This week I had an interesting conversation with a good friend and colleague who I worked with for many years in AIDS. We touched on a very familiar topic-the fine line between being helping and enabling.
Working in AIDS, and more recently during the Irene response, I saw a lot of well meaning people whose enabling-and not the good kind-kick into high gear. Stuff happens to all of us. Feeling sorry for them or viewing them as a “victim” is not helpful. Everybody has something at sometime to deal with. A continuing string of hand outs and enabling creates a sense of powerlessness, entitlement and ends up de-motivating the person to take charge of their life.
As more and more is learned about how the brain functions, and its incredible ability to heal and protect us, we need to pay close attention to this research. There are good indications that we can “rewire” the brain to be dependent or independent.
In our effort to keep people from failing, we weaken them. As Diana Nyad has stated in the weeks following her incredible swim-“failure is not a bad thing.” Basically, you can learn as much, if not more, by a bad experience than a good one.
So when is it enabling? Consider how you answer the questions below to determine if you are helping or enabling someone – be they children, spouse, partner, colleague, parent, friend, client etc.:
• Has the person’s circumstances stayed the same, gotten worse or improved? For those in a caregiver role, keep in mind that people get worse because of disease progression no matter what’s been tried. Yet, you do need to assess whether they are doing what they need to do to take care of themselves as best as they can.
If you are dealing with a person who is abusing drugs or alcohol, while acknowledging that addiction is a sickness, if they have not changed their behavior or gotten worse, take note. Take the Quiz: Are You an Enabler for insight into what you might be doing.
• Is the person doing everything in their power to change the situation?
• Why are you doing this? Is your need to be needed part of the picture? Are fear, pity or guilt motivating factors? We all need a sense of purpose and we do need to be needed. However, if your need is keeping them from being as independent as they possibly can be, rethink what you are doing.
• Are you emotionally and/or physically drained from the experience? If you answer yes to this question you’ve given too much and chances are good you’ve crossed over the helpful line. For caregivers, this is tiring and demanding work. If you feel totally rung out by it, pay attention. You may not be enabling the person who needs the care, but you may be enabling siblings or other family who need to be stepping up to the plate to help in this situation.
For those who work in human services, burnout can be, and often is, very high. When you start thinking things like, “I just paid their electric bill and they are showing off their new tattoo,” or “I’m working everyday plus overtime, and all they do is come in here and complain that we haven’t done enough for them” -enabling is at play and your clients have learned or are learning to be dependent on others to solve their problems, and or ways to get what they want, not necessarily what they need.
When I was running an HIV/AIDS program, we had a group of HIV+ women that acted as peer counselors-offering advocacy, healthcare navigation, support etc. One of our slogans was “if you do, they don’t,” meaning if the peer makes decisions, offers constant advise, remedies and solutions before long the person feels powerless to solve their own problems. They can become more needy. In fact, it becomes a viscous cycle, with people attracting more negative situations and staying stuck.
It was interesting to watch the peers as they learned first hand the line between enabling and helping. Certainly blurry at times, some of the sickest women were the ones to ask for empowerment training and made incredible peer counselors. They were often very direct saying things like ,“It’s not my job to be stressin’ because of the stupid shit your doing.” “Get off the pity-pot,” and the line that they could only say, “It sucks to be you,” meaning “you created the problem, you fix it.”
The best peers quickly understood that it wouldn’t help them or the person they were working with if they didn’t set boundaries, not become intimidated by threats, or live in fear “that they might do something.” Not everyone made a good peer and there were plenty of heated discussions about what was helpful and what was enabling.
Enabling can feel like the right thing at the time since it may make you feel needed, loving and kind. It’s also an easy way to avoid conflict and negative consequences. It can make you feel less guilty. It may make life easier for the moment, as well as give you a sense of importance. The bottom line is if your behavior is keeping them from doing what they can and should be doing for themselves, or keeping them from getting the professional help they need, you become part of the problem.
Enabling doesn’t just pertain to individuals. It also extends to communities, organizations, friends, co-workers, religious groups etc. Because it is a basic need for humans to want to help one another, most communities have a wide array of social support agencies, self help groups, community based organizations, churches, families etc. that provide help. Thanks to HIPAA, and funding streams, there isn’t a lot of discussion among these groups. Consequently it is very easy for certain people to become very enabled by the very organizations that are designed to help.
In truth, if you have an ounce of compassion, chances are good you’ve probably enabled somebody and have been enabled (co-dependent) yourself. Now and again okay, but when it goes on where it is interrupting lives and causing problems, change is needed.
How to stop enabling:
• Accurately assess and accept what you are doing. Completing Am I an enabler for someone else witha problem can help you clarify a bit better what exactly you might be doing that is no longer helpful
• Draw clear and concise boundaries. Be prepared to follow through with consequences-don’t make idle threats. Stop cleaning up after them. Learn to say “no” and let them be responsible for the choices they make.
• Accept the responsibility for your behavior and no one else’s.
• Get support so you don’t waiver.