How To Support Someone Without Enabling Them
No matter what sort of behavior someone is exhibiting, or the situation they are in, we often stop ourselves short of supporting with fear that we may just enable the negative behavior that worries us.
While this could be as obvious as drug abuse, certain topics may be even more complex such as being unfaithful in marriage.
When we talk to our friends and family about these subjects we want to support them and how we are there to help, but at the same time we don’t want to encourage their behavior or enable them to continue such behavior.
Hopefully, with the tips listed, you can find a happy medium between supporting your friends and family and also letting them know that their behavior may negatively affect themselves as well as people around them.
We hope that this approach can provide a way for you to get through to someone without doing things for them, or encouraging bad behavior.
What Is Enabling?
Enabling could be a term you haven’t heard of in this context, or you may not understand the full scope of what enabling is.
Here’s an obvious example, your friend might have a drinking problem. You might talk about how their drug abuse is harming themselves as well as people around them, and they agree to try to stop.
But, you invite them to your birthday party at a bar the following week. This is an obvious case of supporting while enabling.
While you may support them emotionally, you aren’t actively trying to help them, rather, you are gaslighting that person into thinking they can be around alcohol and be fine, when in reality they will likely abuse again.
Here’s a more complex example. Let’s say you have a teenager who needs to get a job but is lazy and plays video games all day.
You book them networking appointments, tickets to career fairs, get them an interview at a local store, but they don’t turn up to any of these things or follow them up.
This is still enabling, while it may seem like you are being proactive.
By making these decisions for someone, and doing the hard work for them, while it may seem like you are helping, you are enabling their negative behavior more.
This can make it seem like they aren’t capable of doing this themselves or that they can’t make their own choices.
In reality, you are compounding a situation with guilt and honor, and likely reinforcing the feeling of powerlessness this person may feel.
Supporting Without Enabling
In these examples, let’s explore how to support these people without enabling them.
In the case of a friend with a drinking problem, you can quite easily avoid enabling this person.
You may need to say to this person that you won’t go to parties with them until they get the help they need to stop abusing alcohol.
The friend needs to feel the responsibility on themselves to fix their problem, they need to know you aren’t going to hang out with them if they refuse to look after themselves.
The main thing is about encouraging the friend to be responsible for their behavior.
For example, one thought process might prompt you to stay in with them rather than going out – this would simply enable their behavior more.
This friend would then rely on you every time they miss out on a party due to being in recovery.
The friend needs to be able to understand the consequences of their choices and that you have the faith they can make the correct choices for themselves, when you make these choices for them, you are taking away their own self determination.
In the example of teenagers who can’t get a job, you need to make sure they know that the opus is on themselves to find their own opportunities and make the most of them.
Then, when said person does successfully find the job they were looking for, they will feel a greater sense of success and achievement, bolstering their confidence for future situations.
If you simply do everything for them and they get a job, they won’t feel this sort of self belief and the original issue could manifest in new ways in the future.
There’s nothing wrong with helping people by giving them opportunities, but they have to know it’s up to them.
Say things like ‘why don’t you look at this job…’ rather than ‘I have got you an interview at this job…’
This gives them a much greater sense of self determination as you won’t always be there to provide these opportunities for them, they need to be self sufficient themselves.
Things To Consider
Here are some useful questions to ask yourself when trying to support someone which can help identify if you are enabling them or not.
1. Consider if what you are doing is something that the person in need could have done themselves
Try encouraging the person to do that task, let them know you have faith in them and will be there if things go wrong, but not literally doing the hard part for them. ‘Ring them up and ask for an interview…’ rather than ‘I got an interview for you…’
2. Consider if you are doing things for this person out of your need to control and if this action is going to help the person thrive.
Sometimes our own conscience can get in the way of truly helping someone. Our own anxieties can lead us to enable someone’s behavior.
We need to realize that the negative things which may result from their behavior are necessary for them to learn and change, and to truly thrive.
Sometimes we may have the best intentions at heart and still be negatively enabling someone. Consider enabling as the other side to gaslighting.
Gaslighting and enabling are the same thing really, but gaslighting is often purposeful and manipulative, where enabling often comes from worrying too much about someone and we rarely realize we are doing it.
Often, we need to stand back from these situations, offering our emotional support for rejection, or relapses, or any other mental health problem. But also not reinforcing these issues by doing things for someone.
If someone needs support they often need someone to shoulder the emotional weight of a situation, but they need to understand that they can always get themselves out of a situation on their own.
Once they do get to the other side of a situation, they will be glad they didn’t rely on others for help, this should be reinforced rather than the reverse.
Author: Michelle Landeros, LMFT
Michelle Landeros is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist (LMFT). She is passionate about helping individuals, couples and families thrive.
Last updated: November 29, 2023