The Fine Line Between Helping and Enabling

Written by on April 19, 2015 in Personal Accountability, Self-Awareness

The Fine Line Between Helping and Enabling

On any given day you may be presented with an opportunity to help someone in need; it could be a co-worker, friend, family member or even a complete stranger.

Possibly a friend’s car has broken down and you help by giving them a ride to and from work until their car can be fixed.

Maybe a new co-worker is struggling to learn a particularly challenging task and you offer to lend a hand until they get settled into their new job.

Or, maybe your sister has recently lost her job and you offer to pay her living expenses temporarily until her situation improves.

Providing temporary help to someone in need exemplifies kindness and consideration towards the recipient, but it also makes us feel wonderful inside when we are able to make a positive difference in someone’s life.

We cripple people who are capable of walking because we choose to carry them. ~Christie Williams

Unfortunately, sometimes our good deeds backfire on us when a temporary situation turns into habitual behavior with no end in sight.

It’s at this point that our gesture of kindness has officially crossed the fine line between helping and enabling.

The Nature of Enabling

Helping becomes enabling when we do things for someone else when they CAN and SHOULD be doing it for themselves.

People who grow up in a family affected by substance abuse often assume the role of enabler and co-dependent early in life as a survival tactic, keeping the family secrets and making excuses for unacceptable behaviors, anything to keep the peace and create a calmer atmosphere.

But enabling can occur in many areas of life, from family and friends to co-workers. For example have you ever worked with someone who is perpetually needy?

You find yourself doing a little more and a little more for them because, well they are just so darn nice, and the honest truth is it makes you feel a little more self-confident and maybe even a bit heroic.

The problem is at some point the realization will inevitably hit home that your temporary help has become a long-term expectation and that’s when those warm and fuzzy feelings start going south and turn into frustration and resentment.

Of course, there are many reasons people adopt this needy role in life.

Sometimes it’s a way of getting attention, and other times they simply lack confidence and they will continue to rely on others as long as the help is offered.

Unfortunately, by repeatedly coming to their rescue we are not only preventing them from realizing they have a behavior problem, we are also depriving them of reaching their full potential.

Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime. ~Chinese proverb

Could You Be an Enabler?

  • Do you tend to ignore or make excuses for other’s mistakes or unacceptable behavior?
  • Do your actions encourage empowerment or dependence?
  • Do you end up resenting the time helping someone else takes away from other things you’d rather be doing?
  • Do you consistently put your own needs and desires aside in order to help someone else?
  • Are your actions motivated by pity? Fear? Guilt?
  • Do you continue to offer help when it is neither appreciated nor acknowledged?

If you really want to learn to help others in a way that results in the greatest good, the next time you have the opportunity to lend a hand first try to think if there is anything you can do to show this individual the way to help themselves.

For example, in the future when that needy co-worker comes to you looking for help rather than bending to the temptation to quickly take care of the problem for them, explain that you will be happy to show them how to handle it themselves.

Showing people how to help themselves is a philosophy you can carry with you anywhere in life.

I worked with the local food bank for years so I’m familiar with many of the programs available to help people with food and shelter. When someone asks me for a handout, I offer to help them connect with one of these services.

More often than you might imagine, they gladly accept my offer.

On one occasion it turned out the man and his family had ended up homeless because of a chronic illness which resulted in the loss of his job.

With a little help he was able to find shelter for the family, and just 6 months later they were back on their feet.

In fact, he was kind enough to speak about their life-altering experience at the kick-off for our county food drive that year.

Of course, other times my offer of help elicits a testy little rant on why can’t I just cough up some money. But that’s okay because either way, I know I’ve done the right thing for the one who is prepared to improve their situation.

Closing Thoughts

We all need a little help from time to time, but when you find you’ve slipped into the role of enabler muster the courage to shift your approach toward encouraging independence.

They will either take advantage of the opportunity to grow stronger and more confident as a result of their experience, or they’ll move onto someone else who will do it for them.

Will you be the passenger or the driver in your life journey?
About Marquita A. Herald

Marquita Herald

Marquita is an author, resilience coach and the chief evangelist at Emotionally Resilient Living. She’s also an unapologetic workaholic who loves red wine, rock n’ roll, road trips (and car dancing!), peanut butter cookies and (especially) a dog named Lucy.

She’s saddened and frustrated by excuses and cruelty and believes authentic compassion is the most powerful force in the world.

To learn more about Marquita and the mission of Emotionally Resilient Living Start Here.

