Meaning Well: The Origin of Enabling

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Enabling is a behavior well known in regards to alcoholism. A loved one calls an employer on behalf of the alcoholic and lies about the person being “sick.” Enabling an addict by preventing him/her from facing the natural consequences of their behavior supports their ability to continue using.

The definition of enabling is supplying someone with the means, the knowledge, or the opportunity to be or do something; doing something for someone that they are not capable of doing for themselves.

Enabling can play a role in all relationships. Rescuing a loved one who is irresponsible with their financial management by “lending” them money again and again does nothing to encourage them to take responsibility for their finances and learn how to manage them better. Calling an adult child every morning to wake her up so she is not late for work does nothing to teach her personal accountability. It is not an act of love to enable an adult to be less than they can be.

The excuses used by the enablers usually sound like: “he deserves another chance,” “he has a family and needs to keep his job,” “I’m just trying to help!”

We enable in an attempt to be helpful and loving. But when we enable we may not realize the negative impact our behavior has on the person’s ability to learn from their experiences and we rob them of opportunities to learn lessons that are essential for their life’s journey. When we rescue others from making what appears to be a mistake, we deprive them of the opportunity to learn and grow from their rections and we end up actually supporting them in continuing to be irresponsible.

Additionally, they can become increasingly dependent on us to bail them out every time. Because the person does not learn, they do not change. We can become enmeshed in their problems, feeling responsible for them and guilty, as though we have failed them, when things continue to go wrong for them.

The consequences may continue to escalate because the person has not learned the lesson that life is impartially offering them. When a person “hits bottom”, you can look back and realize it would have been much kinder to have let them face more benign consequences earlier in their pattern of irresponsible behavior. Enabling can lead to co-dependency. 

Letting others make what appears to be a mistake, especially adults, is not an uncaring act but an act of trust that they are able to manage their affairs even if in the short term they face negative consequences. It is absolutely essential to learn to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions and it is equally essential to let others take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, dire as they may be.

One tenet of effective parenting is to not do anything for a child that the child can do for himself or herself. For example; once a child learns to tie her shoes or is able to make his bed, we are well served to not do it for them even when it would be quicker for us to do it or we would be able to do a better job.

When we do for others what they can do for themselves, the implied message is that they are not capable, not smart enough, or quick enough. It’s a disempowering message.

 To stop enabling, ask yourself “if I assist, am I helping this person avoid consequences from irresponsible behavior?” If it is, spare yourself and encourage them to step up to the plate.  Do not lie for someone.  When you do, it is you who is the liar. Stop allowing yourself to be controlled by guilt; you are not responsible for anyone but yourself. Do not make excuses for others.  Let them face the results of their actions. Learn to say no.  Learn to be more assertive.







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