I’ve struggled all my life with confusion about the difference between enabling and love. Most of us think of enabling in the context of addiction, and we’re familiar with the idea that helping an addict avoid the consequences of their addiction is not, in the long run, useful.
It’s a pretty clear idea in theory. In practice, however, it’s a whole different story.
Enabling, denying, or allowing destructive patterns of behavior to continue extends far beyond the issue of addiction. Compassionate, loving people who sincerely want to help and support others wind up enabling all kinds of toxic behavior with the best intentions in the world, or completely unconsciously.
That’s the problem. Enabling can look and feel so much like love. Choosing not to enable can look and feel so much like rejection, selfishness, or even hate.
I’ve spent years of my life enabling toxic behavior in the name of love, duty, and loyalty. I’ve truly believed that with enough modeling and patience I could heal the destructive behavior of others. For most of my life I’ve lived with the happy but delusional belief that my unconditional love is enough to keep my loved ones happy and healthy.
I only wish I had that much power.
Choosing not to enable or deny is heartbreaking. It’s a choice I’ve had to make, and I feel daily anguish over it, even as I know in my heart I’m doing the right thing for myself and those I love.
Those of us who are intimately familiar with patterns of addiction and toxic behavior know the unrelenting pressure from well-meaning but clueless onlookers to excuse and/or rescue loved ones from the consequences of their choices.
People who expect or demand to be enabled do everything they can to keep the dynamic alive. Remember that those who punish us for our boundaries are the ones who gain the most from their absence. One of the important patterns that helps identify relationships in which enabling is taking place is when we make any kind of excuse for a pattern of destructive behavior. So-and-so is not loved. Nobody has ever understood them (but us). They’ve had various kinds of trauma. The world is against them. Nothing ever works out for them. They’re disenfranchised and alienated. They’re suffering and nobody cares. They have no one to turn to. They can’t afford to get help.
Solving or covering up someone else’s problems is very different from empowering them. We empower when we teach skills, share resources or give someone tools that support them in solving their own challenges. The difficulty is that someone stuck in a chronic pattern of destructive behavior doesn’t always want this kind of power. Resources, tools and skills are of no use if we aren’t prepared to take responsibility for our troubles, and it’s so much easier and more comfortable to deny or blame someone or something else for our destructive patterns and their consequences.
Unfortunately, the emotional dynamics of enabling are hard to fully understand until and unless we’ve experienced them for ourselves. I want to protect loved ones from going through the pain and damage that occurs to relationships when toxic behavior is present. I never want them to feel as torn apart as I have. I want them to use the resources and tools I can offer and learn from my mistakes.
Again, I only wish I had that much power.
As a lifelong caregiver, I’ve abdicated rescuing myself in favor of rescuing others. This is the shadow side of caregiving. Enabling others, entering into an unspoken agreement to work harder on their problems and lives than they do, is a dead end that keeps us nicely distracted from coming to terms with our own challenges. Even worse are relationships based on an unwritten agreement to mutually enable one another’s dysfunction.
Another part of why we choose to enable can be to help soothe our own anxiety. We don’t want to be in conflict with those we love. We don’t want to lose relationships that are dear to us. We don’t want to deal with a lot of trauma and drama. It’s easier and quicker just to write another check to help out one more time because our family member or friend can’t stay employed due to their substance abuse. It’s easier to manage their lives ourselves than watch them muddle along without clean socks and food in the fridge or listen to their constant complaining.
You’re an enabler if you’re asking why they keep doing it. Ask instead why you keep allowing it. As long as you allow it, they’ll probably do it. They’ve got no motivation to do anything else.
Enabling is painful, stressful, and will burn us out. It might take a long time, but eventually it will eat us up and drain us dry. It may feel like love, or duty, or loyalty, but it isn’t. It’s destructive for everyone involved.
For me, one of the most insidious aspects of enabling is keeping secrets. I’m not talking about protecting personal privacy or keeping confidences. I mean pretending not to notice that Brent is high again on the job, or looking the other way when a loved one drives home drunk from the bar. The biggest reasons I’ve kept secrets are shame (I must be a terrible person if someone I’m closely connected to is in such trouble), loyalty, and my effort to protect others.
You’d think I’d learn.
