Podcast Episode 4: When Helping Hurts

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Podcast Episode 4: When recovery seems impossible

Clinical Director Greg Powers and host Noelle Carmen talk about enabling and enabling behaviors

Good afternoon and welcome to our addiction and recovery podcast, Discover a New You Through Recovery. I’m Noelle Carmen and with us today is Greg Powers. He’s the clinical director for Discovery Point Retreat. Today we are talking about enabling and enabling behaviors.

Hi, Greg. Welcome to the show. Most of us have been guilty of enabling behavior at one time or another. So I really want to talk – drill down to specifics. I want to start with the actual definition and then go from there. So enabling, this is my understanding, is when someone does something for someone else that they could very well do for themselves. What are your thoughts on that? 

I think yes, I think that’s one definition of it. 

And I guess when I think of enabling it’s more about letting somebody continue a behavior – knowing that it’s a negative behavior — but allowing it to continue despite the negativity of it. So what about the dynamic? Why is this so much associated with addiction when everybody knows you have the enabler and then you have the addict and it’s all family dynamic. I know there are a bunch of other rules, but this one in particular seems to be a powerful dynamic. Can you talk to us about that just a little bit? 

Sure. I think when we’re talking about addiction and enabling, a lot of times what that looks like is – and I’m going to take an alcoholic, for example – an alcoholic who comes into the family and is maybe abusive, be it verbally or physically. The family sometimes enables that behavior in that they allow it to continue. In that they either look the other way or they just go, ‘oh, that’s Johnny’ and, you know, ‘that’s just the way he is.’ So they just let the behaviors continue. That’s enabling. That tends to happen a lot of times with addiction because we don’t want to necessarily rock the boat. We don’t want to go to Johnny and say, ‘you know, you’re drinking too much. And when you drink too much, you are really not this nice person.’ 

We know that as family members take a step back and go, ‘you know, if I tell Johnny that, he’s gonna go drink more’ or, ‘you know, I’d rather he drink here and I’ll put up with the behavior because I don’t want him out and getting hurt or hurting somebody else.’ So we just allow it to continue. 

So a lot of times enablers, when you confront them with their behavior, there’s a lot of denial involved. Would you agree with that? In terms of you say ‘oh, I think this might be an enabling behavior’ and they say ‘Me? I’m not enabling this. I’m not doing that.’ What is that denial about? Why can’t the enablers see what it is they’re actually doing to participate in the addiction? 

Because I think a lot of times the enabler sees that as being ‘love the person’. They view that label of enabler as ‘oh, that’s that’s negative. I’m not being negative. I love my family member or my best friend. I would never do anything to hurt them.’ When you say I’m enabling, that means, ‘oh, my gosh, I’m doing something bad when in fact, I really just love this person.’ So they don’t really look at that as being an enabling behavior or an attitude.

How does someone begin to see the difference between enabling and love, because these definitions get very messy, don’t they? It’s a fine line to walk between really unconditionally loving someone – because that’s what we’re taught, right? Unconditional love vs. this feels a lot like conditional love, which is in our society many times labeled as bad. So how on earth do you make these distinctions to start behaving in a way that’s more healthy?

Well, I think a lot of times it just takes somebody else to point it out to us and go, ‘you know, have you thought about this?’ Because when you’re in the middle of something, it’s hard to see what those boundaries really are. So we don’t think that we’re doing anything bad. 

Sometimes it’s listening to somebody else who’s saying, ‘hey, have you thought maybe about doing something else with this person’ or, ‘you know, when they come in and they start yelling and doing all that stuff, that’s not a really good thing.’ And being able to be open to hearing that and really taking a look and doing some self inventory of, you know, ‘what is this that I’m doing? Am I contributing to this behavior? And how so?’ Whether we label that enabling or love or whatever we want to call it, you know, we really have to take a look at what’s going on with this individual and are we doing the best thing that we can for them? 

Obviously, yeah, we’re going to come back and go, ‘well, if I love them, that’s all that really we need to do.’ But then we really have to think, ‘okay, I love this person. But obviously what’s happening is hurtful not only to them, but to me or the family. Is that something that we want to have continue?’ Usually the answer is no to that. 

So we have to kind of take a step back and go, ‘what am I doing that’s contributing to this or what am I doing to enable this?’ Because usually when the enabler is actually doing these behaviors, I think that you make a really excellent point. The notion is that they’re taking care of the family, they’re taking care of the addict. From the enablers point of view, isn’t it something that is actually building animosity? It is building a lot of tension even between all of the other dynamics in the family or whatever those relationships look like. 

Isn’t it more of a controlling behavior like, ‘okay, I’ve got this, I have control, I’m going to control the addict, I’m going to control everything else. I’m going to make this work.’ And doesn’t a lot of it have to do with letting go and realizing you don’t actually have all the control you think that you do? 

That’s 100 percent accurate. You know, control is an illusion. There really is no such thing in this situation. We can pretend and tell ourselves that we’re in control of this. We know deep down in our heart we’re not in control. That’s not a possibility to this. 

Sometimes we just have to let go and allow not only ourselves to do what we know is right, but to also to help that individual, that addict and let them know, ‘hey, this is not normal right behavior. Now things need to change. This isn’t healthy for us as a family, us as a couple, whatever it may be.’ And so letting go of that control, like I said, that’s really just an illusion. I think we lie to ourselves a whole lot saying, ‘oh, I’m in control of this.’ We know we’re not. 

