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Are You a Helper or an Enabler?

Helpers make things better, enablers make things worse. Which one are you?

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Someone you love needs serious help. If they don’t make changes in their life, the results could be bad, and possibly disastrous.

How can you interact with them in a way that really helps them?

Many of us (myself included) think we are helping when we’re actually enabling. Enabling, though it might sound good, means that the things we are doing or saying to someone are backfiring. We are unwittingly “enabling” our loved one to stay stuck, to dig in their heels even more. This is the last thing that we actually want! It’s the worst outcome for us, and the one we love.

Last year I attended a lecture by the legendary behavior change expert, Dr. James Prochaska, at the Harvard Institute for Lifestyle Medicine. I’d first studied his “Stages of Change” model many years before, in an undergraduate Health Psychology course. After hearing him speak, I went home and ordered his book, Changing for Good.

As I worked my way through it, I came across a table called “Differences Between Enablers and Helpers,” which inspired this post.

Before I get to that, let’s talk about the phenomenon of "the precontemplator.” Prochaska and his colleagues describe the first stage of change as “precontemplation.” It’s not pretty.

Precontemplators have no intention of changing. In fact, they often actively resist change. They want the people around them to change instead. They deny there’s a problem and avoid responsibility. They may verbally attack or criticize you if you try to talk to them about it. They refuse to acknowledge the reality and consequences of their choices, and they are masters at rationalizing things (even if it’s obvious to everyone else that the choices they are making are destroying their life).

This may sound hopeless, but it’s not. Because they’re so stuck in their own denial, precontemplators need help from others to change. They need people around them who see the truth of the situation and mirror that to them.

According to Prochaska:

“The irony is that most precontemplators are doomed to remain trapped in the precontemplative stage without help from others. As people become more aware of their problems, they become more receptive to help.”

(This is one of the main ways you can help someone who is in denial: by making statements or asking questions that help them to see that they do, in fact, have a problem.)

Here’s what Prochaska says about enabling:

“Enabling begins naturally enough, when the helper cares about the precontemplator and wants to understand his or her concerns. However, the enabler is actually colluding in the precontemplator’s denial and minimization. Denial is strengthened rather than diminished by well-meaning attempts to soften the damage. Enabling continues when the helper fears that any challenge to the precontemplator’s problem behavior will risk a break in that relationship. If the problem is ever to be resolved, however, it will be because the helper dares to intervene.”

So how can you tell whether you are a helper or enabler?

1. Do you address problems or avoid discussing them?

Enablers prefer to avoid discussions and confrontations. Helpers address specific disruptive and distressing behaviors.

2. Do you allow for (and enforce) consequences, or protect them from consequences?

Enablers soften consequences by minimizing the importance of events (“It’s OK, it didn’t really matter anyway”). Helpers make sure that any negative behavior is followed by a consistent consequence.

3. Do you insist on people taking responsibility, or do you make excuses for them?

Enablers frequently make excuses for the bad behavior of a loved one. They may cover for or even defend problem behaviors. Ugh. Been there, done that. Helpers insist that people take responsibility for their actions, however ugly or embarrassing that may get.

4. Do you recommend a change in behavior, or are you afraid to bring it up?

Enablers often make vague, feeble hints that they hope will get the message across. These won’t even register on the radar of a precontemplator, who by definition is determined not to change, and is resistant to any feedback that they need to change. Helpers directly and frequently recommend behavior change.

As you can see, it’s a lot easier to be an enabler. Historically, I’ve been quite expert at it (I score very high on agreeableness on personality tests, and I hate confrontation). You might be tempted to think that enabling is the right course of action, maybe even the kinder course of action, but it’s not.

A final reason, from Prochaska, to stop enabling the people around you:

“A precontemplator may mistake apathy as a sign that the problem behavior is really not serious after all. To a precontemplator apathy looks like approval of the behavior.” (emphasis mine)

No! That's the last thing that you want!

Obviously being a helper isn’t an easy gig. It takes courage and wisdom. There are good times and bad times to speak up. There are effective and ineffective ways to deliver consequences.

There are some times where it’s wisest to get as far away from the situation as you can (if your safety is at risk, for example). Also, some people simply won’t change. Their continual destructive choices may destroy you and your life if you stay with them, if the behavior is serious enough. This article is not intended to provide advice to people who are in psychologically or physically abusive relationships.

Also, I always recommend enlisting the advice of a qualified professional, such as a psychologist or experienced counselor. If that’s out of your reach, talk about your situation with a wise person in your life, whose relationships are going well.

I hope this has provided some insight into the ways you interact with the people you love, and that it will help you be more effective in the way that you love and care for them.

Copyright 2019 Dr. Susan Biali Haas

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