As an addiction treatment provider, among the more difficult topics to tackle when educating a family about addiction and/or recovery is the difference between enabling and supporting. A lot of times, people think that they are being supportive, when in fact, they’re actually enabling. The reverse is also true; there are times when it may seem like someone’s enabling when in fact they’re actually being supportive. The difference between “enabling” and “supporting” can be found in the delineation between addiction-related behaviors and those behaviors associated with recovery. The trick is in knowing which is which.

When a person is active in an addiction, there’s a good chance that he or she places blame for various conditions of his or her life. This blaming is a symptom of the underlying shame associated with an addiction. It may seem like someone wants to make a change, but then something always comes up that derails the change. While life does happen, there’s a good chance that the addict is did not act towards the change and blamed someone else, or was lying in the first place. Either way, the addict becomes so mired in shame that he or she can’t even trust him or herself to act on his or her own behalf.   This lack of self-trust then manifests as lying and denial.

When someone is in recovery, however, that person will act on his or her own behalf, and accept responsibility for whatever actions need to be taken. It becomes pretty easy to see, when I talk with someone and that person is humble about his or her life’s situations, there’s a good chance that the person is in fact trying to find a healthier way of life, whether or not that person continues to use substances.

To illustrate, two people, Jack and Jill, both claim to want to enter treatment for their respective addiction and set up appointments. Jack shows up on time to his appointment, but Jill doesn’t. Instead, Jill provides a litany of excuses that basically amount to, “It’s not my fault I didn’t make it,” and reschedules. Even if Jill shows up, there’s a good chance that she will blame others for her addiction, which might have validity, but chances are that she won’t take responsibility for her recovery. Jack, on the other hand, approaches his addiction as something that may have started with something external to his own actions (such as underlying depression and/or trauma), but he will act towards finding a healthier version of himself by finding a job, or even attending a 12-step group.

Now, if someone give Jill money to “buy lunch,” I’m will to bet that there is enabling going on, as Jill will probably use the money to score. However, if Jack needs lunch money, there’s a strong chance that he will in fact eat lunch. The person who gives Jill money is enabling, while the person who gives Jack money is being supportive. As is usually the case, the proof of whether someone is enabling or supporting is in the addiction or recovery pudding. The key to look for is humble responsibility for life. Not fear. Not anger. True humility is the key that differentiates addiction from recovery.