At first you just want to help the one you love. He had a little bit too much to drink and you called in sick for him. She gambled away her funds and you transferred some money into her account. Or you covered for him when he embarrassed you with his dysfunctional behavior because he refused to seek therapy. These are just a few examples of situations in which you begin by trying to help someone you care about, but you end up between a rock and a hard place.
It all springs from a noble instinct-you want to help the ones you love. But when you cover up or fill in for someone who should be responsible for doing things himself, you ultimately delay his progress. You’ve temporarily ‘solved’ his problem so his motivation to change is gone. It will take him longer to find a solution, and you may even prolong the problem.
But there are times when it does make sense to help. If you let your child stay home from school because he hasn’t studied for his test, you’re enabling his irresponsibility. But if you let him off the hook from doing his chores so he can study for the test, you’re helping. It can be a fine line.
So how do you know when you’re enabling?
1) Do you repeatedly put aside your own needs to ‘help’ your loved one? It can be a heavy load taking care of someone else’s problems on a constant basis. Because once you enable someone, you’ll have to do it again and again until they have incentive to change. Which they won’t have unless you stop ‘helping.’
2) Do you ignore his unacceptable behavior? Even though he embarrasses you in front of your friends-he’s inappropriately loud, he’s obviously drunk, he’s completely out of control. Whatever his problem, you bravely soldier on as if nothing is wrong. But it’s stressful and it takes a toll on you. And it doesn’t help him get better.
3) Do you fear that if you don’t lie or cover for him something terrible will happen? He will have a temper tantrum, he’ll hit you or he’ll leave you. So you continue to live in a state of angst that, over the long term, is not good for your health. And think about this. If you stop lying or covering, and the terrible thing does happen, then it’s over. And so is your angst.
If you answer yes to even one of these questions, chances are you are an enabler. You may have not noticed it at first. You may have become one over a period of time-the more you ‘helped,’ the deeper in trouble your loved one became. And the more you had to do to ‘fix’ things, until it became intolerable. That’s when you need to assess how you can change your behavior, and get out of the downward spiral you’re in. I’ll write about strategies for making those changes next week.