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Enable No More, Yes To Empowerment

The opening lines of the song "We Are the World" are inspirational, "There comes a time. When we heed a certain call," is a powerful call to action. The quote from the song is used to inspire positive change on a personal level. We often help others in their time of need, but our assistance can and will sometimes blur the line between enabling and empowering.

For your consideration:

What are your immediate thoughts when you hear someone referred to as an enabler? Would it make a difference to you if I replaced the word enabler with the word supporter?

Usually, there is an assumption that enabling relationships are exclusively associated with substance abusers and their loved ones. On the contrary, enabling relationships are not confined to addiction but can affect all types of relationships.

Enabling is not inherently wrong; it starts well-intentioned. However, without clear boundaries, what began as an attempt at offering someone healthy support can spiral out of control. For instance, you decide to protect the person from the consequences of their maladaptive behaviors because you believe they need protection. The person may need protection, but shielding them from their responsibilities contributes to their maladaptive behaviors.  

Indeed, sometimes, there is a tendency, and maybe with good reason, to blame the "enabler" for their actions. However, it is crucial to recognize and acknowledge the enabler's emotional attachment to the person they are "supporting" may override their otherwise excellent judgment.

Therefore, recognize that although the "enabler" contributes to the person's maladaptive behaviors, the "enabler" is not responsible for the other person's lack of initiative to change. You may disagree, but the enablers themselves consider their actions as helpful.

Undoubtedly, it is far better to empower than to enable.

In this section, I will switch from using the word enable to empower. When you set out to empower someone, the focus should be on their strengths and capabilities, not their perceived weakness. More importantly, their empowerment is for them to overcome their challenges, not for you to solve their problems.

Your assistance should not render the person helpless or powerless to respond to their challenges. Indeed, the first time you say no to someone you've always "supported," you will feel overwhelmed with emotions. They may not respond well to you saying no and attempting to reestablish healthy boundaries that support their empowerment.  

As you make the gradual shift from enabling to empowering, some questions to consider:

  • Do you offer assistance without them asking?

  • Do you make excuses to rationalize or justify helping them?

  • Do you immediately get into the protectionist mode with the person?

  • Does your support of this person create tension between you and others?

  • Do you get defensive when others talk about your unhealthy support of the person?

  • Do you struggle with establishing healthy boundaries and expectations for the person?

You may feel a sense of guilt and question whether you are doing the right thing, but when offering assistance starts to deplete you emotionally, it is time to reflect on what you've been doing. So don't guilt trip yourself or have anyone else do it because you think you cannot say no to the person.

Once you establish healthy boundaries, be mindful of statements that create a sense of desperation in you. Statements like:

  • "I know I lean on you more often than I probably need to, but I need your help." This statement creates a sense of desperation in you; consequently, you forget the boundaries you established with them by doing this one last favor or telling yourself if the "person didn't need help, they wouldn't have asked."

  • "If you care about me, I wouldn't have to be asking for your assistance."

  • "You are so selfish. I could never get your assistance when I needed it."

Also, be aware that using flattery is another strategy to persuade you to respond favorably to their needs. Listen for statements like:

  • "I do not know what I would do without you."

  • "You are such a kind and giving person, and I can always count on you to be there for me."

  • "I hope one day. I'll be able to pay you back for all you've done for me."

  • "I can't believe how great you are to me."

The statements of flattery are an attempt to stay on your "good side." Usually, they know exactly what appeals to you. So, they do and say things that come across as positive and complimentary, but the aim is to keep you in a support role from which they can continue to benefit.

To support the person's empowerment and your peace of mind, consider the following:

  • Set healthy boundaries.

  • Accept it is okay to tell the person no when their demands are unreasonable.

  • Do not be the first to offer a solution to their problem.

  • If you know someone who is better suited to assist the person, suggest that they contact that other person.

  • Remember, you are not a guru and do not have the answer to every problem they may have.

  • Give them the time and space to explore other resources other than you.

  • Be honest and transparent about how much assistance you can and will offer if you decide to help.

  • No sense of fulfillment comes from making unhealthy sacrifices. Self-care is not an option. It is a requirement.

The words "We can't go on pretending day-by-day" are from the same song referenced above. In reality, we cannot continue to pretend that our assistance to the person hasn't transitioned into unhealthy support when they become dependent on us. Let's be clear: if the person is unprepared to be on their own, your support remains necessary, but if they are capable. Your continued assistance hinders them from taking agency over their affairs.

Empowering Minds. Inspiring Lives.

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