Let’s say you have a friend who isn’t the best at budgeting. They’re not in serious financial trouble, but they often ask you if they can borrow a few dollars here or there to bridge the gap to their next paycheck. While you’d like to help, you also know that if they just tightened their belt on certain expenditures, like takeout food, they’d likely be able avoid the regular cash shortages.
So, the next time this friend asks you to spot them some cash, you have two choices as to how you proceed: The first choice is to be an enabler and, once again, lend them the money (after all, it’s not much, and they usually pay you back). The second choice is to be a supporter and tell them you can’t help out this month, but that you would like to offer them some budgeting guidance.
“Enabling is when you act in ways that help someone maintain harmful behaviors. Supporting is when you help them avoid harmful behaviors and make it easier to choose healthier behaviors.” —clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD
“Enabling is when you act in ways that help someone maintain harmful behaviors,” says clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD. “Supporting is when you help them avoid harmful behaviors and make it easier to choose healthier behaviors. It can also be when you let someone know that you care about them no matter what, but you can’t support their harmful behaviors.”
The problem with enabling—whether in regards to substance abuse or addiction disorders, mental-health issues, romantic relationships, the money-borrowing example previously mentioned, or otherwise—is that it can create dysfunctional relationships wherein one party tries to fix or solve problems for another without holding them accountable for their actions, says Sage Grazer, LCSW, co-founder and Chief Clinical Officer at mental-wellness platform Frame. But, she adds, that definition isn’t without nuance, which can complicate knowing how to stop enabling and accidentally perpetuating self-destructive behaviors. That’s because “being helpful or wanting to support your loved ones through difficult times does not always equate to enabling,” she says.
While enabling allows an individual to avoid the consequences of their behavior, supporting does not.
Confused about what does and doesn’t constitute enabling? Makes sense. Fortunately, there’s a shortcut for discerning between the two: While enabling allows an individual to avoid the consequences of their behavior, supporting does not. To illustrate the difference, Grazer suggests considering the old adage, “give a man a fish and he will eat today, but teach a man to fish and he will eat forever.” “Giving a man a fish may be enabling him to be passive, whereas teaching a man to fish—while still providing help through teaching—is actually moving the person toward a long-term goal of self-sufficiency,” she says. “Healthy supportive behavior can look like encouraging, teaching, or empowering your loved ones to make changes in their lives.”
It’s certainly not easy to identify enabling behavior, let alone know how to stop enabling once you realize it’s happening. But below, Dr. Daramus and Grazer offer solutions for being able to love, support, and—yes—help someone without enabling them to remain stuck in self-destructive patterns.
How to stop enabling your loved ones using 6 therapist-approved tips.
1. Identify your own role in the situation
No one is enabled in isolation. “While your counterpart may be engaging in harmful or destructive behaviors, if you are the enabler in the relationship, you also have a problem to address,” says Grazer. “Once you can recognize how your actions are enabling the person, you can begin to make changes to them.”
2. Express your needs in specific, measurable terms
Let the person know clearly what your new boundaries are, says Dr. Daramus. This, for example, may mean letting the bad-with-money friend know that you no longer want finances to be a part of your friendship.
3. Love the person, but reject the behavior
Since deciding not to help someone in need can feel antithetical to loving them, it might be helpful to offer alternative expressions of care. For example, if your friend is having budgeting problems, you can say to them, “I love you, but I’m not going to go shopping with you. We can have coffee or take a walk outside,” Dr. Daramus suggests.
4. Give them a choice where the wrong option has natural consequences
If your loved one still doesn’t respect your boundaries, Dr. Daramus recommends making clear to them what the outcome will be if they don’t choose a different behavior. “Natural consequences are where you’re not punishing them, you’re just letting consequences happen as they naturally might,” she says. For example, when an employer wanted to lower Dr. Daramus’ rate, she said, “I know you have a business to run, but if you go in that direction I’m going to need a new contract without a noncompete so I can do some projects elsewhere, and I won’t be as available to you.”
Or, let’s say you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship, and you’ve been enabling your significant other by sticking it out no matter what. Using this technique, you would instead say to them, “If you continue to call me names when you’re angry, I will leave this relationship.”
5. Make sure the other person isn’t enabling you, too
“Sometimes, two people enable each other, which is codependency,” says Dr. Daramus. “Ask yourself if you have any bad habits or emotional issues that they encourage: When your friend gets embarrassingly drunk at brunch, do you get emotional satisfaction out of being the caretaker or the ‘real grown-up’?” If you have that dynamic with multiple people in your life, she adds, they might be enabling a negative pattern of yours. If you’re lending money to more than one person, for example, you may need to look at your own behavior more so than that of the borrowers.
6. Seek professional help
“Differentiating between enabling and supporting can be very challenging, especially when you are enmeshed in the relationship yourself, which is why seeking outside help, such as therapy, can be enlightening and transformative,” says Grazer, who adds that therapy can be helpful for understanding your own underlying motivations for enabling. Because, for example, “enabling can also occur as an avoidance of self or a manifestation of fear rather than an act of love and caring,” she says.
A therapist can help you figure out how to set boundaries specific to your situation and practice self care around your interactions with the person you tend to enable, too.
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