You are a caring and loving person. You have a deep-rooted desire to help and support your loved ones. However, paradoxically, sometimes helping can lead to unintended consequences that ultimately cause harm to the very people you intend to help. Then help becomes enabling. The Hazeldon foundation defines enabling as, “doing for a loved one what they can and should do for thermselves.” This article explores how you can determine if you are helping or enabling your loved one.
Enabling is the act of providing assistance or support to someone in a way that perpetuates or exacerbates their problems or dysfunctional behaviors. This can manifest in various forms, such as financial assistance, emotional reassurance, or covering up the consequences of someone’s actions. Enablers often act with good intentions, aiming to alleviate suffering or prevent harm. However, the long-term outcomes of enabling can be detrimental:
- Stifling Personal Growth
One of the primary ways enabling harms the individuals it intends to help is by stifling their personal growth. When you continually step in to resolve problems or shield them from consequences, your loved one may never develop the skills or resilience they need to handle life’s challenges. For instance, providing financial support to an adult child who quits job after job may prevent them from learning the value of responsibility and independence. In the short term, they may avoid financial hardship, but in the long term, they remain dependent and unprepared for the realities of life.
- Undermining Accountability
Enabling also undermines accountability. When your loved ones escape the consequences of their actions, they have little incentive to change their behavior. This can be seen in situations where family members or friends repeatedly bail out someone struggling with addiction. By doing so, they may inadvertently protect the addict from hitting rock bottom, a critical point that can motivate them to seek help and enter recovery. In this way, enabling can perpetuate destructive cycles.
- Eroding Self-Esteem
Enabling can erode an individual’s self-esteem and self-worth. When someone is constantly rescued or shielded from the fallout of their actions, they never have the chance to learn how capable they actually are. They may come to believe that they are incapable of handling life’s challenges on their own. As a result, their confidence can diminish, making it even more challenging for them to break free from their problems. Over time, they may begin to view themselves as helpless and dependent, further entrenching their struggles and your frustration.
Distinguishing Between Helping and Enabling
When you are in the middle of another crisis with your loved one, it can be hard to be clear-headed and objective – they’re upset, they need help, and you want to help. You may even see a clear solution to the current problem. You may also be hoping, wanting to believe that this will be the time the last time.
To gain clarity, try creating a timeline of your history that highlights the consequences of helping versus enabling. A timeline provides an objective and visual representation of how each approach affects personal growth and well-being over time.
To create a timeline, create a table with 4 columns. Complete them as follows:
- In the first column, identify the most recent specific problem where you provided assistance.
- Next, write down how you intervened. For example, did you give your loved one money? Did you make excuses for them or cover up with others? Did you go along with something you didn’t believe in? Perhaps you made uncomfortable adjustments to your life, just to keep peace?
- In the next column, write down the results. Did your loved one get bailed out? Was the problem resolved? Is the problem still the problem?
- Finally, analyze the +results. For example, what immediate changes or improvements do you observe? Did your loved one experience relief or resolution of the issue?
Identify the next most recent situation and repeat these steps. Continue this way untl you have a good representation of how your efforts impact your loved one’s problem.
- Did the immediate problem get solved? Is it because of what you did to intervene or because of what your loved one did?
- Do you honestly believe your loved one is learning and growing? What is your evidence?
- Do you see a pattern of their developing more problem-solving skills? Are they more confident in handling new challenges? Are they becoming more dependent or stagnating? Are they developing insight?
- Do you see a pattern of them understanding their role in their problems and taking more responsiblity? Or do they continue to blame other people or situations for their problems? Do they expect that you or others are obligated to bail them out?
- Are you seeing sustained changes in their behavior for the better? Do you believe they are building on it?
- Is your relationship becoming healthier, more respectful, and becoming more mutual? Is there more strain in your relationship? Are frustration and resentment growing?
Joe was a client of mine. Among his problems, Joe had a daughter with a drug addiction. Kayla, 23, lived with Joe and his wife and their two younger children. Kayla’s drug use wreaked havoc on the family. All the bedrooms had locks requiring a key entry. When Joe, his wife, and their other children came home, they immediately locked their keys, purses, wallets,computers, and other valuables in their bedrooms and lock. In this way, they kept Kayla from stealing from them or taking the car out after the family went to bed.
Kayla spent most of her time in her bedroom, only coming out to get food she would take back to her room, or in passing as she was leaving to go out with her dealer boyfriend. Kayla rarely cleaned up after herself. When the stale, rancid smell from her room seeped into the hall, her parents would finally say something. Then they would fight. Sometimes Kayla gave in and cleaned up; usually she stormed out of the house and Joe and his wife cleaned out the room and worried for days about Kayla’s safety until she returned home. Joe and his wife feared that if they didn’t let Kayla live at home, she would end up living with her dealer and only using more or, worse, living on the street.
Joe did this exercise over 3 sessions, going back only 2 years but when he finished, it was clear. “Kayla is getting worse, not better,” Joe said. “She acts more and more disrespectful to the point of being downright aggressive. She started out smoking pot, yesterday we found pills and an empty vodka bottle in her room. I think our helping is actually making Kayla worse.”
Over a few more sessions, we worked out a plan for Joe and his wife to set limits and consequences with Kayla. Unfortunately, Kayla did not cooperate with her parents and they enforced the ultimate consequence and evicted her from their home. After moving out, Kayla got arrested. “Honestly,” said Joe, “We sleep better than we have in a long time. There’s peace in our home, we’re all more relaxed. Jail is not my first choice for a home for Kayla, but at least we know where she is and that she is safe.”
Striking the Balance
While enabling has negative consequences, remember that the desire to help others is often born from a place of love and compassion. The challenge lies in finding a balance between offering support and allowing your loved one to experience the natural consequences of their actions and to learn and grow.
Instead of enabling, think of ways to provide guidance, encouragement, and resources that empower your loved one to take control of their life. This might involve enforcing clear boundaries, offering opportunities for growth, and holding them accountable for their choices. In Joe’s case, Kayla was court-mandated to treatment. Joe and his wife helped Kayla find a treatment facility affiliated with a half-way house where Kayla must stay for at least six months. They agreed to pay for the first 30 days of treatment and expect Kayla to work and pay for the remaining days herself. Further support will be considered depending on Kayla’s committment to treatment.
Enabling, though well-intentioned, can harm the people we seek to help by stifling personal growth, undermining accountability, and eroding self-esteem. It is vital to understand the delicate balance between support and self-sufficiency and to recognize that helping others does not always mean shielding them from the consequences of their actions. By offering guidance and empowerment instead of enabling, we can genuinely assist individuals in achieving positive change and personal growth.