Thursday, September 1, 2011

Ask Parvati 27: Addiction - Part 5: Helping Versus Enabling


(Continued from Getting Help)

For those who love a person who struggles with addiction, it is so very painful to see. Ultimately, we too need to admit that we are powerless over the addiction. We want to help. We see those we love in pain. We want to take that pain away. But we cannot make changes for anyone but ourselves. It is often hard enough to make changes for ourselves. We are powerless to make the changes for those we love.

Often addicts find themselves close to people that enable. Enablers are harder to see sometimes than addicts, because enablers seem kind and helpful. They are ever wiling to help, cover up, make excuses, clean up the mess, tippy-toe around addicts. There is a powerful yet very subtle ego force at play with enablers. They are doing “good deeds”, so they are “good” people, “helping” those “poor souls” with the problem. But they have a problem too.

Unfortunately, too often these good intentions end up feeding addiction and not in any way helping. Because addiction is based on consumption and wanting, it is insatiably hungry. It needs attention. It needs to ingest, to buy, to take, to feed. It feeds on attention as well. When we tippy-toe around it, the addiction energy feels powerfully important. When we cry for it, yell at it, rage at it, pray for it, plead with it, fight it, we are in fact feeding the addiction.

Tough love, clear boundaries and a no-nonsense attitude are the only way to be around anyone with addiction. Whether you are around someone with an addiction or whether you are questioning whether you yourself are an addict, a powerful tool is to ensure that your actions and your words are in alignment. Those with addictions are used to spin doctoring, twisting the truth, or outright lying to try to get their way, to try to satiate their feeling of wanting, to get the hit their disease needs.

This does not mean we need to be cold or cruel. Tough love means being rooted, clear and strong. And in fact, these are also qualities that you can find in compassionate action. When we are sentimentally involved, we become entangled. When we are compassionate, we are a clear witness to what is: present, open, available, but rooted in self-love. We must stay rooted in who we are and what we want from our lives, because we can easily get sucked into the vortex of addiction. Addiction has a gravitational pull. If we are too close and not grounded, soon we will get sucked into the drama too.

We must stand at a safe distance from someone with an addiction, be present for ourselves, available to support him or her, and get on with our own life. Ultimately, we can change ourselves. We cannot change anyone else. Too often our lives get put on hold while we focus on trying to fix the one with the problem, not realizing that in fact, we too have a problem.

The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Sobriety begins with taking a step towards self love, self worth, valuing yourself enough to let go of things that drag you down. People who are not addicts have the brain chemistry to know the difference between habits that are not useful and habits that are. Addicts have a harder time with that and must learn this discernment. The brain is plastic and can change. New habits are possible. Health, sobriety and a life that works are possible for everyone, even for an addict. As for everyone, we must be willing to admit we have a problem, look at our shadow and embrace the fullness of who we are.

1) Are there addicts in your life that you are enabling?

2) In which way have you allowed someone’s addiction to rule your life?

3) What do you need to do to take the self-loving steps to focus on your own life?

4) If you find it hard to separate yourself from an addict, perhaps because you feel guilty, then you need professional help. You likely need to go to Al-Anon and/or work with a professional therapist that specializes in addiction.

REMINDER: Don’t forget that today submissions are due for this week’s Ask Parvati blog. Send your questions to

(Continued tomorrow with We Attract What We Know)


  1. I feel this is a very important post. It is so easy to hide one's own anxiety to please behind the banner of "serving everyone with selfless love and compassion", when one does not fully understand the true nature of compassion.

    As much as the addict's ego feeds off the attention given by the enabler, so does the enabler's ego feed off the "reward" of an addict's apparent gratitude (or simply off the feeling of "I am so good and compassionate and helpful, and no one else is there for them like I am"). I've spoken before about having been an enabler in the past, and how addicts I've dealt with have responded to that enabling by praising me, buttering me up, telling me how kind and compassionate I am and how grateful they are for me. They got their hit, their ego is happy, so they spread the apparent "love". The reality is, there is nothing selfless or compassionate or loving about this dynamic. Period. To support, to encourage, to enable someone living in illusion is not compassion. Ever.

    It can be frightening for an enabler (conditioned to believe that if the addict is not appeased, the sky will fall - there will be upset, antagonism or even violence) to move beyond the limited, ego-feeding idea of compassion into true, expansive compassion which sees that true love and compassion is not to shield the addict from the consequence of their impossibilities choices, any more than it is wise or loving to do your friend's homework for him or her after they spent the evening playing video games.

  2. In this same vein, a couple of verses from the Dhammapada:

    By oneself is evil done,
    by oneself defiled,
    by oneself it’s left undone,
    by self alone one purified.
    Purity, impurity on oneself depend,
    no one can purify another.

    Let none neglect their good
    for others’ good however great.
    Know well oneself’s own good
    and to that good attend.

  3. Oh my Pranada! I love that quote! Thank you for sharing it!

  4. Another quote:

    Q. Can sympathy harm a person?

    Amma: If we are not careful and offer our sympathy without understanding the subtle aspets of a particular situation and a person's mental constitution, it can be harmful. It is dangerous when people attach too much importance to sympathetic words. It can even become an obsession, gradually ruining one's discriminative power by building a small, cocoon-like world around them. They may feel comforted, but they might never put forth any effort to come out of their situation. Without their knowledge, they may move more and more into darkness.

    Q: Amma, what do you mean by "cocoon-like world"?

    Amma: Amma means you will lose your capacity to look deeper into yourself, to see what is really going on. You will give too much importance to the other person's words and trust him or her blindly without properly using your discrimination.
    Sympathy is superficial love without any understanding about the root cause of the problem. Whereas compassion is love that sees the real source of the problem and deals with it appropriately.

    - Amma, "From Amma's Heart"