People often confuse "enabling" with "helping." They don't see a difference, or don't think a distinction is being made, and assume that people who view enabling negatively are suggesting that all help is bad.

In fact, enabling is "bad helping." Or more accurately, it's behavior which helps someone avoid the negative consequences of consistently bad choices.

For example, if my car breaks down on the freeway and my friend Jill comes to pick me up, that's helping. But if my car breaks down all the time because I don't bother to take care of it because it's too much trouble and it's so expensive and anyway Jill will come and get me if it breaks down and this happens over and over, then Jill is enabling me to keep on being irresponsible about my car.

The other thing that confuses people is that it sounds so damning. It comes off as a label - you're an ENABLER. Sometimes people place blame on the person who's trying to help, and makes them feel resentful. In reality, it's important to recognize that enabling comes from a place of trying to help, and that the people who are making bad choices need to take responsibility for their actions and not blame anyone's enabling behavior.

A few examples of enabling are:

All these examples can be confusing. Sometimes, with these lists, it can seem like all behavior is enabling. The key here is boundaries.

For example, if Alex's car breaks down all the time, it's easy for the codependent person to say "That's not Alex's fault!" But Alex does have a part in it: there are a lot of possible solutions including regular maintenance, getting the car fixed, getting a new car, taking public transportation, and carpooling. The codependent response -- "I have to help Alex! It's not Alex's fault! If I don't help, what on Earth will Alex do?" -- relies on a tiny, imaginary world in which they and Alex are the only people, and the current situation is the only option. It's the world in which they have to help and save everyone. Except themselves.

It's not about blaming Alex for the car situation: presumably there's something keeping Alex from addressing it, even if it's just the fact that it's easier to keep on breaking down and getting picked up than to change. It's just about recognizing the possibility of getting that "My car broke down! Come get me!" call and saying, "No."

As codependents learn in recovery, the way to decide when to help is to examine your motivation. Are you helping someone in order to fix their lives? Are you helping them when you would rather be doing something else? Is the time you spend thinking about them or their behavior taking away from the time you spend doing things for yourself? In fact, do you ever do anything just for yourself? If you don't, if these other things are true for you, you might be enabling.

En*a"ble (?), v. t. [imp. & p. p. Enabled (?); p. pr. & vb. n. Enabling (?).]


To give strength or ability to; to make firm and strong.

[Obs.] "Who hath enabled me."

1 Tim. i. 12.

Receive the Holy Ghost, said Christ to his apostles, when he enabled them with priestly power. Jer. Taylor.


To make able (to do, or to be, something); to confer sufficient power upon; to furnish with means, opportunities, and the like; to render competent for; to empower; to endow.

Temperance gives Nature her full play, and enables her to exert herself in all her force and vigor. Addison.


© Webster 1913.

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