The Slippery Slope Between Kindness and Enabling

Written by on May 12, 2021 in Self-Awareness, Self-Care
The Slippery Slope Between Kindness and Enabling

Our journey through the Covid-19 pandemic has presented each of us with endless opportunities to lend a helping hand to those in need.

Unfortunately, as we begin to emerge from this dark time some of us are discovering the slippery slope between those well-meaning acts of kindness and enabling.

Maybe a neighbor’s car broke down and you offered to give them a ride to and from work until it could be fixed, but it’s been months and the car is gathering dust in the driveway.

Or it could be that during the early days of quarantining you began shopping and running errands for an elderly neighbor, but that gesture of kindness has now become an expectation.  

Eventually, you begin feeling drained, confused, frustrated, maybe even depressed, or resentful.

How could this have happened when you were just trying to help?

What do you do when you need to say no but you don’t want to hurt people you care about or damage the relationship?

How do you avoid becoming bitter and lose the desire to help altogether?

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

~Christie Williams

Understanding the Nature of Enabling

On the most basic level, helping becomes enabling when we do things for someone else when they CAN and SHOULD be doing it for themselves.

Enabling is often associated with toxic behavior.

People who grow up in a family affected by substance abuse often assume the role of enabler 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 the risk of enabling occurs in many areas of life.

The truth is that there is a very fine line between helping (compassion, kindness, empathy, etc.) and enabling.

We enable family members by doing chores for them because we can do it faster and the way we want things done.

We do countless things for our children because we care, but also so we don’t have to deal with the fight if they resist or misbehave.

Even at work, we enable dependency every time we avoid delegating the things we should because we know we can do a better job.

Have you ever worked with someone who is perpetually needy?

You do a little more and a little more for them because, well they are just so darn nice, and the truth is it makes you feel a little bit heroic.

The problem is at some point the realization will inevitably hit home that your temporary help has become a long-term expectation.

This is the point where those warm and fuzzy feelings begin transforming into frustration and resentment.

Could You Be an Enabler?

Learning to avoid enabling begins with you. Do any of these behaviors sound familiar?

  • You tend to ignore or make excuses for other people’s mistakes or unacceptable behavior.
  • The needs and desires of others are more important to you than your own.
  • Feelings of pity, fear or guilt motivate your gestures of kindness.
  • You continue to “help” even when it’s neither requested nor acknowledged.
  • Helping others makes you feel needed and wanted.
  • You are afraid others will think you’re selfish or mean if you don’t help.
  • You believe the more you do for others, the more they’ll love you.

To build healthy relationships we need to recognize that sometimes our motivation for helping others is as much (if not more) about fulfilling our own needs.

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

Fortunately, there are healthy ways to help, to show true compassion and empathy and love, and do good rather than harm.

It is not what you do for your children, but what you teach them to do for themselves, that will make them successful human beings.

~Ann Landers

Breaking the Pattern

When you fall into the habit of enabling the result is that everybody loses by inches.

As the enabler, you’re just trying to help, but wind up experiencing a constant state of stress as you attempt to balance your own needs against the needs of others.

If you really want to help others in a way that results in the greatest good, the next time there is an opportunity to lend a helping hand try focusing on how you can show this individual to help themselves.

But what if something bad happens? What if they fail?

What if …

It’s true that even when you show someone the way to help themselves, they may stumble, and they may even blame you.

You may be tempted to jump in and save the day or prevent another emergency, but in the end, you are only preventing them from building the skills and confidence they need to solve their own problems.

The key to breaking the pattern of enabling is to return responsibility to the person it belongs to.

The enabled person lives in the same world, with the same rules as the rest of us, but by managing their world for them, they fail to learn to navigate life in a whole and healthy way.

Enabling is essentially love turned to fear, and help turned to control, and the effects are toxic to all involved.

Imagine saying this: I love you so much I will no longer disable you by enabling you. I am letting go of trying to fix, rescue, or save you. That is not my job. It never was, and it never will be.

~Crystal Andrus

The Takeaway

Enabling has the effect of releasing the enabled person from having to take responsibility for his or her behavior. Enabling means that someone else will always fix, solve, or make the consequences go away.

Often disguised as good intentions, when people aren’t challenged to do as much as they possibly can to help themselves, they learn to constantly look to others for answers, remedies, solutions, and fixes.

They begin to feel powerless, incapable, and needy.

Relinquishing your role as an enabler doesn’t mean you no longer care, just the opposite. It means you care so much you recognize that by enabling them you are preventing them from achieving their full potential.

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.

Saying ‘no’ can sometimes be the most loving and selfless gesture of all!

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

Marquita Herald

Marquita is an author, resilience coach, and founder of 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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