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  1. Great point Jeannette and actually another important issue – risking vulnerability to ask for help. It’s highly unlikely that a chronic enabler would be inclined to attach themselves to you considering your normal level of independence, but it’s still an excellent example of why there is such a fine line. Thanks for sharing your story!

  2. You know Beth I think most people have fallen into the enabling role at least a few times. As a manager I tended to be pretty hard core, but my weakness is my fellow writers because I know from personal experience how tough it is getting started. So last year when I agreed to mentor several first time authors I was all about ‘giving’ but then a couple of them attached themselves to me, sending 6 to 10 emails a day and asking me to do things for them rather than just taking my advice. Fortunately I realized what was going on pretty quickly so I established firmer boundaries. Two of them are still in the program and doing well so the situation isn’t black and white. Thanks for contributing to the conversation!

  3. Thanks for sharing Lisa and obviously you mother was a smart lady and the truth is most enablers honestly do believe they are helping and doing good for the other person and in general. And of course sometimes people really do need a hand up, the fine line is knowing how to help in a way that empowers them. Thanks for contributing to the conversation!

  4. That is a great quote Meredith and it’s one we used a LOT when I was a small business coach. It’s a hard lesson to learn, especially when you have a client who is just so darn nice, but some people are just needy and not inclined to help themselves so you have to muster the courage to bless them on their way.

  5. It’s natural to have the kind of inner dialogue that you’re going through now after a break-up, heaven knows I can relate from my own experience. Although in my case the relationship limped along long after it should have ended so the final break was a relief more than anything. The truth is sometimes there are no answers and you simply have to look for the lessons and let the rest go, and that sounds like what you are doing.

  6. Good point Pamela, although from my experience a person’s level of self-confidence and interpersonal communication skills has as much if not more to do with the way they handle enabling a peer in a workplace environment. This is especially the case when it comes to first time managers. Unless they receive the proper training they will naturally fall back on their baseline way of dealing with all of their relationships so if they are an all or nothing kind of person in relationships they are going to be that way in leadership roles as well. As you point out, it is tricky, but the point is it doesn’t have to be with proper training and self awareness.

  7. Excellent point Sabrina. I don’t normally veer into the area of parenthood since I don’t have children myself, but enabling definitely is an issue when it comes to teaching children about personal accountability and resilience.

  8. Well said A.K. and I think it’s work mentioning that this applies to business as well as personal relationships – especially in small business. Most entrepreneurs I know really struggle when it comes to having to “fire” a client, but sometimes you really have no choice if you’re going to stay in business. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts!

  9. Thanks for your good wishes Mark – I think a month is too long for something like this cause I’m pretty much over it at this point. Anyway, since I am a fan of your terrific blog I am not at all surprised that you would have a preference for “being taught” since you provide such great guidance in that regard. Always appreciate your valuable insights my friend. 🙂

  10. Glad you found value in the post Tim. I’ve been to SFO several times but only for brief visits so I can’t really relate to the situation you mentioned, but seems like that has to be the exception to the rule in most cities. At least if the media is to be believed, and of course … well that’s another story. Anyway, thanks so much for taking the time to contribute to the conversation – always appreciated!

  11. Kire Sdyor says:

    Marquita, as someone who grew up in a “tough love” family, I never appreciated the lessons I was learning and the support I was being given. “Neither a borrower nor an enabler be” is how the famous phrase should go.
    Kire Sdyor recently posted…Mass AppealMy Profile

  12. This is a very informative post. You are almost describing the old saying about feeding or teaching a man to fish. The problem with helping or enabling is not just what you do, but the person’s attitude. There are people who will strive and want help, there are others who do not want help, but want you to provide for them.

  13. Jeannette Paladino says:

    Marquita — first, congratulations on your ranking! I voted for you. Your topic is very timely for me. This week I had to put together a very big and complicated project. I had spent several hours at the printers and when I got home I was total overwhelmed with the task ahead of me. I called a dear friend and asked for her help. She came and the two of us figured it out. 4-1/2 hours later we finished. I honestly couldn’t have done it without her — she totally agreed it was a 2-person job. I’m an independent person and rarely ask for help, maybe because it makes me feel too vulnerable. But I was glad I reached out. She knows that I would drop everything if she needed my help. The project helped to strengthen our already strong bond.
    Jeannette Paladino recently posted…Now You Can Create Perfect Posts for Social MediaMy Profile

