Explaining Enabling Behavior: Is It Harmful?

This is one of those popular psychology terms that get tossed around lightly in conversations and media without much insight into the full spectrum of its meaning and the severity of repercussions this behavior can have. We might consider it simply the easy way to avoid an argument. Or we might not want to be the “nagging spouse” in a romantic relationship, particularly regarding stereotypes attached to women. Codependency and enabling are so closely related that at times it is hard to distinguish between the two.

So, what does enabling someone really mean? Is it pretending not to notice harmful behaviors to preserve peace and not shake things up in your relationships? What is the true meaning behind the title of  “enabler person” and its impact for those involved? Each of us might have different ideas come to mind based on our personal experiences with the people we’re in close relationships with. It could be our romantic partner, child, parents, or friends. 

We could also be on the other side of the enabling behavior and have someone quietly notice yet not mention our characteristics that are causing harm to them, others, or ourselves. Let’s forget about the guesswork, look into the true enabler definition, and answer the question of “What is an enabler?” exactly.


What Does It Mean If Someone Is An Enabler? 

Most of us have found ourselves in a situation to ignore or inadvertently support someone’s irresponsible or harmful actions out of fear that we might cause an uncomfortable situation or strain the relationship with the person in question. We might have, unknowingly or fully aware, played the role of an enabler. However, what is the definition of enabling?

A common definition of an enabler is someone who regularly allows a family member, close friend, or romantic partner to engage in irresponsible or harmful behavior, by making it easier for that behavior to continue. While the term is frequently used with a negative connotation, it’s important to acknowledge that many people become enablers without realizing it. Often we hear from the enabler “I just can’t let them be in pain”, or “they need my help or things won’t be ok.”

Enablers often find themselves organizing their behavior around the needs and choices of the person they’re enabling. It’s a frequent misconception that enablers knowingly support and condone negative choices. In fact, they’re often the ones who end up negatively affected and disturbed by the consequences that the enabled person could face. However, their motivation is usually noble and stems from wanting to “fix things” or “keep the peace.”

Some examples of enabling behavior include:

  • Ignoring or tolerating harmful or irresponsible behaviors. 
  • Providing financial help to the enabled person when doing so is harmful. 
  • Covering up their mistakes, making excuses or justifications. 
  • Taking on their responsibilities. 
  • Avoiding the issue or refusing to talk about it.
  • Not setting clear boundaries or allowing the enabled person to cross them repeatedly. 

Over time, enabling behavior can take a toll on a person’s happiness and lead to resentment toward the person they’re enabling. It’s essential to understand that enabling, while usually well-intentioned, inadvertently perpetuates harmful actions. Did you know that supporting your loved ones without becoming an unwitting enabler is possible by fostering open communication and setting clear and healthy boundaries?

What Are Enabling Behaviors? 

Recognizing enabling behaviors is the first step toward breaking this harmful cycle. It requires introspection and a willingness to change these patterns for the betterment of both yourself and your loved ones. Remember that enabling behaviors extend far beyond the realm of substance abuse or addiction, which is a frequent misconception. They are complex behavioral patterns within close relationships that require our attention and effort. 

These behaviors encompass a range of actions and attitudes that, knowingly or unknowingly, condone, accept, or even support negative actions, allowing a loved one to persist in their destructive behavior despite the awareness of consequences. Think of it as a distorted attempt to solve problems – like trying to patch a sinking ship with band-aids. It’s a well-intentioned and yet misguided effort to keep the peace or maintain harmony within the relationship.

One common aspect of enabling behaviors is allowing various types of addiction to thrive without confrontation. Whether it’s substance addiction, gambling, or any other compulsive behavior, the enabler person often turns a blind eye or actively participates in enabling the continuation of these harmful habits. They can also manifest in allowing someone to behave in ways that do not align with their age, responsibilities, or capabilities. 

Another example of enabling behavior is allowing a partner to emotionally throw their anger around and not confronting the situation.  Walking on eggshells is a term used by alot of people and the person walking on the eggshells is enabling th ebehavior to continue even when it is hurting them personally. 

At their core, enabling behaviors stem from a desire to shield our loved ones from pain or discomfort. However, in doing so, we perpetuate a cycle of negativity and hinder their growth and personal development. And, often end up hurting ourselves.

Why Is Enabling Harmful?

This is a question that deserves a closer look because the effects of enabling can be toxic to all parties involved. Enabling is essentially love twisted into fear, and the desire to help morphs into a form of control that actually allows negative behaviors to continue. Let’s explore why enabling is detrimental to everyone it touches.

Harmful For The Enabler

Enablers, driven by the desire to prevent a major crisis, get caught in a relentless cycle of stress. Instead of averting one significant catastrophe, they end up shouldering the burden of managing numerous smaller daily crises. This constant strain can severely affect their mental and emotional well-being.

Most enablers are aware, to some extent, that they’re being taken advantage of. This knowledge can lead to feelings of frustration, resentment, or unappreciation. While they honestly believe they’re helping, the reality is that they are facilitating the very behaviors they wish to prevent.

Harmful For The Enabled

Enabling can also have adverse consequences for the person being enabled. When someone repeatedly steps in to handle tasks and responsibilities they could manage on their own, it erodes their sense of self-worth over time. They become conditioned to rely on external assistance, not learning to confront the consequences of their actions.

Setting boundaries might feel like punishment to the enabled individual, as they’ve grown accustomed to the absence of accountability. However, this means they might develop low self-esteem over time, feel incapable of handling everyday challenges, and lack the motivation to change. This state of learned helplessness ultimately hinders personal growth and development.

Harmful To Family Members And Friends

Enabling doesn’t just affect the enabler and the enabled; it also has repercussions on other family members and friends. Enabled individuals begin to expect that their actions are exempt from consequences, leading to a sense of entitlement. They might even manipulate their enablers emotionally to ensure that the support continues.

This dynamic can create a toxic environment where trust is eroded, relationships become strained, and the well-being of everyone involved is compromised. The cycle of enabling perpetuates itself, making it challenging for all parties to break free from its grasp.


Learn How To To Stop Enabling Someone And Start Empowering Them Instead With PIVOT’s Guidance

While most enabling behavior comes from love and an honest desire to help someone, this is not an effective way to break the pattern and help the person you’re enabling to achieve responsibility and personal growth. If you’re held back by fear, you can start by seeking help for yourself. With the help of PIVOT’s experienced coaches, you can learn to recognize your enabling behaviors in individual sessions and work toward addressing them in a healthy way.Our discrete Glass House retreats are another option to explore strategies to help you end this unhealthy cycle and promote healthier relationship patterns and meaningful connections. Instead of being someone’s safety net, you can learn to create the space for their empowerment and allow them to find their true selves while maintaining healthy boundaries.

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