It's often tough for a person in the thick of it to realize which type of behavior they're engaged in. "Support means being honest with your loved one even if they do not want to hear what you have to say, researching treatment centers for your loved one, not making excuses for your loved one's behavior, and showing your loved one 'tough love' by not covering up the problem, but rather exposing it," emails Kristen Fuller, M.D., a clinical mental health writer with California-based Center for Discovery.
By contrast, she says, "Enabling usually consists of ignoring the problem, covering up your loved one's mistakes, allowing your loved one to make excuses for their actions, purchasing alcohol or drugs for your loved one because you feel bad and allowing your loved one to spiral out of control because you are afraid of getting in trouble if you speak your mind."
So when many people try to be understanding and not "too hard" on a person in turmoil, it actually delegitimizes the problem because it's not being recognized, addressed and treated.
"This disempowers the one struggling from owning and overcoming their addiction," says Shari Botwin, a licensed clinical social worker. "We're not born with the need to rescue people. [Often enablers] were made in their own families to feel like if there's a problem you have to fix it."
Another reason that enabling behaviors persist is because often it's easier to go along with the problem than trying to fight it. Tony Tan, clinical manager at The Dawn Medical Rehab & Wellness Center in Thailand, notes that enablers are generally afraid to be assertive with the person in question, so they maintain the status quo even as their loved one deteriorates day by day.
"Supporting a person with depression or an addiction means doing what is right and in the best interests of him or her — even when they do not like it," he explains in an email. "This support could involve admission into hospital or rehab to force that person to get the proper help they need."
Some of the more common ways that people enable others is by helping them to avoid consequences, Raichbach explains. This can include lying for them, bailing them out of jail and generally cleaning up their major messes. Painful though it may be to see someone you love fall flat on their face, "When people don't feel the consequences of their own actions, there is no motivation for change," he says.