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Are you having difficulty figuring out whether you're helping or enabling a loved one? There's a thin line between the two and you can easily cross it and not realize you did. You're not alone. You're one of many who aren't sure if they're providing support or creating a monster.
I had to figure this out very quickly to avoid destroying the lives of those dear to me, and falling into the codependency trap. It’s not an easy lesson to learn, but such a vital one.
Today, I'll explain the difference between helping vs enabling and give examples. I'll also discuss some of the consequences of enabling someone and provide tips on how to stop this behavior.
What Is Helping?
The word help means to give something, assistance, or support to someone that will make their situation better. In the truest sense, you've helped if you assisted someone with achieving something positive they're unable to do by themselves, such as getting a meal or finishing a task.
While offering help is an act of kindness, overdoing it can backfire on the person who's benefiting as well as you. You've, in essence, crossed the thin line from helping to enabling.
What Is Enabling?
Enabling is similar to helping someone, for example, with an opportunity. However, in this context, the term enabling means continuously doing things for someone who has the ability to do those things for themselves. Enablers usually go out of their way or neglect their own needs to help.
The pattern is seen in close relationships where one individual supports a problematic or harmful behavior of another. Since the person is receiving help instead of being held accountable or facing consequences, they will continue their destructive behavior.
The Dangers of Enabling Others
People tend to engage in enabling behavior out of pity, guilt, or shame. It feels like they're helping when, in fact, it causes more harm than good. One example is giving money to a spouse or child living with a drug addiction instead of helping them get treatment.
Another example is where a mother continues to financially support an adult child because she feels divorcing adversely affected the child's academic performance and ability to find employment.
On the surface, enabling someone may feel like you're helping them until they can do better. So how can acts of good intention be bad? Helping goes wrong when it makes the receiver's condition or situation worse.
As a rule of thumb, ask yourself if what you're doing positively changes the person's life or keeps them stuck in a bad situation, such as poverty. You're also creating an unhealthy psychological condition called codependency between you and the recipient, where you're the “enabler.”
Your loved one may end up resenting you in the end for not providing them with the skills, resources, or opportunities to improve their life.
9 Differences between Helping vs Enabling
It's hard to watch someone you care about struggle and not offer help, especially if you're an empathic or compassionate person. You have a natural instinct to help, rescue, and fix. For some individuals, helping is a way to cope with stress or guilt associated with the struggles facing someone they care about.
Overlooking the other person's wants and needs makes you feel like a terrible, cold-hearted person. In all of this, you have to stop and consider whether you're actually feeding a monster and hurting yourself in the process. You're enabling if you find yourself doing these nine things:
1. Ignoring problematic behaviors
Some people choose to ignore the poor behavior of others in order to keep the peace. I've done this when dealing with people who are defensive or likely to shift the blame to me. I knew it would only lead to an argument since I'm not afraid to stand up for myself. That's how I justified staying quiet.
In your case, you may silently hope the situation resolves itself. Poor behaviors are ingrained from an early age and don't magically change.
Help the person by calling them out and addressing their actions head-on. Be frank and explain what consequences will follow for offensive conduct.
2. Excusing destructive behavior
Giving someone an easy pass whenever they do something wrong might be your way of showing love. However, love involves inspiring the other person to be the best they can be instead of shielding them from the consequences of poor choices.
Let's say your friend likes to borrow money from you but doesn't repay it even after promising to do so within a month. You don't follow up by asking back for your money and are upset. However, you continue to willingly loan her more. You might blame yourself for not trying to get your money back or accepting lame excuses.
By taking this approach, you risk giving people the impression that what they've done is acceptable. In their mind, there's no need to honor their word. They'll just keep taking from you.
3. Not setting or upholding boundaries
Boundaries are a collection of rules you introduce to guide people's behaviors toward you and those you love. Believe it or not, you and those close to you suffer when you allow them to do whatever they want without fear of consequences.
Creating boundaries is vital in close relationships as it lets family and friends know what behaviors you will and will not tolerate. You're basically teaching them how to treat you. What's more important is enforcing your boundaries by setting consequences for boundary violations.
Here's an example. Your girlfriend has a habit of making last-minute plans with you. You don't feel she respects your time and other life responsibilities. Ask her to give you two days' advance notice or you will have to take a rain check. The next time she repeats the behavior, politely tell her you can't see her. She'll eventually realize she needs to change in order to enjoy your company.
4. Trying to solve the person's problems
Do you think you have a solver/fixer mentality? The trait shows up as always wanting to intervene and help remedy your loved one's problems or doing things they can do for themselves. You're unintentionally enabling laziness.
The more you rescue them from life's problems, the weaker they grow in resilience. The individual may eventually become overly dependent on you to bail them out every time (codependence).
Problem-solving is a great life skill to have and can be taught to a child or an adult. Provide help by teaching your family member, friend, or coworker how to handle and solve challenges instead.
5. Lying for the person
Have you lied to cover for your loved one before? We are wired to protect those we love, even if it's by telling a little white lie here and there to save their asses. I'm not siding with you. That's not cool. What you're doing is enabling the same behaviors that got them in trouble in the first place.
