How To Support Someone Without Enabling Them, From A Therapist
Have you ever had the urge to help someone you love, followed by a nagging feeling of doubt? Maybe you wondered, "Wait. Am I being supportive here—or am I enabling them?"
If you've ever been in this situation and paused to think about it, that's a great sign. You're examining your motives in context, and you're reflecting on whether an impulse that appears to be "good" is genuinely the right thing to do in a particular situation.
Most of us are conditioned to behave in pro-social ways, to be helpful and "good." At a young age, we learn our behaviors affect those around us for better or worse. And yet it's common to go overboard with what we learn about what it means to be kind, good, helpful, or supportive. We may get into a habit of being too helpful, too focused on others' well-being, too compulsively problem-solving or "good."
When this happens, there's a risk we'll actually harm those we most want to help by enabling them rather than allowing them to find their own way, make their own mistakes, and master the challenges life presents them with.
What it means to enable someone—and why it's a problem.
There's a big difference between supporting someone and enabling them.
As an example, let's consider a couple named Shania and Louis. Shania works as a TV producer. Louis is a computer programmer frustrated with his stalled career. Shania hires a full-time nanny to look after their 4-year-old twins so Louis can focus on finding a job, but he spends his afternoons playing video games and buying Star Wars paraphernalia online. Shania finds him a therapist and arranges networking dinners for him, but he misses his therapy sessions and doesn't follow up with his professional network.
Shania's attempts to support Louis end up being more enabling than helpful. They reinforce his overreliance on her and underreliance on himself. They also contribute to his low self-esteem. He starts thinking he's not capable of solving his own problems.
Supporting means you offer assistance. You help someone bear the weight or burden of an issue or problem. When you support, you acknowledge the person you're supporting is the master of their own destiny. You have faith in another person's capacity to make their own choices, and also—maybe most importantly—their own mistakes. When someone makes their own mistakes, they have an opportunity to learn from them and to grow.
Enabling is when you give someone the power or means to do something. It presupposes that the person you're enabling isn't able to find or give themselves what you give them or to obtain this power on their own. As a result, if you enable, it tends to reinforce the powerless position of the person you're trying to help.
What to do instead.
When Shania realized she was enabling Louis rather than supporting him, she took a different tack. She let him know her boundaries, saying, "Louis, I love you, and I am committed to our relationship. But I can't help you find a job. I also need you to contribute to our family. Either you find temporary work, or we let the nanny go, and you take care of our daughters."
In truth, Shania was afraid Louis would leave her and their daughters. Being supportive rather than enabling raised her anxiety level and left her feeling vulnerable. But she consciously chose to expect more from Louis rather than feeling sorry for him.
Louis got angry, at first. He accused Shania of controlling him. At the same time, he began looking more seriously for a job. After three weeks, he found a part-time job as a software developer. It wasn't ideal, but he took it. Going to work again and interacting with colleagues helped him feel engaged and useful.
If you're not sure whether you're supporting or enabling someone, try using this decision tree:
Ask yourself, "Am I doing something for this person that they could do for themselves?"
- If the answer is yes, ask yourself, "Can I allow this person to go through their own learning process without rescuing them from the consequences of their decisions and actions?"
- If the answer is no, ask yourself, "Am I willing to continue allowing this person to learn from their own decisions and experiences?"
Ask yourself, "Is doing this about my own compulsion to control, be needed, or be useful? Or is it truly about helping this person grow and thrive?"
- If the answer is yes (i.e., this is more about you), then ask yourself, "What could I do that's supportive rather than enabling? Can I just listen? Can I affirm this person's capacities and skills? Can I soothe my own anxieties?"
- If the answer is no, then ask yourself, "Am I willing to check in with my motives along the way and release attachment to outcome in this situation?"
Enabling reflects our own discomfort with boundaries, uncertainty, and letting go of an outdated identity. It may appear helpful on the surface, but at a deeper level, it's disempowering—both to those we enable and to ourselves.
Support is an offering we give from a place of strength and generosity, not out of fear or obligation. Supporting someone often has the potential to propel them further than they might have gone without our support.
As the popular saying goes, "Give a person a fish, and they eat for a day. Teach them to fish, and they eat for a lifetime."
This saying encapsulates the difference between enabling and supporting. Giving a person a solution to a problem may bring a short-term benefit, but in the long term, it fosters dependence, eroding a person's ability to develop their own capacities and fully claim their own successes.
Alicia Muñoz, LPC, is a certified couples therapist, licensed professional counselor, and author of four relationship books, including Stop Overthinking Your Relationship: Break the Cycle of Anxious Rumination to Nourish Love, Trust, and Connection With Your Partner (New Harbinger Publications, 2022). Over the past sixteen years, she has provided individual, group, and couples therapy in clinical settings, including Bellevue Hospital in New York, NY. Muñoz currently works as a Senior Writer and Editor at Psychotherapy Networker and as a couples therapist in private practice. She connects with her readers and followers through monthly blogs, newsletters, and podcasts as well as through Instagram at @aliciamunozcouples, and Facebook and Twitter at @aliciamunozlpc. Muñoz is a member of the Washington School of Psychiatry, the American Psychological Association, and the Mid-Atlantic Association of Imago and Relationship Therapists. You can learn more about her at www.aliciamunoz.com.