Enabling, Self-Seeking, and Recovery

By Mark Smed 09/05/18

Every moment there’s the possibility of falling back into self-seeking after having recovered much of our spiritual, financial, and physical health.

A man sits on a park bench with pencil and notebook, staring into space.
I don’t always have answers to life’s questions. I might not be doing the right things at the right moment. I always try to be grateful for the life I lead.

Recently, I was accused on a community website of being an enabler. The article and discussions that followed were regarding a proposed affordable housing project in our community and how some members of the local city council were concerned that if fed and housed, the persons in poverty would become dependent. After I participated in a recent homelessness count that provided the government and other organizations with information on the population of homeless people, I felt I was informed enough about the topic to comment on my recent experiences. I wondered about the label someone attached to me and how valid it was. The question I ask myself is, “how do I know if I’m an enabler?”

As an addict, I am going through a set of steps with a sponsor, which is a big part of the success of the 12-step program. Currently I’m on step 6, which states: “We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.” It seemed an appropriate time to look at this behavior—and to find out if in fact it is a "defect of character." What is an enabler?

en·a·bler (From Wikipedia)


  1. a person or thing that makes something possible.

"the people who run these workshops are crime enablers"

  1. a person who encourages or enables negative or self-destructive behavior in another.

"he criticized her role as an enabler in her husband's pathological womanizing"

I liked “A person that makes something possible,” but then the definition erodes into some negative rhetoric. Could I be attaching my own definitions to justify my behaviors? I also wondered about alternatives to enabling.

What is the opposite of enabler? From Word Hippo:

Noun antonyms include: deterrent, hindrance, impediment, inhibitor, preventer, and prohibitor.

I don’t particularly like those words either. It almost seems like a lose/lose scenario. I can attempt to clarify both sides of an argument and chose to either "make something possible" or be a "preventer" of a possible catastrophe. These implied absolutes can place people on opposite sides of the fence of their own making and create polarity and strife. 

Before I started down the path of recovery, choices were a lot easier. I was just concerned with myself—because at its core, addiction is about being self-obsessed. If something benefited me, made me feel better or allowed me to avoid uncomfortable feelings or just looked fun, I could justify the choices and my actions.

Today, through the recovery process, I choose a new way of living:

I invite a higher power into my life and my decisions. It is a manner of living that involves more than my own self-seeking ways. I know some people do not agree with terms like "God" or "Higher Power" or even the concept of a spiritual existence. I struggled with the concept too when I first started in recovery. At some point, those who live a life based on the principles learned in 12-step recovery must decide what concept is working for them today. The idea is that a higher power, whether it is "God" or my support group, it is a greater power than myself. As the saying goes, "it was my best thinking that got me here."

I try not to complicate things too much these days, but difficult choices are inevitable. The fact that I have difficult choices to make is a choice...but that train of thought gives me a headache and might be overthinking things – another seemingly common trait among addicts. I often wonder if life would be easier if I was less concerned about those around me and more concerned about myself- as that is also a common trait among those in active addiction. After all, addicts without recovery really only think about themselves and how to satisfy their compulsion to use.

It makes sense that the early successes of living free from active addiction re-opens the door to self-seeking behaviors. Every moment there’s the possibility of falling back into self-seeking after having recovered much of our spiritual, financial, and physical health. In fact, all those healthy options are affected by the choices we make and are part of what molds us into who we are and what the fellowship of recovering addicts around us looks like. The literature in Narcotics Anonymous even warns about the dangers of self-seeking, but some people fall back into that habit:

“…However, many will become the role models for the newcomers. The self‐seekers soon find that they are on the outside, causing dissension and eventually disaster for themselves. Many of them change; they learn that we can only be governed by a loving God as expressed in our group conscience.” 

In Alcoholics Anonymous, they have The Promises: “Self-seeking will slip away.” 

If you are no longer self-seeking, then the choice of what, if anything, to seek becomes apparent. I remember very clearly in early recovery when my wife suffered a life-threatening incident. After an invasive surgery to correct a serious defect in her foot and ankle bone structures, she developed a blood clot. A piece broke off and went through her heart and damaged her left lung. She was in the hospital for quite some time as they dissolved the clot with drugs and dealt with the damage to her body.

I tried to balance work, looking after our two small daughters, recovery meetings, and support for my wife. I thought often of praying to this new "God" I was developing a relationship with. I questioned what I should pray for. Save my wife’s life? There are many people who deserve to live but their lives end. A prayer came to mind: “Please don’t leave me a single father who is barely capable of looking after himself.” This seemed to be a desire for my own selfish needs. In the end I prayed for knowledge that I should be at the right places, doing the right things, and to find the strength for myself and others, including for my wife, regardless of what happens. Also, "Please don’t leave me alone" - and I wasn’t. Friends stepped up and many offered support. 

In time, my wife recovered. The point to this story and how it relates to enabling is that at no time did anyone criticize the choices I made. People did what they could to support me and let me live with the consequences of my choices. 

Mother Theresa dedicated her life to easing the suffering of the poor and destitute in India. Did she spend her entire life simply enabling people, with little or nothing to show for her work? Possibly she could have become a motivational speaker and had a far greater effect by inspiring those same people to change their lives. Not that my actions are comparable to Mother Theresa, but the choice I make today is that rather than accomplishing 100 tasks to benefit myself, I would rather accomplish 100 tasks to benefit others, even if a few lives are changed as a result. Even if only a single life is affected, or no lives at all, I would still rather spend the time for the benefit of others. In early recovery it was explained to me that I needed to separate my "needies from my greedies." What I do after my needs are met is the basis of my recovery. Recovery from addiction and the 12 steps are based on a single premise- which is explained in the 12th step:

“Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

I don’t always have answers to life’s questions. I might not be doing the right things at the right moment. I always try to be grateful for the life I lead. Gratitude isn’t a feeling, it’s a virtue. Gratitude is a manner of living that expresses our love for what we have by sharing and not hoarding. Sharing is best when it’s unconditional, as is love, and if that looks like enabling, well, I guess I’m okay with that.

In the end what I share is freely given and my needs are met. I’m not looking for platitudes, but an appreciative "thank you" is always welcome since that can be your gratitude. What you receive and what effect that has is all on you. You choose how to apply the help someone gives you. I can be free of the burden of expectation or false hope. In the end did I enable you? That’s not for me to judge, is it?

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Mark Smed lives and works in Summerland British Columbia. He started his technology company in 1989 and he has worked with small- and medium-sized businesses his entire career. He is married and his two daughters attend university. Mark is enormously grateful for the life he leads, particularly since he found recovery. He has published articles on TheFix.com, Pyetta.com and his own company Silver Lining Technology Services Inc. He has also released a book on Kindle.  He looks for opportunities to improve himself and his community through discussion, volunteering, and work. In his spare time he likes to hike, fish and mutilate the occasional canvas with acrylic paint. Find Mark on LinkedIn.