Three Ways to Differentiate Helping From Enabling
I recently spoke with someone twenty-five years sober who said, “I’m going to write a book someday, but it’s not going to be for the addict. It’s going to be directed to the people who enable the addict. I’m going to help explain that helping an addict is not helpful, it’s slowly killing them.”
When it comes to loving people, we sometimes do too much, especially for our kids. Looking at them, we still look through the lens of doting parents. We love them and want to help them. Sometimes, this means we do too much. We can help our kids without stifling their growth and maturity. And if we genuinely love them, we will allow them to experience life in a way that fosters their growth. The same is true for everyone we love. To be truly helpful, we must first differentiate helping (assisting self-sufficiency) from enabling (creating inadequacy and dependency).
Creating Dependency — When we do too much for someone, they become dependent and learn to be helpless rather than helpful. Deep down, they will resent you for this. Also, dependency creates expectations of entitlement rather than appreciation for your kind help. They will also get rebellious or angry when you stop.
It’s not productive to do something for someone who can do for themselves. (I’m not talking about occasional assistance during genuine need, but patterns of behavior). If babies aren’t allowed to fall, they never learn to walk. You give them sufficient support and encouragement, and then you let go. Otherwise, you carry them on your hip for the rest of your life and you both feel resentful. When adults are bailed out of financial debt, criminal activities, substance abuse disorders, laziness, or other self-destructive behaviors, they never learn to stand on their own two feet. You’re a caring person, not a fixer. When you love someone, you offer them emotional support, but you also step back and let them fix their own problems. Once they become independent, they will feel good about themselves and learn to recognize that life is about give and take, not working the system.
Coming from Guilt — Some of us feel guilty when we tell someone “No.” An unconscious surge of doing something wrong descends upon us, and we rush in to make everything all right. Guilt is never a good reason to do anything. You can’t change your mistakes, but you don’t need to cover them up with codependency. Caring means showing support without interfering in a person’s destiny.
Guilt is always a cover-up for fear. You might worry that if you’re not there for someone, they will suffer, be mad at you, or even die. Sometimes, you get fed up and get angry with the person who learned to manipulate you. When we rush in, we foster the outcomes we fear the most. We prolong suffering (ours, too). Anger is inevitable if you never say no, and sometimes, we love people to death. It is far better to manage your guilt than have it be a driving force that ultimately harms the people you love. And it’s okay for people to be disappointed if you don’t do what they want. They will get over it and thank you later. I’ve heard many patients say the best thing that ever happened was when people stopped enabling them, and they had to grow up.
Fear vs. Love — When we come from fear, we are guaranteed to make the wrong choice. Rather than see a person as incapable, start to look at them differently. When they come to you for help, tell them you love them, but you’ve done too much already, and it hasn’t made anything better. You are certain they can figure this out. Ask them if they’d like suggestions for getting themselves out of their mess. For example, if debt is the problem, you could say, “There’s a place for consumer credit counseling. Have you thought about contacting them?” Or if addiction is the problem, “Gee, this is your third D.U.I. I think it’s time for professional help.” If unemployment is the issue, “It’s wrong of me to keep paying your bills, I’m willing to help for three more months, but that’s all. It’s time to finish your degree, get a job, stand on your own two feet.” Always give fair warning that you will not continue your role any longer. If the person argues with you, remind them that you’ve done enough and refuse to engage. “I’ve come to the realization that I haven’t been helping you. I care about you, I’m here for you, and I believe you can figure this out. I can see my behavior has interfered with that.” After all, you should be appreciated for what you’ve done, not condemned for refusing to do more. If you come from love, the person will eventually understand. If they don’t, they were only using you.
You might be afraid that the worst will happen if you step aside, but please recognize that we often create our own fears. The more dependent someone becomes, the more they suffer because they’ve become so helpless. They don’t fulfill their purpose. They can’t feel good about themselves as successful members of society, capable of being independent and productive. Even in family businesses, each person must carry their own weight. If someone is unhappy and the problem isn’t solvable, they should move on. Enabling keeps people stuck. Helping means assisting someone in achieving their full potential. One is coming from love; the other is fear.
Are you willing to support someone in such a way that fosters their success, even if it means getting out of the way? The best cheerleaders are on the line, not jumping into the game. They don’t act like medics when someone gets hurt. They don’t negotiate contracts. They don’t pay bail when a player’s in trouble. They root for success. Are you rooting for your loved one’s success?