How to Support Your Friends Without Being an Enabler
As social creatures, enabling is a behavior that can develop without anyone realizing it. Because we tend to create our web of significance based on the environment we are used to, we often fall into the same habits and lifestyle as those around us. This is the way that human behaviors become normalized - through repeated actions within our social circles.
But as we know, a lot of “normal” behaviours really aren’t so good for us. So why do they tend to stick until they become habits?
One of the reasons is enabling.
What is an Enabler?
This term “enabler” may be a new word for you. Essentially, an enabler is someone that encourages or enables negative or self-destructive behavior in another. It results in toxic relationships that can lead to any number of other negative consequences. But enabling behaviour isn’t always easy to identify, especially when you’re the one being the enabler. It could be as simple as turning a blind eye to someone doing something illegal or unethical; it’s not necessarily actively encouraging friends or family to do something obviously bad.
We are inherently averse to conflict and so we try our best to get along with people in whatever ways we can. We imitate each other in order to gain social acceptance into certain circles. We often avoid confronting people about their habits and don’t bring them up because it’s uncomfortable. Unfortunately, if the people we know have fallen into bad habits, we become each other’s enablers if we allow the other person to continue doing what is bad for them or someone else. By allowing someone to go on as if nothing is wrong, we are essentially telling them there are no consequences for their actions so that they do not question their decisions and can continue the behavior.
How Do You Know When You’re Enabling?
Have you heard the saying ‘sometimes doing nothing is doing something?’ Often we think that if we don’t do anything, we are absolved of any blame. However, by allowing someone to continue down a path of self-destruction, you are doing something.
Essentially, an enabler either participates in a particular bad behaviour themselves, or they choose to look the other way and cater to the person who is doing something hurtful to themselves or someone else. Enabling can result in over-spending, complaining, overeating, not working, skipping school, bullying, drug abuse, and many more harmful scenarios.
Often in the case of a gambling addict, an alcoholic, or a drug addict, their family members end up acting as enablers by bailing their loved ones out. They may offer rides, money, a place to live, food, and they may even lie for them. This behavior doesn’t make the addicted person question their decisions and can lead them to an even worse place. The last thing anyone wants to hear is that they shouldn’t help their struggling loved one, but sometimes that help is actually doing more harm than good. Tough love doesn’t come easily to most of us and it feels counter-intuitive, but it doesn’t mean you are neglecting them or that you don’t love them.
Groups like Al-Anon which are for family and friends of addicts help with this process and they are free of charge. They even offer phone meetings. It is anonymous so you can feel safe that what you share will not be spread to people outside the group.
How To Stop Enabling Your Friends
If you are enabling friends or family members, those behavioral patterns may be deeply ingrained. Usually, we don’t know we have been enabling. Once we recognize that a relationship causes us to make bad decisions or causes us anxiety, we can first acknowledge that there is a problem.
The next step is communicating healthy boundaries. Our friend relationships and family relationships provide a sense of comfort and sometimes our sense of identity, so we have to also acknowledge that this change can be hard. You can look to a support group for strength or find a mentor that you trust to speak to about your situation. A counsellor or therapist can also help you stop enabling in your friendships.
Encourage your friend to seek help and learn how to say no. Think of it as developing a thick skin or a backbone instead of being a pushover or a doormat. This assertiveness may not come naturally to you and may feel like you’re acting like someone else, but you must learn how to draw the line and speak the truth instead of taking the path of least resistance for the moment. It may help to think of someone you know who is very strong and think of how they would approach the situation.
Don’t think you have to do it by yourself, reaching out for help when you want to stop enabling allows you to deal with the guilt that the person you set a boundary with may throw onto you which may cause fear for you.
Ultimately, if you’re enabling, it can build resentment and put strain on your friendship. You may be allowing a person to stand you up, to not pay you back, or even to be insulting towards you or others. You will feel bad about yourself and it can negatively affect your self-esteem.
You also must be aware that sometimes your desire to help can get out of hand and actually make someone worse. You aren’t the expert on someone else’s bad behaviour or problems, so it’s not your responsibility to take it into your own hands to fix.
You may feel afraid but know that even if you lose a friend or two, you’re doing the right thing for you and for them. Sometimes, the best way to help someone is to be okay with them being mad at you. Being an enabler hurts the people you care about in the long run, and in order to help them, you must set boundaries. If you allow them to abuse you or take advantage of you, they will also be more likely to hurt others and themselves. If you feel you may be enabling someone, find someone you trust or someone you know has been through a similar situation to speak to about your situation.
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