Empowering or Enabling?

Photo by Jametlene Reskp

I often have clients come to see me who are wondering if they are enabling someone they care about. We hear this word from time to time, but many of us don’t fully understand its meaning. The concept of enabling originates from the realm of addictions recovery. It was used to describe actions that allow others to avoid experiencing the negative consequences of their problematic behavior.

The intentions behind enabling are almost always good – our actions are meant to help and protect our loved ones – to prevent them from suffering. It can be a little self serving as well – maybe we just can’t stand the discomfort of witnessing their struggle, so we settle for quick fixes that allow us to avoid this pain in the short term. Maybe we feel guilty and in an effort to assuage it, we try to right our perceived wrongs. Maybe we are really afraid of losing our loved one and we would rather see them safe than take a risk in service of a possible future of greater resilience and independence.

One of the reasons enabling is a problem is that, for most of us, negative consequences are what teach and motivate us to change problematic behavior. So, when we enable someone we love, we are actually disempowering them, because we are preventing them from receiving important information that can only be incorporated through lived experience. Another problem is that it often leads to attachment fatigue and burnout in the enabler.

Its not always easy to discern enabling from helping or supporting. True assistance is helping someone with something they cannot do themselves in order to empower them. When we empower someone, we increase their autonomy and self-determination. When we do something for another that they can and need to do for themselves, we send a wordless message. Our actions communicate our expectations, which can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy (Invisibilia: The Power of Expectations).

When I was a young child learning to swim, my mother would stand in the pool supporting me in the water at first. Each time she moved a little further away, encouraging me to reach past my comfort zone while still keeping me safe. If she had held me up in the water every time I struggled, I may never have become the strong swimmer I am today – and this swimming ability has served me many times in my life – maybe even saving me from a dangerous situation or two. My mother loved the water and she wanted me to be able to enjoy it too – even when she wasn’t around.

Probably, we all have accidentally enabled someone out of fear or in an effort to help. But, I wouldn’t label it enabling unless it becomes a systematic way of relating – something that happens over and over again in a relationship. We can be mindful of the motivations behind our responses to others’ difficulty as well as the after-effects of our actions. Is our help truly empowering our loved one? Or are we disempowering them by preventing them from having important life experiences needed for learning and growth? In this way we can “stack the deck” in our loved one’s favor, choosing the responses that are most likely to be beneficial over the long term and letting go of attachment to outcome, which is never entirely within our control.

Everyone is on their own life journey.
I am not the cause of this person’s suffering,
nor is it entirely within my power to make it go away,
even though I wish I could.
Moments like this can be difficult to bear,
yet I may still try and help if I can.

Christopher Germer, PhD, Compassion with Equanimity Meditation

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