For those of you who have been following me for a while, you know that I love the Serenity Prayer. I’m not a fan of the way it’s recited at the end of every 12-Step meeting, in a quick, sing-song kind of way. In fact, even as I said it that way with everybody else for the first 10 years of my own recovery from many addictive behaviours, I began to feel curious about this Prayer and what it really meant. As I dug deeper, I discovered it to be one of the simplest, most profound pieces of writing I had ever experienced. And now, as an Addictions Therapist for over 30 years, I often use it with my clients to help provide both simplicity and clarity in sometimes very complicated circumstances.
I have written several articles about the Serenity Prayer over the years, which can be found on my Blog and the Free Articles page on my website. Today, however, I want to focus mostly on the last line:
“The Wisdom to Know the Difference”
The two lines before that speak to what we can change – which is ourselves – and what we can’t change – which is anything outside of ourselves, including the other people we keep trying to change, to no avail. But in my opinion, the last line is the most important part of this Prayer – and until we understand its meaning, we will not be able to achieve the serenity we so badly want and so deeply deserve. The reason? Because without the wisdom to know the difference between what we can change and what we can’t change, we keep trying to change all kinds of things that we simply cannot change. For many people, a lot of precious life energy is wasted as they attempt to do exactly that.
This is certainly true when we love an addict of any kind. Let’s face it, loving an addict – especially one who remains in active addiction – is not a recipe for serenity! It requires some deep, meaningful work on ourselves to learn how to truly love someone who is choosing to stay addicted – or to experience any measure of contentment or peace in our lives while doing so.
But I’m here to tell you that this can indeed be done. I’m living proof of that, and so are thousands of other friends and families of people struggling with addiction. It IS possible to live a healthy life – physically, emotionally, and spiritually – even with a practicing addict in it.
The key is to learn the difference between helping and enabling – to have that wisdom and to support your loved one’s recovery instead of their addiction. That is the bottom line. We need to have the wisdom to know the difference, and, along with that, the courage to change any enabling we may be doing into healthy, holistic helping.
So – what exactly is the difference between enabling and helping, you may well ask? I have a very simple definition that will facilitate a deeper understanding for you:
Enabling occurs when we do for someone else what they can – and should – be doing for themselves. Helping happens when we trust in that person’s resilience, as well as their ability to figure things out for themselves and make their own decisions.
Depending on someone’s unique situation, there can be a number of things they need actual help with, and there is nothing wrong with assisting others when they truly need a hand. Confusing the two conditions of helping and enabling, however, can often cause unintended damage to someone who is simply manipulating in order to have their own self-absorbed needs met.
Let’s use, for example, the classic example of giving an addict money, especially on a fairly consistent basis. Even if we’re choosing to be in some denial about this, we all know deep inside where that money is going to go – and if we are doing anything to abet an addict to stay in active addiction, then we are enabling them. By contrast, when we can instead say to that person, “I love you enough to say no to you. I care enough about you to risk your anger toward me for saying no to you. I will no longer support your addiction, because I love you enough to want you to live a much better life,” then we are indeed helping them – even if they don’t see it that way and try to push back against that decision.
Many families who contact me to work with them often tell me, with some noticeable embarrassment, “We know we’re enabling, but… we don’t know what else to do.” It’s undoubtedly true that although there is a lot of help available to addicts – such as detoxes, treatment centres, and a plethora of support groups they can attend – there aren’t many resources out there to help their families and other loved ones. It’s also true that there aren’t many therapists who specialize in working specifically with the addict’s loved ones. My award-winning book Loving an Addict, Loving Yourself: The Top 10 Survival Tips for Loving Someone with an Addiction is one of the few written resources of its kind, and there is also a lot of information on my website that will very likely resonate with you if you are the loved one of an addict who is still in active addiction.
One of the most important and compelling things that you can do – in order to make your life easier and to be able to support the addict you love in healthier ways – is to develop the wisdom to know the difference between helping and enabling. In fact, the choice to cultivate that particular pearl of wisdom will undeniably be one of the most valuable decisions you’ll ever make for your addicted loved one, as well as for the rest of your family – and for your own serenity.
If you’re not quite sure how to do that and feel you would like some assistance, you can click here for a FREE 30-minute consultation with one of our Love With Boundaries counsellors.