Keeping secrets implies tolerance, and it allows destructive patterns to continue and worsen. Every single time we pretend not to see, cover up or make excuses, we’re making the inevitable crash worse for everyone involved. Another reason I’ve kept secrets is for fear of no one believing me, or being told I’m overreacting (which masks their own denial). It’s easier to just avoid the whole issue and say nothing. Then everyone is more comfortable. Everyone except me. All that unsaid feeling and horror becomes a stone I carry in my heart, mute, but agonizing.
As counterintuitive and inadequate as it seems, the best thing we can do for loved ones struggling with toxic patterns of behavior, including addiction, is care for ourselves and stay firmly rooted in our own lives. If our offers of skills, tools and/or resources are rejected, we have no further power in the lives of others. We can only meet our own needs and solve our own problems, even if it means we must walk away from relationships in order to save ourselves.
Not everyone will understand or support us in refusing to enable, particularly the person we’ve been enabling. However, making the choice to live another day in our own lives means we can continue to be available to appropriately love and support someone when they’re ready for it, and at the very least provides a model of empowerment and self-responsibility.
Enabling is not love. It may seem like the easiest choice, but love requires much more than easy choices.
Not enabling, but empowering myself and others. My daily crime.
I’ve written before about two positions of power: Power-over (maintaining or creating power inequality) and power-with (maintaining equal power). I’ve thought of this as a complete dichotomy, an either/or lens through which I look at all interactions and relationships, both mine and those around me. Lately, though, I’ve seen two other dimensions in the way we manage power. We are agents of power enhancement or power degradation.
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Power enhancement and power degradation are the states between power-over and power-with. If we seek to steal the power of others, we begin by sabotaging cooperation, negotiation and equal access to resources — all those things that create communities based in power-with. If our sabotage is successful, power degradation begins. We don’t have complete power-over, not yet, but we are beginning to break down independence, self-sufficiency and the boundaries of others. We are actively working behind the scenes, slowly and subtly corrupting power wherever we can. We might, at this point, have a change of heart and begin fostering behaviors and situations that recreate and enhance power-with, or we might continue with our goal of power-over. Once our goal is attained, we can cease to lurk in the shadows (or under our sheepskin) and come into the spotlight, flushed and triumphant, bloated with stolen power and proud of it.
On the other hand, if we seek to empower others who have been embedded in a power-over dynamic, we begin by managing our own power in such a way that we enhance the power of the disempowered and degrade the power of those maintaining or creating a power-over status quo. Ideally, we don’t give our power away, because that’s a finite resource and leads to burnout and exhaustion. A better way is to use our power to teach, to lead, to support, to legislate and to generally become the wind beneath someone else’s wings. In other words, we appropriately invest our power into teaching others how to discover, reclaim, maintain and manage their own.
An abused child or woman is not going to know how to take care of themselves and function, even if their abuser is magically whisked away. They have to learn. Actually, first they have to unlearn what they already know — all the coping mechanisms that kept them alive in their situation but won’t work well in the wider world — and then they have to learn new skills and behaviors. That takes time, appropriate support from power enhancers and protection from power degraders, at least temporarily, while the victims of power-over learn how to find and reclaim their own power.
The people who live and embody these two intermediate positions of power, enhancers and degraders, are my people — the caregivers. We are the parents and the teachers; the mentors, spiritual leaders, coaches, medical professionals and volunteers who work at shelters, missions, soup kitchens, and out of tents in far-flung places. Interestingly, most of these folks once came from the exterminated middle class. Also interestingly, we see frequent headlines about how some people in this group misuse their position of power and authority in the guise of “helping” others. Shielded by the mask of a power enhancer, they act as power degraders, abusing and exploiting others unchecked, sometimes for decades.
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Power enhancement and degradation are not black/white good/bad positions. Many grassroots organizations seek to degrade power in an effort to address our power-over culture and help others reclaim their rightful power. You might say their agenda is to equalize power. The Southern Poverty Law Center is an excellent example. As parents, we might hope to work as power enhancers for our children. As resistance volunteers, we might work against organizations supporting inequality.
