Enabling: What's the Problem?

I remember when Dr. Phil first came out, one of his "hot words" was enabling. This is a word I know all too well. I am a recovering enabler, and I know many, as well. I am here to speak out against enabling, explain what it is, what's the problem, and what you can do about it.

What is it? 

At the very basic level, enabling means that you don't allow someone to deal with the natural consequences of their behavior. Every time we make choices, there are consequences or effects of making those choices, whether positive or negative. Based on the consequences, we can then decide if we want to continue to make the same choices or choose something different. If you stick your finger in a light socket, you get a shock. More than likely, you won't choose to stick your finger in there again, unless you like pain. Enablers take the consequences of a loved one's choices upon themselves. Here are some examples:

Your son tells you that he has homework, and he has to go to the library tonight to get some books. In talking with him, you discover he has known about this assignment for three weeks and is just now telling you. You had other plans for tonight, but instead, you cancel your plans and take your son to the library. Of course, you yell a lot and grumble all the way back and forth to the library, but you still do it. This is not the first time this has happened. 

Your friend is always late when you have plans. You have asked her to arrive at 6 pm so that you can drive to the movie theater. You don't want to miss the previews. At 6 pm, your friend still hasn't arrived yet, so you wait, stewing the whole time about what a lousy friend she is. You can't wait to give her a piece of your mind. 

Your husband had some of his buddies over last night for some beers. You made sure to ask him to please clean up the kitchen before he goes to bed, but you know he won't. The next morning, you get up half an hour early to clean up the dirty dishes and get rid of the bottles so that you can make him breakfast. 

So what's the problem?

At first glance, you could look at any of the scenarios and think that the person enabling is just a giving and sacrificial person. The main problem with enabling is that it fosters relationships without boundaries. Boundaries are the ways you show others how you expect to be treated (For more about boundaries, read the book Boundaries by Henry Cloud/Townsend). Boundaries recognize that we are all individuals. We have the right to our own bodies, privacy, thoughts, and opinions, no matter how much you love someone. We are each an individual. Part of being an individual is making informed choices and taking the consequences of those choices. When you enable someone, they don't have a chance to make that informed choice. Instead, you make it for them and allow them to continue making possibly poor choices. Since the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, if repeated enough times, the choices will become habits that are later very difficult to break. The most dangerous enablers are parents because you help "train" your children as to how you should act in the world. Once the child is an adult, it can be nearly impossible to change habits without serious intervention. 

In the first example, the parent allows her son to put off doing homework. She then rushes to the library to get the assignment done. She believes this is what is expected of her and that is what a good mother does. Maybe she even thinks her son will be grateful and realize what a great Mom she is. But just the opposite happens. Mom nags all the way to the library and junior rolls his eyes the whole time he is with her. He can't wait to get away from her. Their relationships deteriorates as this goes on. And long term, the son hasn't learned how to cultivate good study habits. When he begins college, Mom isn't there to help him. He is barely passing his classes. He could even get angry at Mom and think, "Why didn't she ever teach me this stuff? She shouldn't have let me get away with it all those years. This is all her fault." 

In reality a good Mom does protect her son, but not from his own choices. She gives him the courage to make the right choices. She supports him, but she doesn't rescue him. She believes in him. When tough times come, she knows he is learning how to be a man. This kind of son will respect his Mom, even though he might despise her at times. 

Here's how things could have happened differently. Mom finally puts her foot down. She tells her son that he will have to fail the assignment since he didn't let her know at the beginning. The son throws a fit. Mom calmly informs him that next time he needs to remember to give her notice about needing to go to the library. She keeps her plans and has a wonderful time. The son goes to school the next morning and tells his teacher that he didn't finish the assignment. He receives an F, but is told that he will get a chance to make it a C if he can complete it in two weeks. After this incident, the son always makes sure to tell his Mom about homework. Their relationships is calm. In college, he does well in school. Sure he received one F, but never did again. Of course, this is an oversimplified version of how things could be, but the results are going to be better in the long run and for good reason. 

There are other problems. Usually the enabler feels anger or hopeless over their situation, but they don't take the steps to change anything. This makes for an unhappy life. An unhappy life means an unhappy person. An unhappy person can only cause unhappiness. So you generally make the people around you unhappy. They might not tell you this because they can't seem to tell you the truth. And again, this is an issue with boundaries. Even though it would be hard, if you truly care about and love someone, you want them to lead a peaceful, contented life. Sometimes, tough love is required. We aren't called to always be soft and cushy to the people we care about. You never learn without adversity. People should be able to tell you, without fear of rejection, that you are impacting them in a negative way. If no one is allowed to wound your precious ego, that is a completely different problem altogether. 

