Fun fact: I like to think that one of my superpowers is supporting those close to me, and even those whom I don’t know so well, like new colleagues. Support may look like lending a listening ear or being a sounding board. It could be making a sick friend or family member some soup or homemade cookies. Helping a colleague think through and strategize a work problem or career challenge. Coaching a current or former student through the job offer process. Sending an encouraging text to someone before a big test or interview. I don’t have all the answers, but I have found I enjoy and am decently good at being there for people and giving them confidence that I am in their corner. That I am a trustworthy confidant. A source of wisdom, if that’s what they are looking for. Above all else, I strive to communicate successfully that I have their best interests at heart. At times, I’m not just supportive of those in my inner circle, but fiercely protective. The Momma Bear – “you mess with my cubs and I’ll mess with you” – kind of protective.
Unfortunately, I have learned over the last few years that my aim to support people can lead me down an unintentionally dark path – that of enabling people, and not in a good way. We enable people when we act in ways that protect them from the natural consequences of their actions. We often associate enablers or enabling behaviors with relationships with addicts such as those addicted to alcohol, drugs, gambling, infidelity, irresponsibility with money, etc. Enabling behaviors are often focused on covering up a problem like alcoholism or making a problem go away such as doing a child’s homework or science project for them so their grades won’t suffer. We can enable various people in our lives and here are some of the biggies.
We may be tempted to shield our children from the unpleasantness of missing out on an outing with friends or not being able to attend a concert as a consequence of them not managing their allowance. For instance, a child may be a “spender” whose allowance burns a hole in their pocket and they spend it right away. This habit may come back to bite them when they don’t have spending money for that impromptu movie outing or Starbuck’s stop with friends that present themselves. However, if we give in to the desire to make them happy and “bail them out” and agree to fund that excursion with friends, we enable them to continue spending habits that don’t help or encourage them to actively manage their money – a critical skill as one becomes a young adult.
Enabling our kids may be the most troubling group of people closest to us. This is because they are learning how the world works. That if they do A, B happens. That if they don’t study for a test, they get a poor grade. That if they sleep past their alarm, they miss the bus. When we rescue them from or enable them in these situations, we deny them an opportunity to learn what their decisions and actions yield in terms of consequences that delight them versus consequences that scare, frustrate or disappoint them. I know a few adults who don’t seem to connect what they do with the consequences of those actions. Those are some of the most unhappy adults I know.
Our partners are others close to us that it can be extraordinarily tempting to enable. As with our kids, we often want to see our partners happy and not frustrated or disappointed. If a partner struggles to manage their anger and punches a hole in the wall or breaks something, we may tell people it happened by accident when an object fell. We may even take on the task of patching the hole rather than expecting our partner to patch the hole they created. Or perhaps our partner leaves every job they’ve had on bad terms. They blame the boss in each of those jobs but start to wonder if the common denominator is themselves. We enable them when we insist that each of those situations was not their fault instead of helping them look for ways that they may have contributed to the deterioration of each of those employment situations, and how they can improve going forward.
As kids, we may have enabled our parents, especially if doing so was a means of survival or self-protection. For instance, growing up in a home with an untreated alcoholic parent more often than not leads to enabling behaviors. Other family members hide the parent’s drinking, clean up after them when they get sick, and take on additional household duties when the parent is hungover. Those who live with a family member who struggles with addiction live in a constant state of stress and may engage in enabling behaviors to achieve a sense of predictability and security. Unfortunately, enabling results in encouraging or supporting additional or future destructive behaviors, whether they be destructive to the one engaging in those behaviors or to those around them.
Consequences of Enabling Others
Why is protecting others from the natural consequences of their decisions a bad thing? Can’t it be helpful? Doesn’t protecting those close to us from the consequences of their behavior demonstrate our love and support for them? Frankly, I used to think so. I thought that enabling a friend’s or family member’s dysfunctional behavior was a way to demonstrate love and support. It’s taken me until my 40s to realize I was wrong. I was doing much more harm than good by enabling destructive behavior of those I care about.
Here’s why enabling – no matter how well-intentioned – is harmful. When we engage in enabling behavior, doing so gets in the way of the learning and development of the person we’re aiming to protect. As humans, when we don’t experience the natural consequences of our actions, we miss a potentially critical opportunity to learn deep down in our bones about the cause-effect dynamic in a specific situation. The association between our behaviors and the consequences of those actions is the essence of what is called operant conditioning. Here we learn important connections between our behavior and either the rewards (i.e., pleasant outcomes) or punishments (i.e., negative outcomes) of those actions. When we enable others’ destructive behaviors by shielding them from the consequences of those behaviors, we remove the motivation that the individual has for changing the problematic behavior. In part, because if they don’t experience the consequences, they don’t associate the behavior with the discomfort that may naturally follow it. In fact, there is some evidence indicating that addictions are learned behavior – learned through operant conditioning.
In fact, the more we enable problematic behavior in those we love, the more we encourage those individuals to be dependent upon us. What’s more, they not only become more dependent upon our enabling efforts, but learn or become conditioned to expect it. Thus, the longer we enable the behavior, the angrier and more frustrated they may be when we finally work to stop enabling their destructive behavior.
Are You An Enabler?
Some personality traits may lend themselves to encouraging enabling behaviors. Specifically, those who acknowledge that they are inclined to be “people pleasers” are more likely to enable those around them. People pleasers want to be liked (as many of us do), and what better way to be liked than to help someone avoid the unpleasant consequences of their actions? People pleasers may enable problematic behaviors in their pursuit to be liked, to keep the peace, or protect those they love.
It can be deeply challenging to recognize or acknowledge that we are engaging in enabling behaviors. Here are some indicators that may surprise you:
- Enablers avoid conflict to keep the peace.
- Enablers bottle up their emotions.
- Enablers take on the responsibilities of the person they are enabling.
- Enablers consistently come to the rescue of the one they are enabling.
- Enablers do whatever it takes to protect their loved one from pain.
- Enablers treat the one they are enabling like a child.
- Enablers financially support their loved one, even if that person is an adult.
- Enablers persist and believe the current situation is just a phase, despite how long it drags on.
Do you find yourself identifying with a number of these symptoms of enabling behavior? If so, consider what’s driving you to enable the person you love and care for. For some enablers, it is fear – fear of the other person losing their job, getting arrested, or simply being unpleasant to be around because they are frustrated by the consequences of their actions. Or they may fear for the well-being and safety of the person they are enabling. For others, it stems from a desire to be a hero or “white knight.” Still others just want to be helpful and perhaps strongly identify as a helper.
Recognizing that we’re enabling rather than supportive is not fun. Developing an awareness of the harm we’re actually doing is the (scary) first step. Next is to set boundaries that protect, and perhaps others like children, from the other person’s harmful behaviors. Do not expect them to accept these new boundaries willingly, much less happily. Doing so is like cleaning out a closet – things often get messier or worse before they get better. The longer you have enabled a loved one’s destructive behaviors, the angrier and more defiant – even abusive – you can expect them to be. After all, you’ve changed the rules without their permission. You will no longer smooth the path for them. They will have to be responsible for their own behaviors and experience the natural consequences of those actions. That is not a simple, straight, or fun path. However, it is a necessary one for healthy relationships and for all individuals in them to not just survive, but thrive.