I can't tell you how many clients have asked me this question! Clients who in all sincerity wanted to help a son, daughter, husband, mother or friend, only to discover that they were fueling the very problem they were hoping to eliminate.
The word "enabling" initially emerged from the literature on alcoholism. It was used to describe situations where the spouse of an alcoholic in a desperate attempt to get their partner sober, would try everything from lecturing to searching the house for bottles to pouring the alcohol down the drain. It was discovered that rather than decreasing the drinking behavior, more often than not, it exacerbated their partner's drinking. The addict simply became better at lying, sneaking around, hiding bottles and covering their tracks. Why? Well, think about it. I have yet to meet someone who liked being controlled. So, when someone tries to control us, the instinct often is to fight back. In fact, the addict can become so focused on being angry at their spouse for "nagging" and trying to control them that it becomes a great distraction from them having to examine for themselves how self destructive their behavior is. The war with their partner consumes them and as a result, they don't have to come up against their own internal struggle. Similarly, a mother who hounds her 16-year-old son to study, may find that he is so caught up in being angry with her for getting on his case, that he hasn't really considered whether it is important to him if he graduates high school or not!
Nowadays, the word enabling can be used to describe any interpersonal situation where attempts to "help" only make the problem worse in the long-term because they allow the other person to refrain from taking full responsibility for their behavior. Enabling can take many forms. It can involve bailing someone out, making excuses for their behavior, lying for them, trying to fix the problem for them or colluding in denial and pretending that the problem does not even exist! One of the most vivid examples of enabling that I can recall from my practice was working with a middle aged couple where the husband had recently been diagnosed with Type II Diabetes. The husband had taken the news quite casually, whereas, the wife was beside herself with concern about the very real potential medical complications (e.g., blindness, loss of limbs, coma) of not controlling the illness. In reaction to her husband's failure to take steps to address his condition, she researched the illness, bought cook books, diligently prepared meals for him and started him on a rigorous discipline of healthy eating. A crisis erupted in their marriage, however, when she found out quite by accident that her husband had been frequenting the greasy spoon down the street for their fabulous burgers and fries! The wife though very intelligent, was unable to accept that until her husband was motivated to address his illness, proper management of his condition was unlikely to happen. Overcome by her fear of losing him, she could not resist continuing to try to control his diet though she knew intellectually that doing so was a lost cause.
How do you know whether you are helping or enabling? Well the best yardstick to use prior to offering "help" is to ask the question: Is the other person able? Simply put, helping is doing something for someone that they are not capable of doing for themselves. Enabling is doing for someone things that they could or should be doing for themselves. If the person cannot help themselves, it makes sense to intervene and offer assistance. If, on the other hand, the person is perfectly able to act on their own behalf, then they have their own reasons for refraining and pushing the river is more likely to lead to rebellion than to compliance. Ask yourself, "Does this person need help or do I think she needs help? Sometimes, what you want for someone you care about is simply different from what they want for themselves. It can be hard to get out of self righteousness and accept that there is no right or wrong, just opinion. It is much more difficult, though, when the other person's behavior is clearly self destructive as is the case with addicts of any kind. It can be very hard to stand on the sidelines and watch while someone you love self destructs. It takes enormous strength to keep on loving them and yet not try to control their behavior. Feelings of helplessness and fear can drive us to engage in some pretty crazy behaviors. When someone you love challenges you to have to stand by while they do things to harm themselves, know that there is no shame in seeking out help from a qualified psychologist. This is one of the most heart breaking and difficult life situations to manage. There is no need to have to do it alone.