Throughout life we come across all sorts of people. All sorts of people, from all walks of life, with all sorts of personalities. An enabler can be one of those personality types.
Enablers mean well, and are genuinely good people. But the main characteristic of their behavior is that they tend to be people-pleasers. That, in it of itself, isn’t a bad trait but with enablers, they end up supporting negative behaviors of the people around them in order to be well-liked.
An example would be the babysitter who gives your kid 3 bags of M&Ms right before bedtime. They give your children what they want in order to be seen as “the cool one” but they forget the fact that 3 bags of M&Ms right before bed is ultimately a bad thing. It can only lead to stomach aches and late night sugar highs.
Enabling is Not Empowerment
People will often confuse enabling with empowerment. Someone who empowers can be viewed as the more positive opposite behavior of the enabler.
This confusion occurs because enabling behaviors often come from a good place. Oftentimes, enabling behaviors can be seen as helping and the person enabling may not even know what they’re doing is wrong.
The hallmark difference is when someone enables, problems or negative behaviors get “swept under the rug”. With empowerment that doesn’t happen. When you empower someone you give them the power to improve on their own through tools, techniques, new skills, or access to resources.
To make it simpler, think of empowerment as kicking someone out of the nest and giving them the resources and skills to fly on their own, and think of enabling as propping them up like a crutch.
Enabling can show up in many situations, especially with addiction and substance abuse.
How to Spot an Enabler
Here are some behaviors/situations to look for to help you spot enabling behavior:
Putting Up With Problematic Behavior
tolerating or ignoring someone’s behavior can start off innocently enough. You may decide to ignore the behavior because you think that person is looking for attention. Also, by ignoring the behavior you’re not rewarding it. And you may think that’s helping the situation.
Sometimes, people become afraid of what will happen if they challenge someone’s behavior. This is especially true if they are very close to the person. This can show up with family members, and even in romantic relationships.
An example might be if someone close to you struggles with drinking alcohol. You may have approached them and asked them to stop, and they’ve agreed. A few nights later, you find receipts from a liquor store and neighborhood bar on their nightstand. Instead of confronting them about it, you decide it’s best not to cause a fuss.
Making Excuses for Them
If you feel other people may judge someone close to you for their negative behaviors, it’s easy to make excuses or cover for them. If you feel that the consequences of their actions may be negative, it’s only natural to want to protect them.
An example of this would be calling your child out of school sick on a day they have a test. You might think you’re protecting them, because you know they haven’t studied, but really you are just allowing their poor study habits to continue. Without the presence of consequences, personal responsibility will start to fade.
Picking Up Their Slack
Enabling can also come in the form of you taking over a loved one’s responsibilities. If you are doing more than your share, and following a loved one around cleaning up their mess, it can be a form of enabling. Doing this once in a while is great. And means that you are a very loving and supportive family member.
Where the problem comes in, however, is if your help and support is allowing them to continue problematic behavior.
Letting a teen avoid chores is a perfect example of this one. You might think giving them a break to “be a kid” is a positive, but living a life as an adult, once they become one, without knowing how to do these things will be a real challenge.
Giving Them Money
We’ve all been there, right? A family member, or significant other, needs help in a bind. You can’t not help them, right? Well, if your finances allow for it, and you’re only doing it once in a while, it can be a positive. However, it can be equally negative if they spend their money impulsively, or spend money on harmful things like drugs or alcohol.
An example of this would be helping an adult child out with rent. If they aren’t managing their budget properly, and rely on you to meet their rent payment every month, they could eventually become dependent on you.
Putting another person’s needs over your own can be a heartfelt, selfless act. But if you are starting to put your wants and needs aside because you are too busy taking care of a loved one, it can be enabling and toxic.
If you struggle financially after giving someone money, or sacrifice other relationships to spend more time with them, it can start to wear on you.
Putting someone else for a short period of time is great. And it’s something that we often want to do for our loved ones. But if you are constantly feeling worn out, stretched too thin, or like you’re not accomplishing the things you want to accomplish, it may be time to step back and think about the reason behind your behaviors.
An example might be if you are working full-time and need the evening to take care of yourself. You know the self-care is important, but you are left doing chores that your children should be doing because they choose to hang out with friends or play video games. They are expecting you to do their chores for them at the expense of your own self-care and mental health. And that will not end well over time.
Stand On Your Own Two Feet
Enabling behavior can hurt relationships, and hurt people’s sense of independence. Where it can be most dangerous, though, is in the case of drug or alcohol abuse.
Take a moment to think about how your actions are truly affecting the people closest to you. You might think you’re helping them, when you’re leaving them at a disadvantage in the long run.