emotion is a sign of weakness when, in reality, they are crumbling inside. They tend to try to avoid confrontations by using evasive language.
  • Low Self-esteem: the person seeks validation from everybody. They have a low opinion of themselves and their abilities, and they constantly need people to acknowledge their efforts to stay relevant.
  • Control: the person tries to force opinions on other people all the time and gets irritated when people don’t let it happen. There is a belief that they can and should have their way whenever they want, and they try to get people to listen to them by giving favors and material items.
  • Compliance: the person does not seem to have an opinion of their own. They mirror other people’s beliefs and feelings, and they are easy to convince.

If a person exhibits three or more of these signs, they are quite possibly codependent.

How To Stop Enabling A Drug Addict?

How can one stop enabling a person dealing with addiction?

wife speaking with addicted husband

Here are a few suggestions to get started on helping a friend or family member on the way to recovery from substance abuse and addiction:

  • Speak to the person and continually bring forward the idea of getting professional help.
  • If the person is uncooperative, one must take a stand. State unequivocally that there will be no more support or participation until the person gets help. Stick to those set boundaries too. Conducting a drug intervention may come at hand in this process.
  • Stop lying, covering, or excusing the behavior of the addict. Stop loaning money to the person and stop providing housing to support.
  • If the person is living on the streets, instead of providing personal housing, there are Salvation Army housing resources that can provide food, shelter, employment, and free substance abuse treatment for addicts.
  • Attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings. These meetings educate and support people having problems dealing with enabling behavior in relationships with addicts and substance abusers. The meetings provide peer support, coping skills, and strategies.

Breaking the cycle of addiction and consciously putting an end to the act of enabling behavior to a friend or family member that is addicted to substance abuse is usually a painful and emotional process. The most important thing is to be sure that professional advice is sought and to know that every decision made in the process of helping will only benefit the addict in the long run.

Page Sources

  1. Falkin G.P, Strauss S.M., Social supporters and drug use enablers: a dilemma for women in recovery, February 2003,
  2. Suzanne Brown, Elizabeth M. Tracy, Min Kyoung Jun, Hyunyong Park, Meeyoung O. Min, Personal Network Recovery Enablers and Relapse Risks for Women With Substance Dependence, October 2015,
  3. Cermak TL. Al-Anon and recovery., 1989.

Published on: November 5th, 2019

Updated on: July 6th, 2020

About Author

Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Dr. Ahmed Zayed is a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery. He is graduated from the University of Alexandria, Egypt. Dr. Ahmed Zayed has a passion for writing medical and health care articles and focuses on providing engaging and trustworthy information to readers.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.


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