When a loved one is in crisis, many kind, generous people enable their destructive behavior without even knowing it. Here's how to recognize enabling and correct it by mixing empathy, compassion, and healthy boundaries.
When I was a teenager, I heard through the family grapevine that my favorite cousin, a bright and beautiful woman in her early 20’s, got married to a man with an alcohol and gambling problem. He stole her hard-earned money and gambled it away. He often stumbled home—if he came home at all, blind drunk. My cousin sacrificed her own future for years—paying off his debts, nursing his health problems, shielding him from his own family, trying every which way to help him overcome his addictions.
Many people find themselves in similar situations: They're trying to help a loved one make major life changes, and they're failing. I’ve met people who've done things like trying to help a spouse quit smoking by hiding their cigarettes; trying to get their roommate out of an abusive relationship by secretly sabotaging their dates; trying to smooth over family relationships by doing whatever a manipulative parent wants.
Many people find themselves trying to help a loved one make major life changes, and failing. The people caught in these binds tend to be kind and giving. Their sympathy overflows.
The people caught in these binds tend to be kind and giving like my cousin. Their sympathy overflows, and they want so much to help their loved one. They say, “If I don’t try to help, what will become of them?”
But what my cousin was doing was not helping her husband. She was enabling him.
And she’s not alone. A study on people with alcohol dependence and their partners found that the majority of partners engaged in enabling behaviors, such as taking over basic life activities for the alcoholic, lying and covering for them, borrowing money to pay their debts, or threatening to leave but not following through.
My cousin’s husband never did quit drinking or gambling. At some point, she left him and is now doing well. (Our family has lost the thread of where his story went.) But I wonder how things would have gone if they both knew the difference between enabling and helping when they first met.
Today’s episode is about this difference—how to tell if you’re enabling, and how to stop so you can start helping.
What is enabling, and why is it unhelpful?
There are many ways you can enable someone’s bad behavior, but it all boils down to things you do that contribute to keeping them in the status quo. Usually, enabling happens accidentally. You were trying hard to help, but after months or years of trying, one day you look up and realize that your college-aged son is still being irresponsible with money, or your partner is still procrastinating getting their career started, or your friend is black-out drinking ... again.
Here are some examples of enabling behaviors that are often cleverly disguised as helping. Do any of them sound familiar?
1. Cleaning up after them
I don’t just mean literally cleaning up their messes. (Though I have heard plenty of people complaining of having to pick up their partner’s dirty laundry from the floor, despite continuing to do it. Why would their partner learn to clean up after themselves if someone's willing to do it for them?)
Cleaning up includes any form of shielding the person from the natural negative consequences of their own behavior.
- A parent calls their daughter’s college professor to argue about her exam grade
- A husband lies to his in-laws about his wife’s drug problem to protect her from embarrassment
- A sibling pays his brother’s rent whenever his funds fall short because he regularly gambles his paycheck away
Some of these “helping” behaviors might be okay if they happened only once and came with other, more concrete forms of support. But if these “rescues” happen repeatedly, all you’re doing is preventing your loved one from learning the cause-and-effect pattern of their behaviors. They don’t get the opportunity to practice important skills, grow from their mistakes, and gain confidence in their own ability to handle tough situations.
If these “rescues” happen repeatedly, all you’re doing is preventing your loved one from learning the cause-and-effect pattern of their behaviors. They don’t get the opportunity to practice important skills, grow from their mistakes, and gain confidence in their own ability to handle tough situations.
In fact, research shows that when parents are overprotective, kids are more likely to develop an external locus of control, meaning that they believe their successes and failures depend on things outside of their control. This leads to lower achievement and well-being.
2. Giving them non-specific help (like money) that doesn’t support a well-defined goal
Often, our loved ones with difficulties come to us in a crisis moment. They’re about to be evicted. They need bail money. They’ve been caught cheating again and need a couch to crash on.
In these moments, we sometimes reflexively feel like we have to give money or some other non-specific form of “bail.” But after a time or two, you simply become the ATM (or the dog house, or life raft). None of these quick fixes change the root of their problems; they simply give them the false sense of security that there’s always more bail if they screw up again. There might be a temporary improvement in their situation, but there's no accountability, and no plan to show how that money is going to change their behavior.
3. Not sticking to your word about boundaries and limits
The common way that accidental enablers like my cousin try to stop the vicious enabling cycle is to re-establish some boundaries. This is good! But the most common mistake is to let those boundaries slip when things get tough for their loved one.
If you say that you will no longer help clean your mother’s house until she makes an appointment with a therapist for her hoarding disorder, don’t go over and secretly take out some trash.
If you say that you'll no longer loan money to your sister until she has made three agreed-upon monthly payments on previous loans, don’t break down after two months. If you say that you will no longer help clean your mother’s house until she makes an appointment with a therapist for her hoarding disorder, don’t go over and secretly take out some trash.
