It’s natural to want to help the people you care about as they face struggles like substance misuse or mental health challenges. But sometimes people’s attempts at support teeter into more harmful territory: enablement.
“When a loved one is struggling with destructive or unhealthy behavior patterns, it can be hard to know how to lend your support,” said Zainab Delawalla, a clinical psychologist in Atlanta, Georgia. “No one wants to see people they care about suffer, and in their care and concern, they inadvertently end up enabling the very behaviors that caused the suffering in the first place.”
There’s a fine line between supporting and enabling, but understanding the difference can ensure you truly help those you care about. Below, Delawalla and other psychologists break it down.
What does it mean to support someone?
“Supporting someone is an act of kindness done to show love and offer care,” said Rachel Thomasian, a licensed therapist and owner of Playa Vista Counseling in Los Angeles. “When we support someone we care about, we are working to empower them to be independent, confident people.”
She noted that support often means showing up and sitting with the mess of someone’s emotions as they navigate challenges in life.
“Being supportive means helping without shielding them from natural consequences and without depleting your own resources, be they emotional or material,” Delawalla said. “Supportive behaviors encourage the person to take accountability for their actions, while maintaining open and clear lines of communication.”
When you show support, you have establish healthy boundaries and be honest ― ideally without being judgmental. It’s about promoting the other person’s growth and development by allowing them to learn from their own mistakes and failures.
“Examples of supportive behavior include providing a listening ear to a friend going through a difficult time, calling to check on a family member who is struggling and letting them know the next time you plan to call and offering to help someone struggling with an addiction find supportive resources such as therapy or a recovery program,” said Becky Stuempfig, a Southern California-based therapist who specializes in grief.
What does it mean to enable someone?
“Think of enabling as overdoing support in a way that causes some harm to the person offering or receiving it,” Thomasian said. “Enabling can be harmful because the person enabling their loved one is neglecting their own needs to tend to the needs of others and if guilt or shame are contributing factors to the decision to help or not. Enabling behavior can be harmful to the person one tries to help because it can keep them in harmful cycles of behavior and reliant on help and thus unable to help themselves in crucial ways.”
Although there might be some helpful short-term damage control, enabling allows people to continue making bad choices without feeling the gravity of it ― thus fostering the narrative that their behavior isn’t so bad.
“The worst thing you can do is to continually shield a person from the natural consequences of their own behavior,” said Sue Varma, author of “Practical Optimism” and a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Health and “It sends the signal that life is perfect, that everyone else will swoop into clean up the mess and reinforces entitled behavior.”
Ask yourself if you’re going out of your way to allow someone to cut corners and if they even appreciate your help and are putting in their own efforts.
“Common ways that people engage in enabling behavior include making excuses for poor choices, avoiding tough conversations, continually taking on more than your fair share of responsibility, not following through on consequences, blaming others, feeling resentful and consistently sacrificing your own needs in order to ‘help’ someone else,” Steumpfig said.
“Many people do not intentionally engage in enabling behavior and truly believe they are helping their loved one by bailing them out of difficult situations. They often have good intentions but have difficulty realizing that their responses are preventing their loved one from making positive, lasting changes.”
She offered some specific examples of enabling behavior: making excuses for your child when they mess up so that they don’t have to experience the natural consequences, continually providing financial resources to someone who you know is using the money to buy substances rather than pay for living expenses and allowing a loved one with social anxiety to consistently avoid stressful situations so that they do not have to experience discomfort.
What’s the difference?
“The difference between supporting and enabling is that supportive behaviors are geared towards positive change, whereas enabling behaviors merely mitigate the natural consequences of unhealthy behaviors, which then ultimately reinforce those unhealthy behaviors,” Delawalla said.
Basically, supporting is helpful and involves healthy boundaries, personal growth and the development of good coping mechanisms, while enabling is harmful and limiting and perpetuates problematic actions.
“When I think about the line that separates supporting versus enabling, I consider the long-term effects of my actions,” Thomasian explained. “Will this ultimately be something that makes things better for someone, or is it a quick fix that ultimately leads to long-term harm?”
She illustrated this point with the example of teaching a child to tie their shoes.
“Supporting them to learn the task requires teaching, demonstrating and most importantly, having patience for the child to try, fail and try again,” Thomasian explained. “You can do the teaching, but you cannot do the learning for them.”
The enabling version would be an adult who just ties the child’s shoelaces every time because they don’t want to deal with the frustrations and tantrums that arise in the learning process.
“While, in the moment, it is easier to tie their shoes for them, we are doing them a disservice by doing the task for them,” she added. “This example translates across many different situations, from giving money to someone who has a substance use issue, applying for jobs on someone’s behalf or lying for them.”
Basically, it goes back to the old adage about teaching someone to fish, rather than giving them a fish.
“Enabling is delivering fresh filleted fish daily to a completely capable adult, at your own expense, while they don’t have a care in the world, don’t appreciate it and are out and about,” Varma said.
How do you know if you’re enabling someone?
“People often do not realize that they are crossing the fine line between support and enabling,” Stuempfig said.
She offered some questions that can be helpful to ask yourself if you think your support might’ve crossed over into enabling territory. One is if there’s part of you that’s starting to resent your loved one because you’re constantly putting their needs above your own.
“Do I find myself often trying to save or rescue my loved one from experiencing real-world consequences?” she added. “Am I letting my loved one solve their own problems while supporting them in doing so, or am I attempting to solve the problems for them? Do I often find myself talking for my loved one when they are capable of speaking for themselves? Do I frequently set expectations or boundaries that I do not follow through on? Am I blaming others for my loved one’s situation rather than helping them take responsibility for their actions?”
Delawalla similarly advised considering whose narrative you’re supporting and whether showing “support” requires you to compromise your own morals, well-being and/or relationships.
“Am I making excuses to justify someone else’s behavior? Am I hesitant to draw a boundary because of fear of something worse happening?” she asked. “Supporting someone else should never come at the cost of taking care of yourself.”
How can you make sure you’re supporting, not enabling?
“It is common for people to become stuck in a cycle of enabling others,” Steumpfig said. “It may be the only way they have been taught to function in relationships, stemming from their family of origin.”
She recommended working with a therapist to change these patterns and explore how they developed in the first place. Additionally, she shared some helpful reminders to keep in mind as you shift away from enabling.
“It’s always OK to say no,” Stuempfig said. “If your loved ones are accustomed to being enabled, they will often have a strong initial reaction when they are given a healthy boundary. It is possible to show compassion through support while still not supporting the unhealthy behavior.”
Try to make your intentions clear from the beginning and remember that taking care of your own needs is necessary in order to be emotionally available to others, she added.
If you and your struggling loved one are feeling stuck, start by asking them, “What’s the best way I can help you right now?”
“This helps the individual articulate their needs and prioritize what feels most helpful,” Stuempfig explained. “It also immediately encourages them to begin brainstorming possible solutions to their own problem. It is sometimes most helpful to provide support by simply listening and reminding your loved one that they are not alone. Providing company, a hand to hold, a warm voice on the other end of the line and frequent check-ins are other healthy ways to support loved ones who are struggling and reduce isolation, which is often the most difficult aspect for people enduring tough life transitions.”
Resist the urge to solve their problems for them. Instead, focus on showing up.
“It’s easy to come up with solutions we think would help someone, and often it is easier to just do the thing for them rather than support them in finding their own way,” Thomasian said. “The big challenge here is to exercise patience and tolerate frustration as their loved one finds their way.”