Your friend calls you expectedly. Her car has broken down and she hopes you can drive her to and from work until her vehicle is repaired. You are happy to help.
Your sister loses her job and you offer to help pay some of her bills until she gets back on her feet financially.
A co-worker is struggling to learn a particularly challenging task and you finish it up for her so she can make her deadline.
Providing temporary help to someone in need demonstrates your kindness and thoughtfulness, and it probably makes you feel pretty good inside, too.
Unfortunately, sometimes our good deeds backfire on us when a temporary situation turns into habitual behavior with no end in sight. Our willingness to come to the aid of someone in need officially crosses the line from helping to enabling. We continue to do things for others when they can and should be doing these things themselves.
We all need a little help from time to time, but when you find you’ve slipped into the role of enabler, try to find the courage to shift your approach from enabling to encouraging independence. Your temporary help suddenly has turned into a long-term expectation that you will continue to bail out that person.
And how do you end up feeling? Probably frustrated and resentful that you are on the hook for repeatedly rescuing this individual. Unfortunately, by repeatedly coming to the rescue, we not only are preventing them from realizing they have a behavior problem, but we also are depriving them of reaching their full potential. Every time we rescue a loved one from falling, we get in their way of their emotional and spiritual growth. We are held hostage by people we care for because we are afraid of the consequences - possibly jail, institutions or death.
That's when tough love must step in. Tough love is a positive approach to helping a person learn a valuable lesson without suffering any ill effects. It is aimed at dealing with family members or friends who have serious problems and need to take responsibility for their actions and the consequences of their bad decisions.
It's time to set clear rules with defined consequences if these rules are not followed. Be honest, direct and loving. Tell the person you love him or her, but you believe they are headed for trouble and you are worried about them. Remember, helping someone understand the consequences of their actions to avert further suffering is demonstrating love. Tough love is not at all about shaming or humiliating a person, it’s usually a last ditch attempt to set guidelines for acceptable behavior with consequences so you don’t continue to serve as an enabler.
So, how can you tell if you crossed the line from helping to enabling? Ask yourself these questions:
• Am I constantly bailing out a family member or friend?
• Do I tend to ignore or make excuses for another person's mistakes or unacceptable behavior?
• Do I continue to accept excuses for the individual's unacceptable behavior or actions?
• Do my actions encourage dependence?
• Do I end up resenting the time helping someone else takes away from other things I'd rather be doing?
• Do I consistently put my own needs and desires aside in order to help someone else?
• Are my actions motivated by pity, fear or guilt?
• Do I continue to offer help when it is not appreciated or acknowledged?
• Am I repeatedly giving the person another chance?
• Am I catering to the other person's unhealthy behaviors?
If you have identified that you are an enabler, how do you turn off that switch and turn on the tough love? Remember, you are not helping them face their behavior and get better.
Here are a few tips:
1. Let go. Let the person figure it out on his or her own.
2. Say no even though your emotions tell you to say yes.
3. Don't fall victim to their story.
4. Separate the feelings in your heart from what your mind is telling you.
5. Let the dependent become his own hero.
6. Don't do for anyone what they can do for themselves.
7. Stand your ground.
8. Learn to walk away.
Trying to do it all will only destroy your own energy. You will drain yourself emotionally, physically and even financially.
As an enabler, we must take a step back and watch the person fall back a step or two in order to begin taking a huge jump forward. It is time to sink or swim; it is time for your loved one to take charge of his or her own life.
Remember: if you stop enabling and care taking, you will allow the person to learn and grow. It is not your responsibility to fix the person. Sometimes, the person you love needs a wake-up call to realize they are heading in the wrong direction. They need to learn the lesson, and unfortunately, sometimes, it has to be the hard way.
If you are struggling to let go of your enabling behavior, seek professional help.
It is OK to love unconditionally; you always will love that person no matter what they do; but stop there. You may be the bad guy at first, but you may be the hero over a lifetime.
Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.
It can be that simple.
Donna Litinsky, LMSW, CAAD, is a Licensed Master Clinical Social Worker with extensive experience in alcohol and chemical dependency. She works with individuals and families who present with co-occurring diagnoses of mental health issues and chemical dependency. Donna also specializes in working with couples who struggle with marital and communication issues. Her skills also include more than 25 years of experience helping clients with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders, codependency issues, grief and loss relating to substance abuse, as well as parenting and problematic family dynamics. Her therapy approach includes mindfulness teachings. She practices with The Center for Relationship and Sexual and Health in Royal Oak. To reach Donna, call 248-399-7447 or request an appointment online.