How to Tell the Difference Between Helping Someone and Enabling Them

Love means helping and supporting your loved ones, right? Or does it mean letting them figure it out on their own?  Should we allow people the dignity of their own consequences or warn them when a mac truck is bearing down on them? Do we hold them accountable for their choices by confronting them, or do we just let the chips fall where they may and let the consequences be what they will be.

We’ve all heard of the classic cases of enabling from the world of addiction…the wife who calls her husband’s boss to tell him the husband is sick when he’s really hung-over; the parents who let the drug-abusing 25-year-old son live at home without working because “he can’t find a job.”  Enabling in this sense means shielding the addict from the consequences of his or her addiction. The addict will tell you he really needs your help. This, “help,” unfortunately, allows the addict to continue his destructive behavior unimpeded longer, which means the addiction only gets worse. Consequences like jail, psychiatric hospitals, divorce and DWI may be exactly what are needed to shatter the denial that allows addicts to keep killing themselves and destroying other people’s lives.

So what does it mean to enable the people you love when it isn’t about addiction? What about cases where a family member or friend requests your “help?” Does driving to Target at 9pm the night before a science project is due to get your kid supplies count as love or enabling? If your wife has ADD and loses her keys, does helping her find them count as love or enabling? Does paying for your classmate’s training tuition count as love or enabling?

What are the criteria? Quite simply, if your “help” is harming someone, it is enabling, not loving.

Let’s break this down.  To harm someone means to cause physical, emotional or mental damage. It may be immediate damage, or it may be longer-term damage. Driving to Target at 9pm to help a child who usually does her homework, but who has been distracted this particular week because her grandmother has been in the hospital is one thing. Rescuing a child who constantly fails to plan teaches her to expect that someone will solve her problems, so she doesn’t have to do anything different. “Mom or dad may complain or yell, but they are always going to cave in and fix it…so why should I worry?”  This sets the kid up for not being prepared when a boss, for example, isn’t as understanding.  It also harms your relationship with your child because she gets to be irresponsible and happy while you feel over-responsible and unhappy.

The question to ask yourself is “does my help actually harm someone in the long run by keeping them from having to face the consequences of their own behavior, by robbing them of the opportunity to do something on their own and so gain self-esteem, or by  making things too easy for them?” Helping your ADD wife come up with a system so she can find her things is help; stopping what you’re doing and helping her search the house for the hundredth time is likely to leave you feeling resentful and to make her dependent on you. After all, she has to learn how to manage the challenge of ADD on her own, because if you aren’t home, her boss or her kid who is waiting to be picked up from school doesn’t really care why she’s late.

There is also a difference between helping someone who is helping themselves and rescuing someone who must do something very hard by themselves. One of the hardest things I have ever done was to tell someone I love very much who was on the floor in the terror of a string of panic attacks to “GET UP RIGHT NOW” instead of sitting on the floor, holding the person, and making them  “feel better.”  To collude with the panic would only have made it more entrenched and even harder to overcome. Yet it took everything in me to not cave in to the part of me that could hardly bear the pain my loved one was suffering. My helping in the wrong way would have been to satisfy my selfish need to not feel the other person’s pain, not to make the situation better.

Therein lays the real crux of the matter. Enablers “help” other people in a way that looks like love, but the motive is really selfish to the enabler. So if you want to get a gut check on whether you are really helping or enabling, ask yourself: what is my real motive for helping? If the answer is “I can’t stand to see this person in pain,” then you are appeasing our own pain, not really looking out for the greater good of your loved one.  If the motive is “they will owe me,” “it makes me feel needed or important,” “they will love me more,”  “if I don’t they won’t love me,” “I feel guilty if I don’t do it,” or “I don’t want them to think I’m mean,” then it’s probably enabling.

When does helping someone make you more kind or loving? When someone is in real need and you are moved by compassion to help, AND you have the resources to help, then that is good. We are called to be loving to one another. If your motivation is pure and whatever you give is appropriate for your situation AND is not harming the other person, then your help truly is an expression of love and generosity.

So donating an appropriate amount to a classmate’s fundraiser, helping them organize a garage sale, brainstorming ways they can raise money, mentoring them on how to ask their family for tuition assistance instead of a birthday gift, helping them bake cookies for a bake sale, showing them how to put items for sale on eBay, holding them accountable to their plans to raise money, encouraging them to keep faith and persevere…these are all loving gestures as long as the classmate is doing his or her part and not sitting on their hands just waiting for someone to rescue them.

Enabling or rescuing eventually leaves you feeling taken advantage of and leads to feelings of depression, unhappiness, not feeling appreciated, resentment and anger. Real help and generosity lead to a feeling of being blessed, gratitude and fulfillment. Be completely honest about your own motives and judge your actions by the fruits of your feelings and you’ll be able to walk that balance between helping and enabling others.