Enabling Someone is Not Loving Them.
“Real love is, when someone you love is hurting either themselves or someone else, daring to tell them. Being brave enough to risk the relationship in pointing out the harm they are causing to either themselves or someone else, and not enabling or going along with it. This is the most loving thing one can do.” — M. Scott Peck. The Road Less Traveled.
Though slightly paraphrased, this is essentially what Peck says.
Too many people do not do this. Too many people do the opposite.
(And yes, I’ve done it myself).
Most of us, at one time or another, have dodged speaking the truth in order to avoid conflict. We might believe that loving someone means “not hurting them,” so we stay quiet, choosing to avoid upsetting them and to avoid conflict. We think this means loving them. That upsetting or hurting someone is the opposite of love. It doesn’t and it isn’t.
Unfortunately, though likely well-intentioned, it’s the opposite of loving. It is also cowardly. It’s avoidant. And it’s weak.
And it does not help the person who is hurting either themselves or others. Instead, it allows the problem to continue. It reinforces the dysfunctional or harmful cycle remaining in motion.
Legit love means telling someone, in full honesty, that the way they are acting is harming themselves or someone else. This can even mean risking the relationship (as in, knowing this person will grow enraged with you for pointing out this difficult-to-hear truth, and thus, they may pull away from you as a result) in order to tell them this crucial truth.
When you truly love someone, you do not contribute to them harming themselves or someone else.
This is bravery. It is healthy boundaries. And it is mature love.
Consider: if you love someone, how can you turn a blind eye, go along with, or contribute to them hurting themselves? If you truly love them, this should be too painful a thing to even consider.
Enabling, going along with it, saying nothing, remaining silent, or downplaying in the face of problems in a person’s life whom you love, all of this is not acting with love towards them. It’s the opposite. It’s being a quiet accomplice in someone perpetuating harm to themselves. And when you love someone, you cannot possibly feel ok about doing such a thing.
Most people who enable loved ones don’t intend to cause harm. In fact, though it’s not seeing things clearly, enabling generally begins with the desire to help. Enabling behaviors can seem like helping behaviors. You may try to help with the best of intentions and enable someone without realizing it.
Empowering, though, is the opposite of enabling. When you empower someone, you do one or more of the following to help them succeed or change on their own:
- give them tools
- help them access resources
- teach them skills
In other words, you give them the power to make their own choices and solve problems. Then, if they choose (because remember, you cannot save anyone. You can offer the tools, but then they have to do it themselves) not to help themselves or stop harming others, you did everything you could. But still, you loved them by not going along with it.
Signs of an enabler can include:
- Ignoring or tolerating problematic behavior
- Providing financial assistance
- Covering for them or making excuses for their bad choices
- Taking on more than your fair share of responsibilities for this person
- Avoiding the issue
- Brushing things off or downplaying them
- Denying the problem or not acknowledging it in full
- Sacrificing or struggling to recognize your own needs
- Not following through on consequences or boundaries that had been outlined prior. This is a big one. (Note: If you state a consequence, it’s important to follow through. Not following through lets your loved one know nothing will happen when they keep doing the same thing. This makes it more likely they’ll continue to behave in the same way and keep taking advantage of your help. There may come a time in your relationship when you’ve had enough. You might say, “If you spend this money on anything other than rent, I’m not going to give you any more money.” Or, “I can’t stay in this relationship if you don’t get professional help.” You might also say, “I’m only paying my share of the rent this month, so if you can’t pay yours, you’ll need to find somewhere else to live.” But you don’t follow through, so your loved one continues doing what they’re doing and learns these are empty threats.
- Resentment (Note: When a pattern of enabling characterizes a relationship, it’s fairly common for resentment, or feelings of anger and disappointment, to develop. Your resentment may be directed more toward your loved one, toward the situation, both, or even yourself. You might feel hurt and angry about spending so much time trying to help someone who doesn’t seem to appreciate you. You may feel obligated to continue helping even when you don’t want to).
Though enabling can sometimes feel loving, it is not. It doesn’t help the person with the problem. It does the opposite.
It does not force the person to look at their issues in the face and deal with them. Enabling them allows them to escape a sense of personal responsibility for their lives. It keeps them in a cycle of dysfunction. And this is not something you would wish to do for someone you love.
Thus, though we all likely enable at one point or another, and though our intentions are not likely bad ones, this is an incredibly damaging behavior. It does not help anyone involved.
One of the most loving things you can do for people important to you? Do not enable them. Do not go along with it when they are hurting either themselves or someone else. Tell them. Be honest. Offer them tools if they wish to use them and save themselves. But have strong boundaries for yourself. Enact consequences and follow through with them, as painful as this may be for you emotionally.
Not only is this the most loving action for that person, it also protects you, your mental health, and boundaries, and, it gives them the best shot of actually getting better (instead of enabling them which keeps the problem in full swing and fails to truly challenge it).