Enablers aren’t just for alcoholics and drug addicts anymore. Enablers are people who find ways for those with any bad habit to avoid the negative consequences of their actions. So for instance, someone who has difficulty getting out of bed may have a coworker cover for his lateness with the boss. This helps him keep his job for the moment, but at a cost.
Enablers tend to be nice people—to a fault. They see their enabling as being a “good friend” or doing “a favor.” But when the one being helped continues to act irresponsibly and avoid consequences, the difference between an honest favor and enabling becomes evident.
Enablers often continue to enable bad behavior again and again because they use a set of emotional beliefs instead of logic. These beliefs include:
• “If I don’t ‘help,’ then I’m a bad person.” Which is another way of saying guilt. Certainly the one asking for the ‘favor’ often plays on and exploits the guilt. Most of us get enjoyment from helping others, which can make it hard to say “no.”
• “Something bad will happen; they might die!” Often, the one asking for help will paint a dire picture, which can be far from reality. Of course, if the threat is truly life-or-death, then helping is just that: helping. But if dire crises seem to pop up for someone at every turn, then that’s a clue that enabling might be occurring.
• “But I’ve already invested so much.” Sometimes, when someone has helped someone once, twice, or several times, they may start catching on to the idea that the helping isn’t so helpful. Mere habit, or the false idea that this is a healthy relationship, can become the enemy. The enabler may start to believe “well, I’ve come this far; I can’t stop now,” or “how will it look if I stop now?”
• “They can’t fix this without me.” An exit strategy for an enabler is to realize that someone else might be better for the job. But what if the hapless friend really can’t meet their responsibilities? A good test to separate helping from enabling is for the enabler to ask himself, “Is what I’m about to do helping someone become more competent, or is it preventing him from learning and growing?”
Here are a few new beliefs to prevent enabling:
• “They need to learn from their mistakes.” Not all helping is truly helpful. Most people learn through consequences. Negative consequences usually follow bad decisions. Forgetting to pay the water bill leads to empty taps. Taking away negative consequences robs people of the chance to learn that what they did is wrong which will then motivate and support change.
• “There’s only so much one person can do.” If we’re honest with ourselves and utilize humility, we are limited in our time and resources. Most of them are already spoken for. When we rescue someone it is often at the expense of ourselves. Before pledging to help someone who may or may not deserve it, consider other commitments to avoid rushing into anything.
• “Would other help be better?” Just because someone asks you for help does not automatically make it the best option. Depending on the type of crisis, perhaps a doctor, therapist, plumber or financial planner might be more suited to the problem. Irresponsible people will try to pin you down with over-the-top pleas. Don’t get sucked in. There’s a good chance they’re turning to you because others have seen through the ruse and have turned them down.
Learning to spot the difference between enabling and helping benefits the enabler, the one with the habit/problem and their relationship.
Laura F. Dabney, M.D., trained at Eastern Virginia Medical School and practiced emergency, in-patient and consult-liaison psychiatry at all the area hospitals including Sentara Norfolk General and the Veteran’s Hospital in Hampton. As a doctor of psychiatry, she treats patients with medication as well as all of today’s popular therapy techniques. As a physician, she can figure out if your symptoms are due to a medical or an emotional problem. Many medical problems, such as hypothyroidism, can cause emotional symptoms and thus be mistaken for a psychiatric problem. A medical background provides Dr. Dabney with the ability to give you an accurate, safe diagnosis. Dr. Dabney keeps up to date with her medical training as a member of various professional organizations. For more information, visit www.drldabney.com, call 757-340-0800, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.