  14. Beth Niebuhr says:

    It’s a fine line, indeed. I’ve fallen into the enabling trap and found myself wishing I could do a do-over, which doesn’t tend to be possible. I like the idea of always inserting an “until” into the offer for help. There definitely were times when I should have done that. The most annoying thing is that the enablee tends to get mad at the enabler.
    Beth Niebuhr recently posted…MindsetMy Profile

  15. Lisa Sicard says:

    Hi Marquita, This is a great post – my mom used to always talk about people enabling others and how it is NOT good for them when others think they are actually helping. There really is a difference. If you show them once and they learn then it’s helping. Otherwise it’s enabling if you are always doing it for them. I think many miss that point again and again.
    Thanks for sharing this one and enjoy the rest of your day.
    Lisa Sicard recently posted…Mobile Usability is Here – Are You Yet?My Profile

  16. Meredith says:

    I heard a great quote the other day about this very subject. “Don’t care more about the other person’s success than they do.” I think I tend to be an enabler, based on how strongly I reacted to that statement!
    Meredith recently posted…From a Box of Bills to a Craft OrganizerMy Profile

  17. Jeri says:

    I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to figure out how much helping and/or enabling was going on in light of the sudden end of my marriage. It’s hard to say. I have realized how both of us coming from dysfunctional families made for issues right from the start that wouldn’t rear their head until almost two decades later. Live and learn, I guess. That’s the only choice I can give myself.
    Jeri recently posted…#WritingPrompt: 15-Sentence Portrait PoemMy Profile

  18. Pamela Chollet says:

    Enabling is a tricky deal. I think people feel they have to take an all or nothing approach to stop their enabling. For example, in the workplace enabling a co-worker by completing their assignments. The co-dependent person might think the only way to stop enabling is to cut off all interaction with the co-worker. A better approach might be first to decide, what are you willing to do, to stop enabling your co-worker. Enabling is a dance between two people; it’s not a one-way street. People get enabled by people who enable.
    Pamela Chollet recently posted…Depression: 4 Things Not To Do If You’re DepressedMy Profile

  19. Sabrina Q. says:

    This is wonderful. I love the questions to determine if you are enabling. I think as parents, we have to know when to draw the line on doing things for our kids and having them do it themselves. I am constantly trying not to do to much for them. I can easily fall into patterns of just doing it without them being accountable. I tell myself when I catch myself doing a task that they are responsible for, “I really need to stop that. They are teenagers now and need to know how to do these things.” Thanks for sharing this. I love the quotes too.
    Sabrina Q. recently posted…Overcoming Negative Talk To Clear The ClutterMy Profile

  20. A.K. Andrew says:

    It really is a fine line as you say. You want to be of assistance to people, but at the same time,, there comes a point when the person has to take charge of themselves. Keeping your distance and saying no is very hard to do sometimes.
    A.K. Andrew recently posted…How to Express the Golden Gate Homesick BluesMy Profile

  21. Mark says:

    First of all, congratulations on your current standing in the voting M!

    You know ‘who” we’re all pulling for!LOL!

    But on to the subject at hand. I couldn’t agree more with your take and excellent advice about extending energy to help someone learn (preferably) to help themselves.

    And in order not to go off on one of my rants regarding this highly complex topic!

    Suffice it to say, I’m of the mindset that that prefers to be
    taught to fish.”

    As opposed to have fish or whatever give to me, no matter what context that may be!

    Be personally, on several levels, I feel your overall message is spot on! Thanks!

    This was another really good read!
    Mark recently posted…How To Use Your Expert Coaching Skills To Launch Information Products!My Profile

  22. Tim says:

    This is a topic I have always kept in my mind as I see it a lot where the kind intentions of one eventually becomes the expected behavior by another. When it happens with friends it is rarely a good outcome. I live in a city that seems to suffer this problem of enabling. San Francisco is a gorgeous city however they do seem to have a very real problem of trying to solve all problems by providing for all who want it.
    Tim recently posted…The Veiled Truth Kalahari BushmenMy Profile

  23. You are right of course about the value of learning these lessons at a young age Leora. Unfortunately many people grow up in dysfunctional families so that opportunity just isn’t there. Still, we may not have control when we’re children, but we certainly do as adults and the good news is it’s never too late to learn. Thanks for taking the time to contribute to the conversation!

  24. Feel free to take the conversation in any direction it moves you Dave! You are so right about the balance aspect. Coming from a family rife with various abuse and dysfunctional issues I can honestly say I’ve seen it all. One individual in particular has made it her role in life to be the caretaker of everyone she comes in contact with whether they want the attention or not – the problem being she not only wears that role as her badge of honor she has a whole arsenal of ways she will punish anyone who doesn’t show sufficient gratitude. I keep telling her she was adopted but she’s just not buying it. 🙂 As always, appreciate your thoughtful insights and commentary.

