For Family Members: Are You an Enabler?

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

If one of your family members or loved ones suffers from anxiety disorders, have you become an enabler in an effort to help? When offering support, it is easy to sometimes provide so much assistance that you cross the line and actually enable the person.

Are You an Enabler?

How do you know if you are an enabler? Ask yourself the following questions. If you answer "yes" to many of them, you may not really be helping your loved one, but instead giving him or her a reason to manage symptoms and regain independence.

  • Do you try to soften the blow or protect someone from the consequences of their actions?

  • Do you make excuses for their behavior?

  • Do you attempt to shield them from feeling emotional pain that is caused by their actions?

  • Do you avoid social situations yourself because of embarrassment or not wanting to explain your loved one's behaviors?

  • Do you take on responsibilities that your loved one should do or complete?

  • Do you doubt yourself, see yourself as a failure or wonder whether you are "crazy"?"

  • Do you feel angry or resentful of the time and effort you must put into caring for your loved one?

  • Do you give up taking care of yourself in order to be with or care for your loved one?

  • Do you deny or try to hide problems your loved one may have?

  • Do you make decisions for your loved one?

  • Do you feel trapped and responsible for the problems of the loved one?

  • Have you created an emotional wall around yourself to shield yourself from emotional hurt, pain or anger?

If you have answered yes to many of these questions, you may be helping too much and not providing your loved one with the opportunity to seek treatment, follow treatment or recover from anxiety. Remember, anxiety disorders are treatable and most people will be able to live productive and full lives. Many people with anxiety have indicated that relationships improve once treatment has begun but this cannot happen if you continue to do and protect someone from both feeling and seeking help for their anxiety.

This is not to say that you should not be understanding and compassionate in offering your support. The best way to help may be to help your loved one explore different treatment options and find a qualified mental health professional.

The Impact of Enabling

Enabling is creating a cycle of co-dependency. You come to need to the feeling of being needed and the person with anxiety depends on you to care for them, make decisions and avoid all situations that may cause anxiety.

Enabling a loved one is not just detrimental to their well-being it can cause frustration for you as well. Because we want to show that we are helping, we may actually support the anxiety and the problems it causes and shield them from the consequences. Many times, when someone does not seek or follow treatment, the symptoms of anxiety worsen. Your resentment may only deepen as time goes on and there is no improvement.

Excuses vs. Reasons

One common way of enabling is to make excuses. Understanding the difference between excuses and reasons can help to end this type of enabling. An excuse is a made up reason intending to have some escape some responsibility. A reason, however, is the valid cause behind something. For example, suppose you have a family dinner at your sister's house to attend. Your loved one is feeling anxious and you are concerned about panic attacks if he or she attends the dinner. You call your sister and explain your spouse is ill and you won't be able to attend. This is an excuse. You have enabled your spouse, giving him or her control over your relationship with your family. Using reasons instead of excuses, you could have told the truth and still stayed home, you could have attended the dinner alone or you could have both attended the dinner and taken measures to reduce the chances of a panic attack or planned on what to do if a panic attack occurred. Using reasons instead of excuses creates responsibility and accountability for both you and your loved one.

Whether it is a family dinner, a job or completing chores around the house, the consistent use of excuses can absolve the anxiety sufferer of responsibility. Excuses are a way to cover-up and deny the real culprit: anxiety. Instead, face how anxiety impacts the person's life and work to create specific strategies for managing symptoms.

Changing Enabling into Positive Help

Recognizing your behaviors as enabling is the first step in changing. Accepting that your behaviors are not helping your loved one toward recovery and could possibly be causing additional hardship will help to provide motivation to finding more productive ways to offer support. Many family members and spouses find it helpful to attend some therapy sessions with the anxiety sufferer and work with the therapist on specific strategies and roles each person can take on within the family.

If you have been enabling for a long period of time, you may find that therapy, by yourself, may be helpful. It can help to address your need to feel needed, anger and resentment that may have built up over the years and help you to adopt healthier ways of coping with your loved one's anxiety disorder.

Stop making excuses. Begin to tell the truth to yourself and to those around you. Don't call your spouse in sick from work when anxiety prevents him or her from leaving the house; don't make excuses on why you can't attend social functions. By telling the truth you learn to accept how the anxiety disorder impacts your life and can begin to deal with the disorder rather than trying to hide it.

Take care of yourself. Begin a daily regimen of making sure there is time set aside to care for yourself. So many times, when a family has mental illness, their needs become so overwhelming we forget about our own needs. Make sure you get the rest and care you need.

Go to social events yourself. If your spouse or loved one feels too anxious or is unable to attend social functions, go any way. You need to be around friends and relatives to receive their support.

Don't accept your loved one's responsibilities as your own. If your loved one doesn't complete their responsibilities around the house or has days when their anxiety stops them from helping out, don't take on their duties as well as your own. Take a deep breath and live without the chores being done. Let your loved one see and feel how not caring for their anxiety impacts the entire household.

Work together. Talk with your loved one, when things are calm and anxiety is low, about what you will and will not do, what you will accept and what you won't accept. Let them know this isn't a reflection that you don't care about them, but a reflection of how much you do care and how much you want them to get better.

Enabling anxiety sufferers to give in to their anxiety and shy away from treatment can be as damaging as the anxiety itself. Learning to stop enabling may be the most important step you can take to help your loved one during recovery from anxiety.

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.