• Dr. George Stoupas

The Unhelpful Myth of "Enabling"

"Enabler" is a dirty word. I have never met a parent, spouse, or any human being, for that matter, who responded positively to this label. By the time some of my therapy clients come to me, they have been accused of "enabling" by therapists, addiction counselors, doctors, coworkers, other family members - maybe even the person they are "enabling" himself. "You. Are. An. Enabler." Not a good feeling.

I understand why this happens. We all need a reality check sometimes, and hearing hard truths is part of the healing process in therapy. If change is going to happen, we have to take responsibility for our part and be willing to do things differently. In family therapy, we spend a great deal of time identifying, highlighting, and changing the ways each member relates to one another, so it's critical to acknowledge when one person's behavior is having a negative impact on another or the family as a whole. We can't ignore it.

The issue with "enabling" is not about understanding, but about judgment.

So often, I see this label used in frustration and anger. It's an accusation. The core implication is that the "enabler" is knowingly, willfully, and intentionally causing harm to an individual or the family as a whole. In other people's eyes, they know better but are doing it anyway; they are causing harm without caring. Like an accomplice to a crime. A co-conspirator. Predictably, family members who are labelled "enablers" resist this categorization. Who wants to be told they have been acting in bad faith and causing harm to the people they love? So what usually ends up happening is that this person pulls away in self-protection, and we lose their critical piece of the family puzzle. Change for the rest of the family becomes more difficult because this individual is not a part of the therapy process anymore.

In my counseling work with families, I approach this in a very different way, from a developmental perspective. What some call "enabling" is better understood as accommodation. Families operate as one unit that consists of many different parts (i.e. the family members). In family therapy, we call this concept homeostasis - the delicate balance of the family unit. When one member of the family has a problem, such as drug and/or alcohol addiction, depression, anxiety, physical ailments, chronic irresponsibility or unemployment, etc., it is only natural that the other members adjust to accommodate that person's deficits or challenges. Everyone takes on a little more to lighten the load for the person who's struggling. They make life easier because he or she can't manage it at that moment in time. The family's got to keep going, whatever the cost. Sometimes, one of the members does more than the rest to accommodate this person, at which point they could be seen as actually causing the problem (i.e. the enabler).

The Case of Tom

It might be helpful to consider an example of how this works: Tom is in his mid-twenties. Always a shy boy in childhood, his parents learned to speak up for him and solve all his problems lest he become too overwhelmed. They accommodated his natural temperament instinctively, without consciously planning it, simply out of love for their child; no parent wants their child in pain. So as Tom grew up, this pattern continued. When he had problems with a teacher in high school, they stepped in. When his girlfriend broke up with him, they stepped in. When his boss reprimanded him, they stepped in. They did this to alleviate the discomfort they believed he would experience in these instances, often creating more work for themselves. Now, Tom is supposed to be grown up, capable of caring for himself and dealing with life's problems. But he has serious anxiety when he's faced with tasks like getting a new job, moving out, and maintaining adult relationships. Whereas once his parents felt like they were protecting him, they now feel resentful and stuck with him. Their friends and other family members criticize them, "You're enabling Tom! You spoiled him!," so the parents feel ashamed and stop opening up about their struggle. They keep caring for Tom because they don't know what else to do and now feel responsible for making him this way.

"I'm a Survivor, Not Going to Give Up..."

The distinction between "enabling" and "accommodating" may seem like silly semantics. At the end of the day, it's still the same thing, right? Not exactly. Remember, it's all about intention. Tom's parents don't want him to be this way, nor does the mother who gives her daughter money to buy drugs. By doing what they can to solve problems and clean up messes, these family members are not condoning problem behaviors. If you ask them what they'd like to see (and I do), you would get a very different description than the current reality. No, they are afraid and simply surviving. As human beings, these fears attached to the health and safety of the ones we love touch us at our very core. It is primal and powerful, and we will do whatever we need to in order to keep everyone going - including things that outsiders might not understand. This is precisely why the term "enabler" is so hurtful and offensive. It takes that beautiful human tendency to take care of those close to us and transforms it into something terrible.

Tom's parents did what they thought they needed to do to help their child, and, in a sense, it worked. Their accommodations saved him from experiencing hurt and distress. The problem is that it also inhibited the development of his own skills and his tolerance for distress - both things that are necessary for a functional, fulfilling adult life. Rather than criticizing Tom's parents, we need to appreciate the care and concern they had for their child. But now, they also need to recognize that the circumstances have changed, work through their fears of doing things differently, and give themselves permission to stop accommodating him. A lot of my work in family therapy with parents and adult children involves this process.

A cast accommodates a broken arm; it doesn't enable it to be broken. We need to know when it's time to remove the cast, but it can be hard to tell sometimes because it's hidden; we won't know our full range of motion until it's off. Let's stop accusing people of breaking arms and instead support them in taking part in the healing process.

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