As children, we’re taught to be helpers. Along with learning how to share, lessons about helping other people start in preschool or earlier. But most of us weren’t taught about healthy boundaries, or when to recognise when “helping” someone else turns into enabling.
So what, exactly, constitutes enabling? According to clinical psychologist Dr. Jade Wu, “you can enable someone’s bad behaviour in many ways, but it all boils down to the things you do to keep them in the status quo.” And it usually happens accidentally, because of course you’re not trying to perpetuate or validate another person’s potentially dangerous behaviour. Here’s how to recognise whether you’re an enabler, and what you can do to set healthy boundaries instead.
How to recognise if you’re an enabler
Most of the time, you end up being an enabler because you genuinely love and care about someone and want (what you think) is best for them. But even with the best of intensions, allowing and facilitating a loved one’s bad behaviours or habits isn’t going to help anyone. Here are four behaviours Wu identifies as being characteristic of enablers.
Cleaning up their messes (sometimes literally)
This involves “any form of shielding the person from the natural negative consequences of their own behaviour,” Wu explains in Psychology Today. It can take the form of constantly lending someone with a gambling addiction money, or lying to protect someone from their family finding out they have a drug problem. It’s one thing for these things to happen once, but if it becomes a routine “rescuing” situation, you’re only preventing your loved one from learning the cause-and-effect pattern of their behaviours, Wu adds.
Giving them general ‘help’ (like money) that doesn’t help them work towards a goal
If you’re always someone’s life raft, they’ll never learn how to solve problems on their own, according to Wu.
Not sticking to your boundaries
If you’ve already set boundaries with this person, yet you’re constantly skirting around them, that’s enabling behaviour. “Sticking to your boundaries isn’t only for your own sanity — the person you’re trying to help will ultimately feel more secure if they can count on you keeping your word, even if they initially fight back,” Wu explains. “You’re also being a good role model for consistent behaviour.”
Either shaming them or making excuses for them
Wu says that flipping between the two of these sets a dangerous precedent. “Neither shaming nor excusing helps a person change their behaviour, and going back and forth between the two is even worse,” she notes.
How to stop being an enabler
If any of the above sounds familiar, there’s a decent chance you could be an enabler. Fortunately, Wu also provides a few ways to correct your own behaviour. Here’s what she suggests.
Give them a non-judgmental place for them to share
Instead of judging, shaming, or guilting someone, accept this person for who they are, acknowledging their intrinsic validity as a person. Here’s how to do that, according to Wu:
Give them ample space to talk through their thoughts and feelings. Don’t interject with your own opinions and advice just yet. You can disagree with their behaviours later, but there’s no reason to disagree with their feelings — people feel how they feel, and you can respect that by trying to emotionally put yourself in their shoes.
Hold them accountable for their behaviour
Again, you don’t want to guilt or shame them, but also don’t let the person get away with their continuing bad behaviour. The key here, Wu says, is taking their lead and not setting your own goals for them. Ask them what they need, listen to them, and if they’d like you to help them stick to their goal, then do it.
Celebrate their wins with them
Positive reinforcement helps. If the person succeeds or reaches one of their goals, let them know that you’re proud of them, and that you understand how hard making changes can be.
Give them logistical support (within reason)
While Wu acknowledges that constantly helping someone continue their negative habit or behaviour is a sign of enabling itself, once a person starts genuinely working towards achieve their goal, they may need some practical help from time to time. In this case, your support could keep them from spiraling back into their past behaviour.
Here’s how Wu says we can tell the difference between helpful and enabling behaviours:
Is the person willing to put in the work to change their unhealthy behaviours?
Is there a well-defined purpose for the loan or other form of help?
Is there a reasonable plan (or are they willing to make one) for what they will do after they use your support to get past this immediate crisis?
In the end, she says it comes down to a mix of compassion and boundaries.
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