Sticking to your boundaries isn’t only for your own sanity—the person you’re trying to help will ultimately feel more secure if they can count on you keeping your word, even if they initially don’t like what you say. You're also being a good role model for consistent behavior.
4. Flip-flopping between shaming them and making excuses for them
We’re all human, and when someone we care about keeps sabotaging themselves, it’s easy to get frustrated. This frustration can make us do things like guilt-tripping them.
A friend of mine told me that, as teenagers, she and her sister used to smoke cigarettes in front of their father to guilt-trip him into quitting. The logic was that he would have to be a hypocrite to keep smoking if he didn’t let his daughters do it. Of course, this didn’t work. Shaming smokers tends to backfire.
My friend and her sister stopped this tactic because they saw how sad their father became. Instead, they started making excuses for him when he had a particularly hard day at work, explaining away his smoking as a necessary coping strategy. Needless to say, this didn’t help him quit, either. Neither shaming nor excusing helps a person change their behavior, and going back and forth between the two is even worse.
How to productively help someone make a life change
Before you start to help someone, I want you to know and acknowledge this for your own well-being: You can't control another person's behavior, and it's not your job to do so.
You can't control another person's behavior, and it's not your job to do so.
I’ve found through working with hundreds of patients that you can't meaningfully help someone until you let go of your own ego. Breathe and gently drop the idea that you should be able to turn someone around. I personally find the serenity prayer a helpful mantra:
Grant to us the serenity of mind to accept that which cannot be changed; courage to change that which can be changed, and wisdom to know the one from the other.
Now that you've relinquished control, turn your attention to the person you’re trying to help. Start, as always, with empathy:
1. Provide a non-judgmental space for them to share
You can’t help someone if they’re afraid or ashamed to be honest with you. Let go of judgments and radically accept this person. Accepting them doesn’t mean you condone their unhealthy behaviors; it simply means you acknowledge their intrinsic validity as a person.
Accepting them doesn’t mean you condone their unhealthy behaviors; it simply means you acknowledge their intrinsic validity as a person.
Give them your full attention and give them ample space to talk about their thoughts and emotions. Don’t interject with your own opinions and advice yet. You can disagree with their behaviors later, but there's no reason to disagree with their feelings—people feel how they feel, and you can respect that by trying to emotionally put yourself in their shoes.
2. Hold them accountable without shaming or guilt-tripping
When the person is ready to change—to get sober, leave a toxic relationship, go back to school, make a monthly budget—you can be ready to keep them accountable if they ask for help.
Notice that I didn’t say you should decide for them how you will hold them accountable. This will only set you up as opponents, with you trying to keep goal while they try to get around you. Instead, collaborate on a plan. Let them lead, but offer concrete ideas like advice for starting a budgeting spreadsheet or a link to the local AA chapter. Then encourage them to set goals and ask how you can keep them accountable.
It’s important to not guilt-trip or shame the person if and when they slip. The road to recovery and change is almost never a spotless one. When there's a setback, just go back to step one (provide a nonjudgmental space to talk) and offer to help again.
3. Celebrate successes with them
The fun part of supporting someone is that you get to celebrate successes with them. If you help them set realistic, incremental milestones right from the start, there will hopefully be many opportunities to celebrate. It’s your job to remind them how hard change is, and how proud they should be of even small wins.
This not only positively reinforces good behaviors but also strengthens the trust between you. It gives them permission to feel good about themselves, which is probably not easy for them if they’ve been struggling with addiction or other unhealthy behaviors for a while.
4. Provide reasonable logistical support and attention
I started out by listing unhelpful enabling behaviors, such as repeatedly lending money without accountability, with the caveat that sometimes a concrete piece of support could be appropriate. In fact, sometimes it could even be crucial.
Your support may make all the difference between them spiraling further and starting to climb out.
Just imagine that someone has a huge amount of credit card debt due to poor decisions made years ago. They work minimum wage to pay the interest, but can’t get a better job without further training, and they get further in debt without better job prospects. A loan to pay off a portion of this debt could free them up to take supervisor training, so they can get a raise, and eventually climb out of their financial hole.
If you're able and willing to provide this loan, you certainly can! Your support may make all the difference between them spiraling further and starting to climb out. The difference between this helpful behavior and enabling behaviors comes down to:
- Is the person willing to work on changing their unhealthy behaviors?
- Is there a well-defined purpose for the loan or other form of help?
- Is there a reasonable plan (or are they willing to make one) for what they will do after they use your support to get past this immediate crisis?
Asking these questions and encouraging thoughtfulness around them is not being stingy with your support. It is a very concrete way for you to help. Just make sure to do it without being judgmental or condescending. Your compassion plus your boundaries will make the perfect balance for delivering your help, and you just might be planting that first seed towards their recovery.