Enabling VS Empathy – It’s a Fine Line – Interacting With Addiction

Empathy hand in hand on bikes


Even if you aren’t familiar with addiction treatment, you’ve probably heard the term “enabler”. Enabling describes how loved ones interact with a person with a substance use disorder (SUD). And although many of us have heard the word, few of us know what it actually means.


Enabling behavior is anything that supports an addict’s disease…


Examples of enabling behavior include:

Providing access to substances.

“Darren shouldn’t come to the bar with us tonight… but it’s my birthday!”


Using language that downplays the consequences of substance use.

“It’s not that bad. Everyone does it. Darren is just stressed… he has a difficult job.”


Avoiding difficult conversations or refusing to confront the addict. This is often due to the enabler’s own insecurities or fear.

“But what if Darren stops talking to me after I confront him? What if he gets angry?”


Covering up mistakes.

“Darren didn’t make it to the meeting today, so I told the boss he had food poisoning.”


Not following through with boundaries set by the enabler.

“I said I wouldn’t lend Darren money because he uses it for alcohol. But I paid his car insurance this month, instead. That’s okay, right?”


Taking care of responsibilities ignored by the addict.

“I’ll just clean up the bathroom (again)… I don’t feel like fighting with him over it.”


No Consequences?

In these scenarios, the person with the SUD (“Darren”) doesn’t have to deal with the consequences of his use. Additionally, Darren may become reliant on enabling behaviors and use them to further his addiction. In this way, Darren never needs to change his behavior. Or even view it as a problem.


It often feels uncomfortable to correct a propensity to enable. Especially if we consider ourselves to be nurturing, compassionate, or emphatic by nature. Our enabling behaviors, which harm the person with a SUD, may have felt “reasonable” or “kind” at the time.


Little girl enabling dog - addict

Weighing In…

Lately, I’ve been struggling with my own empathic behavior. And unable to find a balance that feels “right.” At work, my boundaries are firm and clear. But it’s difficult to navigate personal relationships, not as an addiction counselor. So I decided to ask around. I sent the following message to a number of important folks in my life:


I’ve been thinking about the difference between empathic and enabling behavior. When someone I love is struggling, where is the line between helping and harming? Any insight there?


And I received the following responses:


You can put yourself in someone’s shoes without giving them permission to act a certain way. Don’t provide them the means to do something harmful (in the short term, or the long run). We all need compassion… but enabling? That’s a fine line.

– College Roommate (high school teacher)


If someone isn’t helping hold you accountable, do they really care about you? Be truthful, and allow others to be truthful with you. Respect the autonomy of others, try not to be judgmental when their decisions don’t align with your values… But if it’s destructive, step in.

– Childhood Friend (attorney)


Provide them a safe space. Don’t let them get away with anything, and give them a place to rest. Be gentle… but don’t let them get away with anything.

– Partner (fishmonger)


Support and encouragement. My parents ruled with an iron fist… it didn’t do much good.

– Neighbor (bartender)


When I empathize with a client, I am connecting with them emotionally. To enable a client prevents that person from taking responsibility for their emotions.

– Mom (therapist)


Empathy has to do with feelings and intentions. Enabling is using your actions to feed something that’s unhealthy.

– Best Friend (wildlife specialist)


You’ve Gotta’ Carry That Weight

Perhaps the answer isn’t as cut-and-dried as I would like it to be. Things are easier to conceptualize when they are. Perhaps enabling behavior is much more nuanced, in practice. Folks don’t change until they want to, after all. We can’t force change, right? Even if it’s something we desperately want… need… know is healthy? Do we ever need to carry that weight? What are my responsibilities, here?


Carrying the weight of addiction


I may be coming at this from the wrong angle. The goal of helping isn’t always to change. Boundaries keep the boundary setter safe. And although we can’t control “Darren,” we can control our behavior as not to feed his addiction.


Maybe you’re struggling with this issue, too. I encourage you to refer to the above list of enabling behaviors. And if you are supporting someone’s disease with your words or actions (or non-actions), it may be time to reconsider your role.



after marilyn head shot bio

Marilyn Spiller is a viral writer, recovery coach, and recovery advocate. She is the Marketing Director at Sanford, responsible for written and creative content, website design, new media, promotions, subscriber outreach, and SEO. Excursions Magazine is a particular source of pride; it serves a wide range of readers, and “excursion” has become part of the company vernacular, describing Sanford’s signature experiential outings for those in treatment. She also developed and hosts the podcast Anatomy of Addiction and is Vice President of the Board of JACK Mental Health Advocacy.