It’s natural to want to help those that you care for as they face struggles like mental health challenges or substance misuse. However, sometimes, people’s attempts at support waver between support and enablement. When a loved one is struggling with unhealthy or destructive, it can be challenging to know how to lend your support.

No one wants to see their loved ones suffer, and in their care and concern, they mistakably end up enabling the very behaviors that caused the suffering in the first place. There’s a fine line between enabling and supporting, but understanding the difference can ensure you genuinely help the people you care about. Let’s take a look at the difference between enabling and supporting.

What supporting someone means.

Supporting someone is an act of kindness to offer care and show love. When we support those we care about, we’re working to uplift them to be confident, independent people. Support typically means showing up and sitting with the mess of other’s emotions as they traverse life’s challenges. Being supportive means helping without protecting them from natural consequences and without depleting your resources, whether they’re material or emotional.

Supportive behaviors encourage the person to take accountability for their actions while maintaining open and transparent lines of communication. When you show support, you have to be honest and establish healthy boundaries, ideally without being judgemental. Supporting someone is about promoting the other person’s development and growth by allowing them to learn from their failures and mistakes. Examples of supportive behavior include calling to check on a family member who’s struggling or providing a listening ear to a friend going through a difficult time.

What enabling someone means.

Enabling someone is overdoing support in a way that causes harm to the person offering or receiving it. It can be harmful because the enabler is neglecting their needs to tend to the needs of others and if shame or guilt are contributing factors to the decision to help or not. Enabling behavior can be harmful to the person one tries to help because it can keep them in damaging cycles of behavior and reliant on help and unable to help themselves in critical ways.

There might be some helpful short-term damage control, but enabling allows people to continue making bad decisions without feeling the gravity of it, thus creating the narrative that their behavior isn’t bad. The worst thing you can do is continually protect someone from the natural consequences of their behavior. It sends the signal that life is perfect and everyone will step in to clean up the mess, which reinforces entitled behavior. Ask yourself if you’re going out of your way to let someone cut corners and if they appreciate your help and are putting in their efforts.

Common ways that people engage in enabling behavior include avoiding challenging conversations, making excuses for poor choices, continually taking on more than their fair share of responsibility, not following through with consequences, blaming others, and feeling resentful for consistently sacrificing their needs to help someone else. Many people don’t intentionally engage in enabling behavior and believe they’re helping their loved ones by bailing them out of challenging situations. They typically have good intentions but have trouble realizing that their responses are preventing their loved ones from making lasting, positive changes.

What’s the difference?

The difference between enabling and supporting is that supportive behaviors are aimed toward positive change, whereas enabling behaviors simply alleviate the natural consequences of unhealthy behaviors, which then reinforce those unhealthy behaviors. Essentially, supporting is helpful and involves personal growth, healthy boundaries and the development of healthy coping mechanisms, while enabling is damaging and limiting and perpetuates problematic actions.

When thinking about the line that separates enabling versus supporting, consider the long-term effects of your actions. Will this ultimately be something that makes things better for someone, or is it a quick fix that leads to long-term harm? For example, think about teaching a child how to tie their shoes. Supporting them to learn requires demonstration, teaching and having patience for the child to try, fail, and try again. You can do the teaching, but you can’t do the learning for them.

The enabling version looks like an adult who simply ties the child’s shoes every time because they don’t want to deal with the tantrums and frustrations that arise in the learning process. In the moment, it’s easier to tie their shoes for them, but you’re doing them a disservice by doing the task for them. This example translates across numerous situations, from applying to jobs on someone’s behalf or lying for them. Essentially, it goes back to the adage about teaching someone to fish rather than giving them a fish. Enabling is delivering fresh filleted fish every day to a competent adult at your expense while they don’t have a care in the world and don’t appreciate it, and are out and about.

How to ensure you’re supporting, not enabling.

It’s common for people to become stuck in a cycle of enabling others. It may be the only way they’ve been taught to function in relationships stemming from their family. You could try working with a therapist to change these patterns and discover how they developed in the first place. Additionally, there are some helpful reminders to remember as you shift away from enabling. For example, it’s okay to say no. If your loved one is accustomed to being enabled, they’ll have a strong initial reaction when they’re given a healthy boundary.

You can show compassion through support while still refusing to support unhealthy behavior. Try to make your intentions clear from the start, and remember that taking care of your needs is necessary to be emotionally available to others. If you and your struggling loved one are stuck, start by asking them how you can help them. This helps them articulate their needs and prioritize what feels most helpful. It also encourages them to start brainstorming possible solutions to their problem.

Sometimes, it’s most helpful to provide support by listening and reminding your loved one that they’re not alone. Providing company, a hand to hold, frequent check-ins, and a warm voice on the other end of the phone are other healthy ways to support loved ones who are struggling and decrease isolation, which is often the most challenging aspect for people enduring hard life transitions.

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