When “Helping” Becomes Enabling

We all want to be supportive of family and friends, especially when there is a crisis of some sort. Usually, it is sufficient to provide non-judgmental listening and perhaps some practical assistance to help someone through a difficult time. And many people are open to seeking professional help if they are experiencing serious emotional/ psychological symptoms, or simply feel that they cannot cope.

However, some people have underlying issues that will continue to make them miserable until properly addressed – and might be in denial about their need for help. In these cases, the individual might develop a pattern of “crisis-oriented” behavior, in which he/she is continually creating chaos or responding to various life stressors in very maladaptive ways (e.g., compulsive behavior, taking things out on others).

When someone repeatedly expresses an urgent need for help but then does nothing to avert future crises, this can become quite a drain on people close to him/her. However, loved ones often continue taking too much responsibility for fixing the negative outcomes of someone’s untreated mental health or substance abuse problem. In addition to creating stress and frustration for the helper, this type of “caretaking” does the troubled person a disservice by enabling him or her to avoid consequences and delay getting professional help.

The concept of enabling is traditionally applied to substance abuse situations. A major focus of 12-Step programs such as Al-Anan is to help people close to an addicted person develop “healthy detachment”, so they can stop enabling and focus instead on their own emotional health. This approach is applicable to a wide range of mental health problems, including eating disorders, compulsive spending or gambling, sexual addictions, and untreated psychological conditions such as mood disorders. Likewise, it can be important to stop enabling someone who keeps repeating self-defeating or self-destructive patterns; “creates chaos” – going from one crisis to the next; stays in an abusive relationship after being offered appropriate support; or takes things out on others, verbally or otherwise.

Some signs that “helping” has become unhealthy emotional caretaking:

  • You keep suggesting solutions but the troubled person does nothing different
  • He or she keeps turning up distressed – or behaving in the same maladaptive ways – no matter how much supportive listening or practical (or financial) help you provide
  • The troubled person denies that he/she has a problem and consistently blames others when things go wrong
  • He/she resists getting professional help even after serious consequences result from his/her problems (e.g., a suicide attempt, an episode of violent behavior)
  • The troubled person starts making unreasonable demands on your time, energy or other resources
  • He/she seems consumed with self-pity, or just a little too gratified by the attention of others who are trying to help
  • You find yourself feeling burdened, preoccupied or overwhelmed by the other person’s problems – which could provoke your own symptoms of anxiety or depression
  • You recognize that the relationship with the troubled person has become entirely focused on his/her needs with little or no reciprocity
  • It starts to seem like the troubled person is a “bottomless pit” – no matter how much help and support you provide, he or she still demands more….

So what is the solution here? Once you recognize that you are dealing with a crisis-oriented person, you need to make some adjustments in how you respond. Consider making a clearly delineated statement of concern, preferably in writing, which includes a list of resources such as crisis hotlines and the local hospital emergency room. Don’t argue with the troubled person about whether professional help is needed, and don’t get confrontational about his/her lack of consideration for you. Just take a step back and reassess “what you have to give”. Consider severely limiting phone and in-person contact for a time; instead, show your caring by sending the person e-mails or cards in the mail. If it makes things easier, let the person now that you have a very busy next few months, so you might not always be able to respond promptly to phone messages, etc. Then make yourself much less available. Ultimately, the person needs to experience natural consequences before he/she will recognize the need to make certain changes or get professional help.

If you continue to feel guilty or responsible for the other person’s problems, consider seeing a mental health professional for help with developing healthy detachment. Many people who grow up with difficult family circumstances (emotional, social or financial) develop a compulsive tendency to caretake others and put their own needs last. This type of “co-dependency” can be dealt with through self-help reading, counseling or community-based support programs. The goal is to develop an ability to recognize where your responsibility begins and ends, so that you can offer a level of support that genuinely helps others without compromising your own health and well-being.