What does "Enabling" mean in Eating Disorder Recovery?

During a conversation with a therapist last week, we stumbled upon a word used often in treatment with questionable relevance to eating disorder recovery: enabling. 

This word, first linked to recovery from substance abuse, is used widely with varied meanings. It is not a clinical term but instead a warning to family, friends and clinicians about relationships with people struggling with addiction. 

The original meaning refers to the support of the faulty reasoning of a person consumed by addiction. This definition has merit. The thought process of someone lost in addiction can transform logic and reason into the means to continue the troubling behaviors. Loved ones and clinicians need to point out the discrepancy even if that leads to conflict. 

This meaning of the word can apply to people with eating disorders as well. Eating disorder thoughts can be very tricky and convincing, even as they lead directly back to using symptoms. Agreeing with faulty logic does not help that person continue a road to recovery but very much the opposite. 

As the term has moved into the lay lexicon, the meaning of enabling has morphed into something more insidious. It is used to discredit all thoughts and logic of someone who is ill, even when the person's thought or opinion has nothing to do with addiction per se.

Granted, this is a fine line, but completely disempowering a person attempting recovery is not supportive either. With this expanded definition, enabling can mean that agreeing with anything at all that the person says is a mistake, rather than applying the term only to thoughts related to the addiction.  

This expanded definition is the one most often applied to eating disorder recovery. Clinicians or family can immediately and irrefutably disagree with any decision the person makes about her next step by implying that it is enabling. Thus, the patient loses faith in all of her thoughts and does not learn how to trust her emotions and instincts in the long run. 

People with eating disorders, as opposed to those with substance abuse, struggle to find their own voice in the world. Using a term thoughtlessly that discredits their feelings and opinions counters much of what true recovery needs. There will be many situations when eating disorder thoughts do dictate decision making, but relying on the term enabling to insist the ill person is always wrong is not helpful either.

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