Enabling has been a theme at the forefront of my life lately, and I’ve been catching myself in it left right and center. I’ve come to realize that it’s not a form of loyalty, and it’s certainly not a healthy way to love someone, either. But it used to feel far too comfortable for me; that is — until it didn’t.
The problem is that enabling can quickly become so ingrained and habitual that it becomes difficult to see it for what it really is. And through enabling, we tend to inadvertently compound the problem, not solve it. We end up feeling resentful and exploited, without actually fixing the original issue.
Just because I can help someone, doesn’t mean that I should. And often, help looks like something different (or opposite) than what the person is asking for.
So with that in mind, let’s dive a little deeper into what enabling really is.
What is enabling?
Enabling is doing something for someone else, or tolerating someone else’s behavior, in a way that reinforces unhealthy and self-destructive patterns in the other person. And enabling is often at the expense of that person learning from their mistakes and taking responsibility for their actions.
The act of enabling prevents the onset of uncomfortable consequences that result from said actions, consequences with the sole purpose of teaching someone exactly why they may want to change their behavior.
You may be dealing with someone who leans on you to make decisions for them or expects you to take care of them. Perhaps the person is struggling with addiction or chronically unable to support themselves financially. Or maybe someone is displaying belittling and abusive behavior towards you or your children.
Whether it be with a partner, child, parent or friend; enabling is done with the best intentions, but often breeds the worst results. Enabling is innately disrespectful to both you and the other person; you’re being taken advantage of, and you’re treating them as though they can’t take responsibility for their own lives.
Are you an enabler?
Do you do things for people to “help” them and as a result, you teach them to rely on you? Do you take care of things or clean up messes, then feel resentful that the person didn’t appreciate you or change their behavior? Do you struggle to say no to people, especially your loved ones?
Do you feel compelled to rescue people from their lives, and feel sorry for people who are victims of circumstances they’ve either created or consented to? Do you pretend that things aren’t as bad as they are, or ignore the elephant in the room because you “love” the person?
Do you consistently put yourself in their shoes and make excuses for them, like “it’s not their fault” and “it’s not like I can change them.” Do you ignore their bad habits, like substance use or draining the bank account, because you think you can both coexist without having their problems spill over onto your life?
If any of these things sound familiar to you, you may be (or have been, at one point in your life) an enabler.
“We rescue people from their responsibilities. We take care of people’s responsibilities for them. Later we get mad at them for what we’ve done. Then we feel used and sorry for ourselves.” — Melody Beattie
Tough love is loving, but enabling is not.
Now there are two schools of thought on this topic so to be fair, I’ll present them both and let you decide for yourself (though my stance is made clear in the subtitle of this section).
It all boils down to how you see love, which likely has to do with how you were made to feel loved.
You stand by the person no matter what, because you care too much to see them suffer needlessly. Why add to their problems? You lend them a bit of money, or give them a place to stay, or ignore the fight you had the other night because it’s not a big deal and you care about them. Why start a fight?
Even when they’re having a rough go, you stand by them — through thick and thin. You lift them up, remind them of their worth, and tell them how much you want them to get/do better, because that’s what you do when you love someone. You never abandon them, no matter what.
You make it clear you care for them but do not agree with their behavior. When they repeatedly disrespect your boundaries, you cut them off financially or tell them to find a new place to stay. You address their inappropriate actions, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them (or you) feel.
You know life has been tough for them lately, but you also know that life won’t get any easier if things don’t change. You realize that all the chaos that’s ensuing in their life is a result of their choices and that only by taking responsibility for these choices will the person begin to see their part.
You also acknowledge that some people, especially those who are needy or in the active spin of addiction, will likely try anything to get you to enable them. This includes lying. Just because you love them, doesn’t mean you have to believe them (or pretend to).
Depending on how you view love, one of the above two approaches (tough love vs. enabling) will feel natural while the other will feel outrageous. If you’ve been raised to see enabling as a natural part of love, it would only make sense that it feels like the right thing to do.
The flip-side of that is when you’re an enabler, you also tend to attract people who want enabling. They obstruct your boundaries, lean on you, and ask you for help in an almost parasitic way.
And while every relationship is, on some level, a mutually-beneficial one, you have to ask yourself what it is you’re getting out of it. Why do you feel the need to protect this person? Why do you seek so much validation out of helping others? Who taught you to love someone at the expense of loving yourself?
Remember that love can empower you, but it can’t save you. Or anyone else, for that matter.