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Helping Versus Enabling: What’s the Difference?

“Helping” someone involves doing (or not doing) something which improves the final outcome of a problem for another person. “Enabling” is any behavior that looks like help on the surface, but actually makes the problem worse in the long term.

I really think so much of it ends up boiling down to this: Are you doing it for THEM or for YOU?

On the surface, that may seem like a stupid question, “I’m doing it for them, of course!” But I challenge you to check again. Are you doing what you’re doing because you feel guilty? WHO feels guilty? You. Are you doing it because you don’t want to appear like you don’t care? WHO doesn’t want to be seen as not caring? You. Are you doing it because you just need some peace? Or because you are afraid of their response? Once again…you and YOU. Not that there’s anything wrong with doing things for yourself, it’s just important to recognize the difference between helping someone and doing something because it’s helping you feel better.

Something that helps YOU feel better may or may not truly help the other person. In fact, it may even make the problem worse. Some mistakenly believe their enabling is “helping” because they misread the meaning of the other person’s reaction: Because the receiver expresses appreciation, seems happier (at least briefly), and/or appears to have a more positive view of them, the “helper” concludes that they MUST have helped. That is a mistake in logic. If therapists judged the effectiveness of their interventions in the same way, we would only tell patients things that they want to hear! Not exactly “therapy.”

If you’re wondering whether you might be enabling, here are some important questions to ask yourself:

  1. Is the problem getting better, worse, or staying the same overall?

  2. How would the “help” I’m giving be perceived by others? Can I even tell them what I’m doing without feeling defensive?

  3. What is the likelihood that what I’m doing will make it harder in the long-run for the person to change?

  4. How much is what I’m doing actually for ME versus THEM? What am I getting out of it?

  5. Am I trading short-term relief for long-term problems?

  6. What underlying message(s) might this send? Am I communicating things I don’t believe or would never admit to?

  7. Am I getting resentful (or at risk of getting resentful) because of my efforts?

  8. Have other people (such as family, friends, or professionals) said that I’m making the problem worse?

  9. Am I doing this out of fear, guilt, anger, or other strong emotions?

  10. What is the WORST thing that could happen if I don’t do this? Am I believing that I would be responsible for that?

The truth is, because actual help can be uncomfortable, you can’t always know immediately if what you’re doing is beneficial to the other person. If you stop enabling, don’t be surprised if the person you thought you were helping gets upset…and definitely don’t take that as a sign that what you’re doing is wrong. If you decide you want to provide “help” instead, start by taking a step back to “look at the forest” rather than just the trees. what makes sense, not just what alleviates discomfort for you, and get some advice from someone who can be objective and who isn’t afraid to challenge you. Good luck!

Stephanie Vaughn, Psy.D., Clinical Psychologist-HSP, owner of PSYCHē


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