HOW TO SUPPORT A LOVED ONE TO INDEPENDENCE WITHOUT LOSING YOURSELF
By Tory Masters, Peer Specialist and former “enabler”
I used to be an “enabler”. At the time, however, I had no idea what that meant. All I knew was that I was in a very unsettling, unsatisfying and frustrating relationship with a family member who expected me to solve her problems despite her being 11 years my elder. She would say “jump” and I would say “how high”? I had no idea that by “jumping” every time she asked, I was preventing her from taking responsibility for her own actions. I finally went into therapy to find out how to disengage from this unhealthy and dispiriting relationship. I finally learned what enabling and co-dependence meant, why it was harmful to both of us and how to stop the cycle. Over the years I have read many books and articles about this subject. I want to share with you what I have learned and how it changed my life and relationships for the better.
Many of you have heard the term “enabler”, but what exactly does it mean? An enabler is a person who, despite the best intentions, actually makes excuses for, over protects and prevents the loved one from having to face the consequences of his (in this case) actions. Enabling is a pattern within families to ignore, deny and smooth over the unhealthy behavior of their loved one. It is a form of group denial. These families end up taking more responsibility for the actions of that person than the person is taking for himself. The family is working hard to solve problems while the struggling loved one is not. The family is feeling worse and worse while the loved one is not getting better. It’s a lose – lose for all concerned.
The inevitable impact of enabling is that it creates a cycle of co-dependency. You come to get used to the feeling of being needed and your loved one gets used to being needy. Enabling has the effect of releasing the enabled person from having to take responsibility for his behavior. Enabling means that someone else will always fix or make consequences go away. The enabled one often learns how to manipulate his enablers in order to ensure that the help keeps coming. The enabled person gets stuck in a role that, without him realizing it, has the effect of making him feel incompetent, powerless and dependent. The enabled one begins to actually believe that he must be incapable of true independence.
IF YOU HAVE BECOME AN ENABLER, IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT OR A WEAKNESS! YOU DID IT OUT OF LOVE AND CONCERN. MOST FAMILIES DEVELOP ENABLING HABITS, AND THAT’S BECAUSE THEY HAVE NEVER BEEN SHOWN OR TAUGHT A HEALTHIER APPROACH TO SUPPORTING A LOVED ONE WHO IS STRUGGLING. THIS ARTICLE IS A FIRST START TOWARD UNDERSTANDING THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ENABLING AND HEALTHY SUPPORT AND IDENTIFYING HEALTHIER STRATEGIES.
Let’s get started:
Ask yourself the following questions. If you answer yes to a number of them, you are most likely not helping your loved one gain confidence and independence. In short, your help is hurting.
Do you avoid conflict and try to keep the peace?
Do you make excuses for your loved one’s behavior?
Do you keep your own feelings inside?
Do you try to protect your loved one from the consequences of his actions?
Do you make decisions for your loved one?
Do you ever doubt yourself or wonder if you are “the crazy one”?
Do you take on responsibilities that your loved can handle himself?
Do you say to yourself, “he needs me because he may not make it on his own”?
Do you give up taking care of yourself in order to focus on rescuing your loved one?
Do you give your loved one “one more chance”, then another and another?
Do you say, “I can’t let him go to jail for the 3rd DUI. He’ll lose his job”?
Do you say “if I can get him through this crisis, things might improve”?
Do you still financially support your loved one even though he is an adult and capable of some kind of employment?
Are you good at just enduring?
Do you often feel angry, resentful and frustrated?
Do you tell yourself: “If I let him stay here despite marijuana use, at least he’ll be safe”?
If you see yourself in the questions above, there is way to break this pattern once and for all. And ask yourself: How has this enabled relationship made things better? Is your loved one doing better? If not, then making a change makes more and more sense. One of the most important behavior changes on the enabler’s part is to give back to your loved one responsibility for his actions, choices and consequences. They belong to him and him alone. Fact: your enabled loved one lives in the same world with the same rules as everybody else. If you obsess on managing his actions and choices, he will never learn to conduct himself as a responsible and accountable adult. He will never learn that he is competent and capable of living an independent and meaningful life. And just consider what your dominating oversight does to his self-esteem. If your goal is to have your adult loved one live an independent and responsible life, then treat him as an adult. Never do for him what he is fully capable of doing for himself. On the road to a meaningful recovery it is the suffering loved one that must drive the bus.
An important step towards correcting unhealthy enabling relationships is the creation of healthy boundaries that help determine what your role is and what role you expect your loved one to rise to. What do healthy boundaries between you and your suffering loved one look like?:
Your loved one makes his own choices and the accompanying consequences of his actions both negative and positive become critical learning experiences. Those experiences allow him to “grow himself up,” literally, and in the process build confidence, increase resilience and restore self – esteem. This new behavior is all on his side of the boundary. Accountability will greatly enhance the possibility of him being able to advocate for himself, believe in himself and develop an independent life. On his own terms. Your loved one deserves it.
You learn to be okay with not being in control of your loved one. This is on your side of the boundary. You identify ways in which you have been overly controlling and make a plan on how to back off. You continue to show your love and support but in a much healthier way. For example: you can help provide resources and educational information. You can provide the encouragement and belief that he is capable of finding his own path to independence. Focus more of your attention on your own self-care. That’s also on your side of the boundary. Become an advocate for yourself. Seek support for yourself (we all really need it) to help you develop and maintain healthy boundaries so you can also live a full and independent life. Finding a therapist and a support group is a great place to begin. Ultimately, it is very hard, if not impossible, to make this change without having an expert in family dynamics and co-dependency to coach you. They will help you to find the path and stay on it. Find that coach. You deserve it..
BOOKS TO HELP YOU GET THERE:
Co-Dependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring For Yourself
by Melodie Beatty
I’m Not Sick I Don’t Need Help! How to Help Someone Accept Treatment
By Xavier Amador, Ph.D.
Tory is Vice-Chair of the MDSG Board