Absolutely. And what about parents? Because I think that that becomes even more of a tricky dynamic because you are in control of your children to some extent. Being a parent and knowing that relationship grows towards separation, grows towards that child becoming an individual, making their own decisions. Does being a parent of an addict also cause complications in terms of enabling and how to separate out those things? Because, you know, you’ve got a 17 or an 18 year old addict and you’re still their parent, you’re still actually responsible for them. So how on earth do you even begin to manage that? 

You have about two more hours to talk about that? Parenting in this situation is never easy. Parenting in general it’s not an easy thing. When we add in the addiction to this and as parents we look at our kids, we know the path that they’re going down and we’re going, ‘man, this is not what you want to do. As your parent,’ I love you and I want to tell you to stop.’ You know, our teenage young adult kids look at us and go, ‘what do you know?’

They sure do. 

We get the eye roll and the whole nine yards, but it’s like, you know, I’m trying to help you not to struggle. And maybe sometimes that’s where as parents, maybe that’s where we’re at fault. Sometimes our kids are gonna have to struggle. They’re gonna have to realize that this path and doing what I’m doing is not good for myself or for anything going on here, right? So it’s a matter of parents letting their kids stumble a little bit. 


And I think letting them know that ‘as your parent, I love you no matter what. I may not like the behavior, but I love you. And I’m here to help you. So when you get to that point, I want you to know I’m here for you.’ You kind of do that dance as parents we all do – we drop hints. We give them opportunities and we go, ‘hey, do you want to do this?’ And ‘they go, no, leave me alone. I’m just partying with my friends. It’s no big deal.’ Right, but you’ve been partying with your friends for the past five days and it hasn’t stopped and you haven’t gone to school and now school’s starting to be affected. And that’s kind of, you know, that’s where I’m as a parent going, ‘hey, wait a second.’  

I want you to go and party. I want you to go have fun with your friends, but you also still have responsibilities. And that’s our role as parents, that’s kind of where we have to refocus our kids and let them know, ‘hey, it’s fine to be a kid, but you are growing up and you have responsibilities. Those vary from family to family, kid to kid, right? But like I always tell my kids, school is your job. When that job starts getting affected, I’m going to start stepping in. 


So that really is, ‘okay, you’re out partying with your friends every night, but you haven’t been going to school. We’re not gonna do that.’ 

As a parent, yes, you can kind of put your foot down. But again, as we all know, putting your foot down to a 17, 18 year old adult child doesn’t always work really well.

It can backfire.

And so, again, it’s it’s about letting your kid know that you’re there for him. You love them, you understand what they’re going through and that this is a difficult time for them. They’re trying to figure out who they are as a person, as an adult. At some point they’ll come back to us and go, ‘wow, you weren’t as stupid as I thought you were.’

Fingers crossed!

With fingers crossed, but typically, it’s around 25, 26 when their brain starts to actually fully develop and they realize, ‘oh, mom and dad really weren’t that crazy.’ 

‘You weren’t so dumb after all!’

So is it fair to say overall – I know this is a huge topic for such a short amount of time — but part of enabling behaviors is about letting go of control. And do you feel like in the dynamic, it’s easier for the enabler to let go than the addict? Is that usually where the healing begins? Is that the advice you would give to our audience, to anyone struggling with addiction who’s listening? 

Well, in thinking about that, you know, I don’t know if it’s easier for the addict or the enabler to give up that control. I think it’s probably more difficult on the other end. So, yes. That whole piece of ‘do I need to let go and kind of let this evolve the best way I can to not have that control and say ‘this is how it needs to be’ and to stop enabling somebody?’ Ultimately, yes. That’s the goal. So we want to not allow these bad behaviors. And I say bad, but really sometimes they are not even bad behaviors. They’re just unhealthy behaviors. That’s sometimes where we have to cross that line and really think about, you know ‘oh, my loved one, he’s doing these horrible things or just kind of bad things or things that I don’t like happening.’ Okay, but what am I doing? Am I allowing this to continue?’ And the enabler is always going to go, ‘well, of course not.’

But, you know, we have to be honest with ourselves, just like we have to be honest with our family member that maybe we are enabling and going, ‘you know, I don’t like this. This doesn’t feel good to me.’ And when that happens, you know, we really have to do some self inventory and go, ‘you know, am I contributing to this? Am I enabling this behavior? Sometimes the answer is going to be yes. 

That’s a hard pill to swallow. We have to understand that, you know, addiction in itself is a family issue. It’s not just the addict. 

We as family members in our own way, whether we want to call it enabling or not, contribute to this illness. And just as that addict who is drinking or doing substances is hurting himself, we’re hurting the family as well by allowing it to continue, to not talk about it in a healthy way and to say, ‘you know what? This isn’t right. I have to set a boundary and I have to tell you that I don’t want this to continue.’ This person needs to get help. Not only does the addict need to go get help, but the family can get help, too. 

Because this is a family issue, you know, people are gonna go, yeah, but I’m not the one drinking. No, you’re not the one drinking, but how long have you known that this person’s been drinking and it’s been unhealthy? Well, 20 years. Okay.

What part did you play in that? For 20 years, you continued to sit there and go, ‘It’s okay, it’s Uncle Johnny. You have got to start unpacking why it was that you felt ‘it’s okay, it’s Uncle Johnny’ and continue to allow that to happen. That takes some time, just like with addicts, it takes some time figuring out why they drink, you’re going to have to figure out why it is that you allow that to continue for 20 years. 

This is an amazing note to end on because we want to reach out to the community. If you are struggling with this as a family member, if you are trying to help a loved one who is struggling with addiction, please call Discovery Point Retreat at 855-306-8054. We are talking with Discovery Point Retreat’s clinical director Greg Powers. Thank you so much for being here, and I want to thank our audience for listening. Have an amazing day.


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