Addiction, Powerlessness, and Enabling Patterns

Teen Mental Health | Much Ado About Mental Health

Having an addiction seems to inherently involve certain dysfunctional emotional and psychological patterns. It’s not that a person with an addiction is to blame for these patterns, but rather that these were models that were likely deeply embedded in his or her family of origin.

In fact, a family that includes addiction will typically develop certain roles that members of the family tend to take on. These are dysfunctional roles that seem to develop as a result of the addiction in the family.  These are:

The Addict – The family member who has an addiction is often the center of attention.

The Hero – This family member wants to make the family look good. He or she will ignore the addiction in one way or another.

The Scapegoat – Instead of excelling and overachieving, another member of the family will attempt to steer attention away from the addiction by creating other problems. He or she will rebel, act out, or misbehave in order to keep eyes off the real problem in the family.

The Lost Child – This is the “good” member of the family who remains distant and ignores the problem altogether.

The Mascot – This is often the youngest of the family who tries to get everyone to laugh. He or she is the jokester, unconsciously attempting to make light of the

The Caretaker – This is the enabler in the family. He or she is the one who facilitates the addiction by “helping” the addict in an unhealthy way.

These roles tend to develop because of the underlying patterns that addiction seems to feed on. Powerlessness and enabling are patterns that are common among families with addiction.

Powerlessness is a feeling, often an unconscious one, that leads believing that your power is outside of your control. In other words, if you did poorly on your chemistry exam and you can admit that you did not study all the concepts covered in class or that you were distracted during your studying, you are exhibiting a sense of personal power and taking responsibility for your grade. However, if you feel that your low grade is because the teacher does not like you or because the concepts are too hard or because you had an argument the morning of the exam, you are handing over a sense of power to external sources.

To explain this further, psychologist Julian Rotter introduced and coined the term, locus of control, in the 1950’s. To put it more simply, your locus of control is what you deem to have power over the successes and failures in your life. Addiction is rooted in powerlessness. Ultimately, the addict hands over his or her power to the substance or behavior he or she is addicted to. Just as an individual might dismiss his power when he says that he failed the exam because of the teacher’s dislike of him, the addict is often completely ignorant of his or her power. A belief in being powerless, which often stems from trauma, easily results in developing an addiction.

Furthermore, enabling is a pattern that often exists in relationships where feelings of powerlessness exist. With this, there is often a belief among both or one of the partners that it would be impossible to make in life without the other person. The belief in being powerless in life leads to a dysfunctional relying on the other person for things that one can and should do on their own. This underlying belief in being powerless seems to attract an enabler who in turn believes that no one else can perform a task as well as they can. Enablers tend to take control of a situation thinking that they are being helpful without seeing that it would be more healthy to allow the other person to do that task on his or her own.

To enable means to assist, facilitate, or make possible. However, the pattern of enabling in families with an addict can be indirectly harmful and unhealthy. Instead of helping the one who is addicted to alcohol or substances, a spouse or sibling might do things for the addict that he could be and should be doing for himself. To help someone is to assist in a task that he or she cannot do alone, such as calling the pharmacy when your spouse has lost his voice from strep throat. Enabling is completing a task that he can do on his own, such as paying the bills for an addict who hasn’t or can’t work because of his addiction.

Learning and recognizing these patterns can assist with replacing them with healthier ones. However, the first step anyone can take, whether an addict or an enabler, is to find the power within. Even if recognizing one’s own power needs to happen again and again, doing so will accelerate recovery from addiction.

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