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When Does Offering Support and Encouragement Become Enabling?

Danielle Dahl, Lead Contributor

Support is something we all need now and again. Helping others makes us feel good, and receiving a helping hand when we need one can really make a difference when we are going through hard times.

However, there is a point where helping those around us can cross into enabling. How do you know when offering support and encouragement becomes enabling someone else?

The first step is to understand the differences between support and enabling. This is important to understand when our loved ones are struggling with addiction, but it can also happen in other areas of our lives.

Support vs. enabling

When we help and support someone, we offer them an opportunity to take responsibility for their actions, decisions, and life choices. Support is meant to offer a person ideas, a short-term solution to a specific problem, or emotional comfort.

When Does Offering Support and Encouragement Become Enabling

However, if you are trying to remove all the obstacles or pain a person feels without letting them own their part in how they got there, then you really are not helping. You are enabling them, and that will only make the problem worse in the long run.

Help and support come from a place of genuine compassion. When we offer these things, we allow the people we love to become part of their solution and foster their own growth.

Helping comes with clear boundaries. Enabling stems from our own fears and insecurities. Maybe we worry that if we do not help them, they will make unhealthy choices. There is often a sense of guilt and codependency that happens when we enable someone.

What the difference looks like in real-life

Let’s look at this from the role of a parent with a teenage child. Our job is to teach teenagers many things about how to be adults, including managing their finances.

We have a teenage daughter who does wonderfully in school, is involved in extracurricular activities, and has a part-time job. When she got this job, I told her that she would have to pay 10% of her check every week toward her cellphone and car insurance bills.

She needed to budget the rest of the money for gas in her car and whenever she wanted to do things with her friends. She has often been fairly frugal and still run out of money, and needed some help with gas. I will give her a few dollars for her gas tank in these situations.

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However, I have also refused to send her gas money after spending $50 on clothes at the mall. The result in this scenario is always one of two things. She becomes very resourceful and finds a ride to work, or she returns her purchases. Neither of these things is fun for her, but it helps her problem solve and understand the need to budget.

Yesterday, my husband and I were talking about her leaving for college in less than a year. He says something along the lines of, “You know you are going to send her money when she says she needs money for food.” I replied with no; I am not.

I selected the meal plan from the dorms that covers three meals a day, seven days a week. It also comes with $150 “Cat Cash” (Go MSU Bobcats!) for her to use at vending machines and the coin-operated laundry. I told him that she will have a roof over her head and there is a food option available to her. If she chooses, she would rather eat out than have what is being offered in the dorm, that is her decision, and she can fund it.

My fear as a parent is that she would be hungry and uncomfortable. We don’t typically want those things for our babies, but she is not really a baby anymore. She is 18 and has to learn how to take care of herself.

Growth and development happen when we face adversity and struggle. There will be other students at this college that don’t have a comprehensive meal plan coupled with no help from family.

The fact that someone will have it harder than her doesn’t take away from her perceived hurdles, and she will still need to learn that she can overcome things. However, it should provide perspective.

I am thankful that at 18, she hasn’t faced the kind of struggles her dad and I had seen by this age, but my desire to ensure her life was completely different than mine can not allow me to remove all obstacles. If you are helping someone else to assuage your own fear, guilt, or desires, then chances are you are actually enabling them.

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How to offer healthy support instead

In most cases, enabling is a term we hear when we have relationships with addicts in our lives. If you are wondering how to offer healthy support rather than enable them, try these strategies:

  1. Offer positive encouragement. This might mean that you let them know you are here to remind them of the tools they have learned in recovery. You tell them that you believe they are going to make the right choices. You make healthy choices whenever you are around them that foster the type of environment they need to be in.
  2. Listen. Offer them a safe place to share their struggles and feelings. If you are too close to the situation to listen without judgment, maybe help them find a meeting or a professional that can listen without seeking to respond.
  3. Set boundaries. These are so important, both for your own mental health and for the continued health of the person struggling with addiction. Here are some boundaries you can set: Do not use drugs around me or in my home. I will not bail you out of jail or pay for your lawyer. I will not give you money. Do not ask me to lie to people for you.

The money one is hard because everyone has been short at one point or another. The reason that treatment centers will tell you not to give an addict money is one that should give you pause.

According to BluePrint Recovery Center, “Giving money to a loved one struggling with addiction could be the last time you give them money. Many street drugs are cut with fentanyl, a deadly opioid, and can lead to overdose and death. Regardless of what your loved one is claiming to need money for, there is a 50/50 chance they are manipulating you.”

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Here are some things you can also ask yourself some things before giving anyone money (addict, teenage child, sibling, or even your parents). Is this person working and supporting themselves. If they are truly unable to work, are they doing what they need to do to get assistance? 

Sure, if someone has a financial issue once in a blue moon and you want to help them, that is great. However, if it is a chronic problem, your help and support would be better spent helping them discover the reason for the problem.

Maybe you could offer to sit and help them make a budget. Or if they have young children who need to be picked up from school and you don’t mind doing that, you can extend that offer. However, constantly paying someone else’s bills is enabling them.

Here are some other signs that you might be enabling someone

  • Your own needs and wants are being put aside because you are extending so much “help”
  • You find yourself repeatedly solving the same kind of problem for them
  • You cover or lie for them
  • You ignore or tolerate problematic behavior

Desmond Tutu once said, “We need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” These words are a great test of whether or not you are helping or enabling someone.

It is wonderful to help others when they fall into the river, but if the same person keeps falling into the same river and then waits around for someone else to pull them out, the problem is only going to get worse.

Truly helping a person in this situation will bring out all kinds of emotions (for you and them), but the truth is that they have to grow and develop. You can not be their savior all of the time. This will cause more problems for you and them in the long term.

Use the comment section below to share ways we can help each other without enabling someone else, and thereby taking away their opportunity to learn and develop.

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