Perhaps you called and informed your husband's employer that he's sick and can't come to work. You know fully well that he's lying beside you hungover from binge-drinking the day before.
You're not helping him. You're participating in his irresponsible habits when you willingly tell untruths to protect him from the consequences.
6. Taking on their responsibilities
Relationships with our children and partners are more balanced and function better when we share responsibilities. You know this, yet you find yourself picking up the slack when your husband doesn't do the dishes or your teenage daughter fails to complete an assignment that's due the next day.
You may justify doing her assignment by saying you're helping her get a good grade. The truth of the matter is, doing your child's homework whenever she doesn't, may affect her academic performance. Your child can end up failing her test as a result.
Help by reminding household members to do their chores and homework. Let them know you'll take away rewards such as screen time if they don't follow through.
One evening, I told my husband I wouldn't be cooking until he did the dishes. It was his turn and I had no intention of enabling him to shirk his responsibility. He protested for a few minutes but eventually followed through. Otherwise, dinner would be fast food. Call it tough love.
7. Supporting addictive behaviors
Caretaking and enabling are commonly seen in families where a loved one is struggling with substance abuse or addiction. The parent or partner of the addicted individual may attempt to hide perceived embarrassment by giving them as much help as they can.
For example, allowing an adult child to continue living at home although they're an alcoholic or drug user. They may go as far as supplying them with alcohol or drugs to help them feel better when experiencing painful withdrawal symptoms.
If this is you, there's a more productive way to offer help. Give assistance by getting your child into a drug or alcohol rehab. Attend the family therapy sessions that are usually part of the comprehensive recovery program. Family therapy provides tools to cope with addiction in the family, break codependence, and offer the right support.
8. Financially supporting an able-bodied person
If you can work and earn money to take care of yourself, why would you allow someone else to enjoy the fruits of your labor for free? I've seen a blind family member go to college and work teaching children who are visually impaired. She chose independence although her husband has a great career and covers all the bills.
The point is to let your able-bodied partner and adult children fend for themselves. Giving monetary support now and then is okay if they're having financial difficulties. Do not provide money for them to spend on gambling, drinking, drugs, impulsive shopping, or other harmful vices. Offer to teach them how to manage their money and increase financial independence.
Another enabling behavior is providing long-term housing to your adult child or a friend who makes all sorts of excuses for why they are unemployed. Give them a deadline to find a job (or go to college) or leave your home. It sounds harsh, but think of what will happen if you let people live off of you indefinitely.
9. Giving too many second chances
You can forgive without giving chance after chance. People will start taking you for granted if you let them slide all the time. Let's say your boyfriend has a habit of lying or cheating. Instead of ending this toxic and emotionally abusive relationship, you put up with him. You're absolving him from his responsibility to take accountability for his actions.
He won't take you seriously after a while, regardless of if you get upset. In his mind, you're weak because you allow him to do whatever he wants without any real consequences.
Overlooking people's bad behavior was once my downfall. I believed they would change and do right by me. All they did was continuously disappoint me. The more I enabled them, the angrier I became, although I was the one tolerating poor treatment. I had to draw the line and stop giving what seemed like infinite chances.
How to Stop Enabling and Start Helping
The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” This means you can create a stronger impact on someone's life if you help them help themselves. Quit being an enabler and end codependency by taking these steps:
- Admit the enabling behavior.
- Acknowledge that you can't do everything for or meet all the needs of your loved one.
- Bring attention to the issues.
- Teach your loved ones the skills they need to succeed or overcome adversities.
- Provide information for them to access the resources they need.
- Teach them problem-loving and coping skills.
- Encourage them to seek treatment for mental illness or substance abuse.
- Remove access to resources, e.g., money, to encourage financial independence.
- Stop being afraid to say, “No.”
- Let them face the consequences of their action.
- Find healthy ways to cope with your loved one's difficulties.
- Stop putting other people's needs ahead of yours and redirect focus to self-care.
While you may feel responsible for the situation a child or partner finds themselves in, you owe it to your loved one and yourself to avoid engaging in enabling behaviors. You may struggle in the beginning to transition from being an enabler or caretaker. Be patient with yourself but remain committed to breaking those harmful habits using the tips provided.
You'll eventually move from enabling to empowering the individual to improve their life. Your friend or family member may thank you later for assisting them in creating a productive life on their own.
Final Thoughts on Helping vs Enabling
I hope I've successfully cleared up any confusion between helping and enabling another person. Showing kindness and compassion to others are two of life's noble virtues. Keep on showing love through kind acts and empathy. The bottom line is learning how to be supportive without crossing the line.
Forgive yourself if you unintentionally encouraged harmful behaviors in the past and contributed to the difficulties the person faced. What matters now is that you’ve learned from those mistakes and misguided advice.
Start fresh by providing the type of assistance that encourages them to accept responsibility for their actions and make better choices. On that note, I know you'll enjoy reading 11 Steps to Stop Caring So Much. It’s a great piece about distancing yourself from things you can’t, and maybe shouldn’t, control.