Advice: Don’t Be an Enabler

Don’t confuse enabling someone with loving/supporting someone.

Enabling is a very misunderstood, dangerous behavior that most often happens between two people who deeply care for each other, such as a husband/wife, mother/daughter, father/son, or two best friends. The enabler seldom realizes that they are indeed enabling their loved one to continue negative or self-destructive behavior. They think they are helping or supporting their loved one, when they are actually harming them. Enabling is commonly associated with feeding or supporting addiction, but it encompasses all kinds of negative behaviors.

Let’s use life-long friends Joe and Tom for an example. Joe is always getting in trouble. He cheats on his wife, breaks the law on occasion, pretends to be someone he is not, and seems to have no moral code. Despite this, all through his life, Tom has always stood up for Joe. When Joe behaves badly and gets in trouble, or someone points out his bad behavior, all he has to do is go to Tom, who will tell him everything is ok. Tom has a reasonable mind and knows right from wrong. He knows that the things Joe does are really bad, but he wants to make his friend feel better. He comforts Joe, minimizes the consequences of Joe’s negative actions, and even lies for Joe.

Tom compromises his own values when he condones Joes negative behavior. He doesn’t want to “rock the boat” so he always assures his friend that no matter what, they are still best buds. This may make Tom seem like a fabulous, understanding, forgiving friend, but he’s not. He is an enabler, and he is not helping Joe. In fact, he is doing his friend a terrible disservice. By condoning Joe’s actions, which he knows are wrong, Tom is enabling Joe to continue his bad behavior. How will Joe learn from his mistakes/misdeeds if his best friend whom he relies on keeps telling him it’s ok to do so?

The Webster dictionary says an enabler is, “A person who encourages or enables negative or self-destructive behavior in another by providing excuses or by making it possible to avoid the consequences of such behavior.” As you can see from the example of the friends, often the enabler is not mean-spirited. They don’t really mean to encourage negative behavior, but they do because they mistake enabling for caring. If Tom really was a fabulous, understanding and forgiving friend, he would hold Joe accountable for his negative behavior and help him to be a better person. That is what friends are for. Friends don’t let friends behave badly.

True love and friendship is not always easy. You can’t just smooth over or look away from every bump in the road. A big part of caring for someone is being honest and sincere with them. When you support and care for someone, you want to nurture and protect them. Ignoring bad behavior to make them feel better is doing just the opposite. You are setting them up for failure, heartbreak and pain.

It’s kind of like having something stuck in your front teeth or walking around with your pants zipper down. You would certainly want your friend to tell you if you looked like a fool in this way, even if it embarrassed you, right? The same is true for more serious things. If I was making bad/immoral choices and hurting others and didn’t realize it, I would hope that someone I love would point that out to me, so I could change. I may not be happy with my realization at first. I may lash out at that person, but in the long run, I would realize my loved one did me a favor for my own good. That is what we all rely on loved ones for.  They tell us the good, the bad and the ugly, and we love them for it.

If you think about it, enabling someone is a selfish, cowardly act. Many times the enabler is afraid of losing the favor of their loved one, so they don’t risk telling the truth. They want to “keep the peace” or just “let things go,” so they tell their loved one whatever they want to hear.  What the enabler does not realize is that this is not love, caring or support. You do not walk on eggshells with the ones you love. If two people truly care for each other they will get through the good times and the bad times together.

Enabling happens on many levels. The worst kind of enabling usually occurs between a parent and child. It is a parent’s duty to teach their child the difference between right and wrong and guide them throughout life. Even adult children seek advice and direction from their parents. It is irresponsible for those parents to condone, pardon, excuse, ignore, tolerate or disregard bad, immoral behavior. It is even worse for them to support it, emotionally, intellectually or financially. 

Therefore, our advice to you is: DO NOT BE AN ENABLER. Try to recognize when your actions fall into this category. Be true to yourself and to those you care for. Do not overlook the negative, hurtful, self-destructive or immoral behavior of your loved ones. Be brave. Stand up and speak up. Help them instead of hindering them. They will thank you for it in the end.

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