  25. Hi Marquita,

    Indeed, there is a huge difference between helping and enabling. I used to be an enabler. I checked off every single behavior above and remember it like it was yesterday.

    It only destroyed my life, but also a marriage. I had no clue about this because I was emulating my mother’s behavior. Until one day it all ended … I was at rock bottom and gave myself the gift of therapy.

    It took a while, but I did learn how to break that pattern of behavior. It was so freeing when those blinders came off my eyes!

    Now I live life to the fullest and yes, I can be helpful, but do recognize the signs when communicating with others. I do tell them “sorry, I can be an enabler and it will do no good for you or I” And then give an option for a way to help.

    Yes, that Chinese proverb works for me!

    Donna Merrill recently posted…Growing Your Online BusinessMy Profile

  26. Sounds like you not only made the right decision in the situation with your friend and learned a valuable lesson in the process. Thanks for sharing your story, and also for your good wishes. This kind of thing is WELL outside of my comfort zone so however it turns out I’d be fibbing if I didn’t say I’ll be glad when it’s over. 🙂

  27. It is almost always difficult to have to distance ourselves from people who have been a part of our lives, but if establishing workable boundaries hasn’t helped there really isn’t much choice if we’re to take care of ourselves. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, always appreciated.

  28. You are so right Donna about how our feelings can become so confusing when we’re stuck in a relationship where enabling is involved. Another example of why it’s so important to intentionally cultivate greater self awareness. Thanks so much for taking the time to contribute to the conversation!

  29. Good point about personal boundaries Jacqueline because having – and enforcing – them can make a huge difference in the quality of our relationships. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts – always appreciated.

  30. Leora says:

    I feel really bad for anyone who has enabling issues – both for the enabler and the person having a hard time coping. It’s a shame that we don’t learn to take care of our needs as children and teens. I try really hard with my own children to get them to solve their problems on their own. But then there are those feelings of the person leaving – which is why some people become enablers in the first place.
    Leora recently posted…What is a Responsive Theme? Mobile-Friendly Solution?My Profile

  31. Dave says:

    It is ironic that this particular article has reminded me of a situation in my life that is completely opposite of what you speak of – and I certainly don’t want to depart on a tangent to the wonderful advice you are providing, because I can use this in so many place right now.

    But, I have seen – firsthand – the opposite situation. People are insistent upon “enabling” without the necessary guidance and helping that necessitates that enabling. It is such a delicate balance, as with so many things in life. It’s striking that harmonious blend of help and enabling that allows everyone involved to reach their fullest potential.

    Thanks again Marty, another wonderful article!
    Dave recently posted…Night and dayMy Profile

  32. Lenie says:

    First, congratulations on your position in the contest. It would be so great if you won, I could say “I knew her when”.
    That story about the man and how you helped hit home. In my position as ED of a charity, I naturally met many other like-minded individuals and one was the ED of a not-for-profit credit counseling service. Someone I know really well asked me to loan her several thousand dollars – I said no but introduced her to the Credit Counselor and together they straightened out her finances. I also know if I had loaned her the money I would still be waiting for repayment.

  33. Erica says:

    I don’t think I enable people at this point, but maybe i did it a bit when I was younger. A couple of times in my past I had people in my life who were very needy and dependent and I felt like I had to take care of them. I often felt sad at the decision to distance myself from those people, but I felt in the end that it was the best decision for my own soul. If you let people dump everything on you, then you have noting left for yourself.
    Erica recently posted…Amazing Add-ins to Transform Your Smoothie Into a Nutrient Filled PowerhouseMy Profile

  34. Donna Janke says:

    Good tips on how to recognize enabling behaviour. I think sometimes when we are enabling we feel bad and resentful about helping without understanding why we feel that way and then feel guilty about that. Looking at it this way may help us truly help vs enable.
    Donna Janke recently posted…Goodbye Winter HomeMy Profile

  35. Jacqueline Gum says:

    I have dealt with the enabling factor pertaining to substance abuse with my brother. Alanon helped me really see the light there. But you do bring up a great point when it comes to other things, like the workplace. But I have also encountered it with friends. The person who calls five times a day because there is always a problem they need your help resolving. I have ended friendships because of this. In the end, I realized that it was my fault for not setting acceptable boundries.
    Jacqueline Gum recently posted…Feigned Ignorance… Where’s The Justice?My Profile