Hand Up or Hand Out? (Understanding When Help Turns Into Enabling)
I just want to start by saying, this is an issue I deal with on a daily basis. While I strive in my blogs to help others with advice, suggestions and experienced-driven insight, there are some topics that I am as deep in the mire as anyone else.
This is one of those topics.
It is natural to help and care for those we love. Whether they are family, friends, or partners; we hate to see anyone suffer and often go to great lengths to ease their pain. Unfortunately, if we are not careful, our help can take a turn in the wrong direction and in fact make matters worse.
So what is the difference between supporting someone through a struggle and enabling them to continue bad behaviors and choices while you then begin to struggle and suffer?
It starts with simple definitions.
Helping someone involves assistance with tasks they are truly unable to do for themselves. It also involves providing them with resources to take back control of their own lives.
Enabling, on the other hand, inhibits the natural flow of behaviors vs. consequence, and they never have to deal with the aftermath of a decision or face their own actions. When someone is constantly bailed out, they soon begin to believe their behaviors are not that bad, and even acceptable.
When we attempt to solve all their problems, we take on an extra burden ourselves and also keep the other party from assuming responsibility. At first, we feel good about our decisions, because we feel like a hero riding in to save the day. In reality, though, we are not saving anything. We create an unhealthy cycle where they cease to grow and become independent and we feel confused and even resentful for their growing dependence and lack of insight.
What are some simple questions to ask to find out if you have crossed over into enabling?
1. Do you make excuses for their behavior?
2. Do you put their needs ahead of your own on a regular basis?
3. Do you lie for someone to avoid drama or a scene?
Here are some other examples to consider.
Helping - Addresses specific concerns and works together to come up with a solution
Enabling - Avoids talking about uncomfortable topics to make life easier
Helping - Allows for the natural flow of consequences to unfold
Enabling - Circumvents consequences and comes to the rescue time and time again
Helping - Holds the loved one accountable for their bad behavior
Enabling - Makes excuses, and even tries to cover up, choices and actions that are destructive
Helping - Discusses and sets clear expectations for their loved one
Enabling - Has no conversation regarding expectations and accepts whatever happens
Do any of these sound familiar? They do to me. And while it is very easy for me to sit here and type these words and give you the sound advice to STOP!, I know first hand it is not easy at all.
Watching someone we love suffer, make bad choices, fail, and struggle is very difficult. We want to take on their pain and make it better. So how do we break the cycle?
Each situation is unique, and the degree of enabling can also vary. Some people deal with loved ones with addiction, while others are faced with trying to navigate through mental health issues. Sometimes it is as simple as having an adult child not being prepared for the real world and allowing them a cushion to stay at home.
Because everyone's story is different, there really isn't a one size fits all solution. But here are some of my thoughts.
First, take a look at your own motivations. Why do you feel compelled to stretch yourself too thin all the time? Are you driven by guilt? Embarrassment? The pressure to present a good front to the world?
For me, guilt plays a part. As a parent with an adult child of mental illness, I have not always known the right thing to do. Research and information have come a long way in 20 years, but I know I made mistakes along the way. So I often now try to 'make up for' my errors with over-compensation. That does no one any real, lasting good.
I also can understand the desire to put on a good face for the world. We live in a social media frenzy where everyone filters their lives to prove to the next person why they are the happiest people on earth. But we need to allow ourselves to step back from perception and deal with the real issues at hand.
And there are very real problems. Addiction is no joke, and mental illness can be crippling both to the one who suffers with it and their immediate family.
Another thing to consider is the manipulation of the other person. We all practice learned behaviors. If someone 'learns' how to control and manipulate you to get what they want, they will continue as long as it works.
It may have become just a habit, or it could be more deliberate, but we need to be able to recognize the manipulation for what it is and not continue to fall victim to it.
The hardest thing to do in life is often to let go. Whether is it your toddler first learning to walk, or your almost-adult child needing to leave the home, or your partner choosing a destructive lifestyle.
There are moments when you just have to take your hands off the wheel of another's life. As much as you or I would like to believe our help is the glue that is holding things together, the opposite is often true.
I would never encourage you to walk away from anyone who sincerely needs your guidance and love. Abandonment is not the answer either, but we do have to be honest with ourselves and our loved ones and take a step back.
My Hopefuls, I truly wish peace for any of you living with this struggle. I understand the highs and lows involved. I regret not having clear answers, but I do want you to know that you are not alone.
Your hearts are in the right place and you only want the best for your loved one. Just remember that you are not responsible for their decisions. Take care of yourself! Find resources and support for both you and your loved one. Don't become another victim and never let yourself be controlled by guilt.
Keep your head up! Keep the faith! A keep striving to..
Hope With Abandon!