The Difference Between Supporting and Enabling

The damages of addiction create ripple effects that affect everybody in reach of an addict. While individuals self-destruct due to substance abuse and other addictions, the people in their lives also suffer. When an addict’s loved one is seen picking up the emotional and performative slack for them, that can be a sign that they are doing more harm than good.

An addict’s friends, family, and acquaintances have the choice to either support or enable them in their road to recovery. Enabling them is when people do things for addicts that they could otherwise do themselves if sober. It’s easy for family members and friends to become enablers because they hate to watch their loved ones suffer by their own vices; however, enabling does not support someone in their journey to overcome this sickness.

Of course, addiction is extremely complicated and how it should be handled may change situationally. The true division between support and enablement may be hard to discern for people who aren’t addicts or haven’t gone through this situation before. If well-meaning individuals can understand the discrepancies of what true support looks like, then they will be able to further help their loved ones find a sober lifestyle.


Truly supporting an addict is to keep in mind their long term goal of rehabilitation. A person’s actions can either be productive or they can be destructive, and anything that encourages them toward sobriety is the former. Support involves being proactive on the part of loved ones.

It’s important to understand the urgency of intervening sooner than later, and how to proceed after an intervention has taken place. Being proactive in the support of an addict may play itself out in several ways:

  • Communicating with them about how their actions hurt you.
  • Going to counseling with them.
  • Staying sober around them.
  • Spending time in sober spaces.
  • Looking out for signs of their relapse.
  • Developing trust with them.

All of this can be boiled down to the idea of walking alongside someone instead of away from them. However, the environments addicts find themselves in are crucial to whether or not they are properly rehabilitated. Doctors and nurses realize this and thus enact population-based behavioral care. But outside of these rigid technical structures, it’s important for an addict’s loved ones to build support circles and try to eliminate toxicity. 


Working actively not to enable an addict is a battle to be fought on a physical front as well as a psychological one. The psychological traps of addiction can sometimes create a “failure to launch” scenario, keeping people stuck in their old ways. Friends and family often play a large role in this when they don’t allow the addict to experience the consequences of their addiction.

Additionally, enablement may involve carelessness about one’s actions around someone struggling with addiction. Some examples of enablement are:

  • Giving someone a ride after a night of substance use.
  • Loaning money to them.
  • Bailing them out of jail.
  • Inviting them to spend time with friends who are a bad influence.
  • Speaking favorably of substance use in your own life.
  • Using substances in front of a recovering addict.

The problem is that enablers often tend to think they’re helping, or that they’re taking pity on an addict, when they enable someone who’s recovering. This savior-complex has serious consequences, however, and can keep people from seeing the pitfalls of their own addiction. It’s best to listen to the advice given by experts on this matter and let them face the repercussions of their choices — but remain there to catch and support them afterward.

Rehabilitatory Steps To Take

The first step in being able to honestly support an addict is to help them understand that they have a problem. Only once they do so can they start taking steps to real recovery. While some addiction plans set out things like twelve-step programs, every person is different, and these may or may not help them. Their personal journeys depend on who they are.

But some places to start looking for recovery methods could be:

  • Rehabilitation and treatment centers.
  • Counselors or therapists.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

Keep in mind, support and enablement also apply in the professional world and other extracurricular territories. If medical professionals find that patients have addictive personalities, they should enact steps to ensure said patients are not prescribed addictive medicine. In the workplace, coworkers and bosses should take their employee’s recovery very seriously as well. They should consider not inviting them to company meetings with alcohol and allow them paid-time-off to see treatment specialists.

If the people surrounding addicts can be mindful of what may help or harm them, then they will hopefully see a fruitful change in their lives. Though an addict’s patterns of behavior need to be addressed, you have a responsibility not to get in the way of that. So try to understand the difference between active support and the good-intentioned enablement, because your influence makes a world of difference. True friends rally for the best, and do not support people’s self-destruction.

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Brooke Faulkner is a mother of two and wilderness enthusiast. When she's not writing, she can usually be found zipping around the mountains on her ATV.

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