Empowering or Enabling
Empowering or Enabling
Dear Tacit,

How do I know if I am helping someone “too much”? I try to be a kind and supportive friend.  But sometimes I feel I am doing more than she is.

Signed: Empowering or Enabling?

Dear Empowering or Enabling,

Ahhhhh the age-old dilemma… this is a question all of us ask of ourselves, in relationships of every kind.  We might be trying to figure out how to be good parents (wondering where we stop doing “for” our kids and start allowing them to fly or fall on their own).  We might be trying to find a healthy boundary in a workplace situation (wondering how to be a good team player but not end up getting tons of extra work dumped on us).  We might be juggling an intimate partnership (wondering how to be caring and supportive but not start “parenting” our partner).  Or we might be dealing with a friendship with someone we like and respect (wondering why we are trying harder to help that person than they are trying to help themselves).

The reason why we end up sometimes doing “too much” for another person is often rooted in a fundamental desire to help others (usually our loved ones) feel or live better.  It is often the sign of someone trying to be a “good” person.  Our intentions stem from our value system – we want to live in a way that reflects decency (and perhaps how we hope someone might treat us, if the situation was reversed).  Sometimes, we might also develop this habit from early life trauma, where we learned that the only way we could be safe/accepted was to keep other people happy.

But, as with anything in life, too much of a good thing is NOT healthy – for us or for the person we are trying to help.  We need to be able to accept other people for where they are at in their own journey – not where we want them to be.  Perhaps they don’t want to do more or to try harder – perhaps they don’t see the same “need” as we do in a situation – perhaps they have other factors that we are unaware of, influencing the perspective and efforts they are demonstrating in that moment.

Accepting another person for how they live their lives does not mean we have to think they are right.  It just means we are not trying to force them to be the way we want them to be. We all deserve a sense of autonomy – the right to be our own boss – to whatever degree it is age-appropriate.  This means we are also allowed to make mistakes and to do things that make no sense at all, if that’s what we want to do.

I have used this explanation before – we are each the authors of our own story.  We write our own book, filled with the many different chapters of our life.  And in these chapters, we are our own hero/main character.  Like with all hero stories, there will be times when we face crushing defeat and are not at our best.  But there are also times when we rise to slay the dragon.  The people in our lives who support us and care for us must remain secondary characters in our book.  They can cheer us on or make suggestions for the options that we have.  But they are not meant to take over and become the hero for us.  They do not get to decide which direction we will take.  They get to be the main characters in their own book.

Here is another way to help draw some lines between being a good support to someone we care about and doing “too much” (empowering or enabling):

Enabling: typically refers to providing the means for someone to achieve a particular task or goal.  It can involve granting permission, giving resources, or creating conditions that facilitate a certain action or outcome that we think is best.  Enabling is obviously detrimental when it involves supporting destructive or harmful behavior, such as in the context of addiction.  It can also be quite negative if it prevents a person from growing and learning for themselves.

If we are enabling a person, we tend to do more than they do, in a situation (they follow our lead).  We provide guidance without being asked for it – we try to “fix” another person’s needs without first asking what they truly feel ready for.  We offer unsolicited advice.  We allow the other person to violate our boundaries or treat us poorly, and then we justify their behaviours (we put our own needs last). We come from a place of fear or frustration.

Empowering:  typically involves giving someone the authority, confidence, and skills to take control of their own life or situation.  It often focuses on building individuals’ self-esteem, encouraging autonomy, and fostering a sense of capability.  Empowering others involves providing another person with the tools and knowledge they need to make their own informed decisions and take their own independent action.

When we empower a person, we tend to do less than they do, in the situation (we follow their lead).  We show empathy and validate their feelings/experience – even if we don’t agree.  We offer support when it is requested (to an appropriate degree – allowing the other person to take charge).  And we honour boundaries – our own and the other person’s.  We come from a place of caring and respect.

Take care!

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