It’s important to note our culture doesn’t financially support people in these positions of power particularly well. Teachers strike for better pay. Coaches lay down their lives in bullet-riddled school hallways. Nurses and doctors are vulnerable to addiction, burnout and fractured relationships. Ditto police and firefighters. Compassion fatigue is epidemic. None of these people are millionaires, and some are becoming homeless in places like California as the cost of housing skyrockets. I also note how many of these positions are filled by volunteers. I myself did volunteer fire and rescue work for years, and then animal rescue work and hospice. Red Cross depends on its volunteers. Many healthcare facilities and schools rely heavily on volunteers, as well as sports teams, churches and countless human rights organizations.
Yet it seems to me power enhancers and power degraders are the most important people in our communities. They have the ability to lift others up into integrity and excellence or destroy them. They shape our health, the way we learn and think (or not, sadly), and our spiritual wellness. We trust them with our children, our souls, our secrets and our lives. When they stumble, burn out, fail or waver, we roar with fury, demand justice and retribution, riot and demonstrate, never considering we are the ones who put them in such dangerous, risky, heartbreaking and impossible positions in the first place. We place them on the front lines, put them under constant public scrutiny and pressure and make them responsible for understanding and fixing our increasingly unequal and dysfunctional social power dynamics.
Consider what a professional athlete gets paid, or an entertainer, or a “successful” politician. Compare that to what your children’s teachers are paid, or your local police or fire people, or your nurse practioner or the local softball coach or scout leader. Who has more direct influence in your life and well-being? Who will come help you in the middle of the night, organize community support or assist you with wedding or funeral arrangements?
Here is a graphic demonstrating the circle of power. (Please take a moment to notice the cutting-edge high tech used to generate this graphic. Impressive, yes?) Currently, a power-over dynamic is running the show, and it lies directly across the circle from power-with. We each occupy a place or places along the circle of power, and those places are dynamic and fluid, depending on the daily and even hourly choices we make. Some people spend most of their lives trying to equalize power between people while others work tirelessly to create and maintain unequal power. We all, whether consciously or not, behave in ways that degrade or enhance our own power and the power of others.
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Nobody teaches us about power. Not our parents or schools, and certainly not the media. Yet our inherent rightful power and our need to manage it appropriately and effectively transcends ability level, age, race, sex or socioeconomics. Individual power is apolitical. We all can take the same class, if only we can find teachers.
The problem is, there is no class and our best teachers are exhausted, demoralized, underpaid, underappreciated, overworked and drowning in a crippled education system while others are busy exploiting their positions in order to degrade the power of their students and colleagues. Even if some of the former know something about power management, they’re not in a position to teach anyone else about it. Power management and emotional intelligence skills (which are inextricably intertwined) are not going to show up on a standardized test or entrance exam.
We don’t know how to manage and maintain our power. We haven’t learned it and we can’t teach it. Yet we expect those people who support, protect and serve our communities, all those people who take intermediate roles of power enhancers and degraders, to remain uncorrupted and infallible and spotlessly kind, compassionate, moral, ethical, and just plain GOOD. We give them power and authority blindly, because we can’t recognize appropriate power management from inappropriate either, and expect them to figure it out and do the right thing. We sure as hell don’t know what to do! When that doesn’t happen, we’re angry and we look around for someone to blame, someone or something to scapegoat.
Photo by Talles Alves on Unsplash
How can we expect things to get better if we don’t make some changes?
I suggest we must begin at the beginning, at the foundations, with our children, which means a new paradigm of parenting. Every single adult coming into meaningful contact with a child must be reeducated about the continuum concept and connection parenting. Children need appropriate connection and bonding throughout childhood. If that happens, they learn emotional intelligence and become secure, confident, curious, joyful people who practice power-with as a matter of course, because their own power has never been corrupted or coerced.
How do we freeze everyone in their tracks, wipe their data banks clean and overwrite with better information? How can meaningful change take place if we don’t?
Don’t ask me. I can think about it and write about it, but I have no idea how to tackle such an overwhelmingly impossible task, even if everyone would consent to it, and most won’t. They don’t want to give up whatever power they feel they do have, even if it’s just over their children.
In the meantime, there’s only this small attic room; a grey, chilly spring day outside; and whatever I do or don’t do with my portion of personal power this minute, this hour, this day. I will make choices to enhance or degrade the power of everyone I interact with, including myself. I’ll write, go swimming and pick up birdseed for our empty feeders. I’ll observe others, think about power and try to make mindful choices.