Why do enablers enable? 

I believe enablers enable because they think it is going to cause good results. They are wrong, but their intentions are good. Most enablers are caring people. They long for good relationships with the ones they love. The value their relationships and make caring partners, parents, and friends. They long for love so they act in a way they think will show someone they are loved: they give. They give of their resources. 

Where enablers fail is by not wanting their loved ones to ever have to suffer. They want to protect them from pain, so they take the pain on themselves. The pain doesn't disappear. It just gets transferred and manifests itself in a different way. Instead of having to deal with their own pain from their own decision, they are just having to deal with you being a pain. You have to give the pain back to them, but it's different now. Now it's your problem, and you are trying to make it their problem. This is why an enabler is never thanked by his/her enablee. An enabler thinks that loving someone means never saying no.
There is also a more dark thing going on here, though. While it seems like the enabler is the victim and the person being enabled is the perpetrator, the truth is no one is a victim. You are only a victim if you believe you are one. What would happen if the enabler stopped enabling? What if the cord was broken and the boundaries restored? Person A is responsible for himself, and Person B is responsible for himself. 

This means Person A has to be responsible for his/her own happiness. You might have to face conflict, something few people relish. You might have to set boundaries and stick up for yourself. Person B may still not act like you want, but at least you know that they aren't capable of doing more instead of just speculating about it. 

Think about the wife in the example above that is cleaning up her husband's beer bottles after his late night party. She might have been doing this for years. Inside she is seething, but she plays the dutiful wife card. Sure she always tells him that he has to do it, but she always does it. He knows it, and she knows it. Then one day, hubby wakes up to find his beer bottles still on the counter. The spill is still on the floor. Wifey goes out for breakfast and doesn't make anything for hubby. Later on, when he comes home, he starts an argument. Why didn't you make him breakfast? Why didn't you clean up? You calmly explain that you asked him to clean up, and since he didn't, you had to go out for breakfast. He is still yelling, and she says, "I am not your maid. You can clean up your own mess." She doesn't yell, but makes it clear she won't be intimidated. She feels more confident saying this. He is shocked that she is standing up to him. For the first time in while, he feels respect. She, on the other hand, is feeling good that she acted differently. 

So even though we can look at the person we are enabling and think, "Why don't they do it differently?" the truth is, the enabler is doing the exact same thing. There is now an expected set of behaviors that will continue to happen until one person changes. And first clue, the person who is being enabled is NOT going to be the one to change. 

What You Can Do About It 

So you've discovered you're an enabler? Don't feel bad, we've all done it one time or another. First take a deep breath, breathe deep, and forgive yourself. Realize that you are not fated to make the same mistakes over and over again. You can choose something different. 

Realize you can't save anyone. Drop the pride. Work on your own issues. Part of being an enabler is that you can focus all your energy on that person instead of being responsible for your own life.
Take it one day at a time, one step a time. At first, you might still keep enabling, but you will pause before doing it or think about it before you do it. Congratulate yourself for starting to deprogram your mind. 

When presented with a situation, don't react automatically. Stop and think, count to ten, and make a decision. Ask yourself, am I doing this because I want to or because I "have" to? Why do I have to? What am I afraid could happen? Then whatever choice you make, accept the consequences of your actions. In other words, don't decide to wait for your friend and then get angry when she is half an hour late. If you decided to wait for your friend, that was your choice. 

Get a friend who will stand by you as you work on your problem. Give them permission to ask you hard questions. Tell them about the situations you are in and what you wish you would have done. They are a safe place for you to confide until you can stand on your own two feet. Keep a journal of each situation, how you reacted, how you wish you'd reacted, and what were the results. Give yourself rewards when you reach milestones. 

The potential benefits are improved relationships and taking responsibility for your own life. You have nothing to lose. Your thoughts?


BAM said…
Hmmm. As always, your post has my gears a' turnin'. I never thought of certain of my tendencies as enabling, but hmmm... I can also see some manifestations of this in work situations... hmmm...

Very thought provoking. Even though I try to avoid thinking when possible. Thanks a lot. Geez.