“We cripple people who are capable of walking because we choose to carry them.” Christie Williams
Enabling is one of the surest ways to assure not getting your own life.
Enabling goes hand-in-hand with not setting boundaries – two sides of the same coin. Like the quote says, we have to say “no” or we do damage. We cripple people, and usually the ones we love the most.
What is Enabling?
Here are definitions of enabling, which sound harmless until we recognize we’ve signed up to run someone’s life besides our own, and we may be signing up to run it forever.
- To make (someone or something) able to do or to be something
Twelve step programs typically define enabling as …
- Doing for others what they can do for themselves.
Like the times I did my son’s chore of raking the backyard. I didn’t think I could watch any longer while he balanced the handle of the upside down rake in the palm of his hand, and then walked all around the yard still balancing it in the air. I felt like crippling him with the rake long before my enabling did damage.
I didn’t equate raking for a 13-year-old as enabling until I looked up the word in an index of one of my daily readers. I thought I was doing a friend a favor. I planned to pass along insight from the pages about how she could stop enabling her older teenaged son.
As I flipped through, I noticed the only two pages on enabling belonged to my husband and my son. The pages happened to fall on their birthdays.
While trying to dismiss the correlation, I forgot about helping my friend. I spent weeks mulling over how others enabled, and how I didn’t.
I knew …
Parents who did their children’s homework, parents who ran items to school every week when their children forgot them at home, parents who fought with teachers and administration to defend their children every time they got in trouble.
Parents who allowed grown children to live at home, not work, and run up whopping debt for cars and education and wardrobes.
Women who worked two jobs because their husbands worked none.
And I was worried about raking? Seriously? Raking?
I thought, What’s the harm in helping in the yard when he can’t get it done? You know, because he’s practicing his balancing act.
I asked these same sorts of questions about my husband and my daughter. All the while, I justified enabling as helping and I minimized the size of my enablement. I told myself, “It’s just raking.”
Justify it or not, minimize it or not, experience confirms we get better by taking small steps in the right direction the same as we get worse (more irresponsible, more immature, and more helpless) by taking small steps in the wrong direction, which includes your mom raking for you when it’s your chore.
There’s a fine line between being a wife and a mom who helps or being an enabler who harms. Unfortunately for us, we enablers are the ones who have to draw these lines (remember from a previous blog post, if you’re in the most pain, you’re the one who has to change). The person being enabled isn’t going to stop us.
And we each draw our own lines. What’s acceptable for one person may be enabling for another.
For me, the line where I’m enabling is …
- When I’m resentful about what I call “helping.
- When I don’t want to do what they ask, but I do it anyway.
- When I put my life on hold so I can do what they want.
- When I grumble about the person I’m supposedly helping.
Maybe you’ll recognize this rant.
“Do you know what happened today? My (family member, friend) asked me to (fill in the blank). Can you believe that? I did it, but I won’t be doing it again. He/she didn’t even thank me.”
The funny (funny interesting, not funny ha ha) thing about enabling is next time he/she asked, I did it again. I complained again. He/she asked again.
For me, the line where I’m enabling is also …
- When I hear them not only asking for help, but also expecting and insisting on it even when it’s something they can do for themselves.
- When I notice they’re regressing and I feel like I’m dealing with a child in a big body.
- When there are visible signs of trouble like excessive drinking, running up debt, laying around for days, acting irritable, making irresponsible choices.
Enabling feels similar to a hostage situation. Once we’ve taken responsibility for their lives, they take over our lives. We feel trapped. We may not know how to stop the progression. And they probably won’t want us to.
It took several (okay, more like several hundred) times of reviewing the two enabling pages before I took the words to heart and put them into action.
It took experiencing the crippling effect with my own family when their list of expectations grew longer than my to-do list.
It took seeing the crippling effect like watching more than one elderly couple work overtime to provide for their unemployed adult children.
It took hearing a mom share about her alcoholic daughter who died from drinking. She said, “I literally loved her to death. I knew better, but I couldn’t stop trying to help her in unhelpful ways.”
So, why’d I do it?
Oh, I had my reasons.
Here are a few from my long and scary list …
1. I was afraid.
2. I was fearful they really couldn’t do it, whatever “it” was.
3. I was fearful they wouldn’t do it.
4. I was fearful if they didn’t do it, they wouldn’t be okay, which would mean I wasn’t okay.
5. I was fearful if they weren’t okay, it’d be my fault.
6. I was fearful they’d die and our last time together would be when I set a boundary and said “no.”
What’s the solution?
Stop even if it seems insignificant like raking for your 13-year-old.
Find a friend who understands and talk with them. Make an appointment with a counselor. Attend a 12-step meeting. Reach out to someone who’s in your same situation.
Help the people you’re enabling by helping yourself. Find something to put in the place of enabling like #GettingYourOwnLife.
It’s easier said than done, I know, but “stop enabling” is the only solution. And it’s why I’m writing about it. Y’all are the group I’m reaching out to.
In This Together,
Image of rake compliments of Pixabay.com.
Disclaimer: This blog post is from my personal experience and is not expert advice like you’d receive from a psychologist, psychiatrist, or medical doctor, although I do have advanced degrees in the counseling field. When dealing with serious issues like addiction and depression, be sure to engage a support system, one that can help you set boundaries, prepare you for consequences when you stop enabling, and offer assistance to the person you’re letting go.