When Helping Becomes Hurtful



With our success- and perfection-driven culture, the often unspoken expectation to be “unselfish” and “care” for others, and the competitive economy, it’s no wonder that people seem to have difficulty finding the right balance between doing too much for (enabling) versus just helping or guiding others.  You know you’ve likely crossed the line into enabling when the person you have been helping becomes increasingly dependent instead of increasingly independent and/or one or both parties have resentment resulting from this arrangement.

It’s a tempting trap, especially for well-meaning parents.  For example, dressing your child and making them breakfast every morning may feel helpful, caring, a requirement for a minimally-competent parent.  But if by the age of 15 your child still cannot or will not dress or feed themself, then maybe you’ve ventured into the enabling side of the equation.  By then it’s mostly too late and you get to try to teach a hormonal, entitled teenager to grow up.

It may be more difficult to identify when enabling occurs between adults, since those tell-tale developmental milestones like puberty are fewer and farther between.  A classic enabling example is the spouse of the alcoholic calling in sick for their partner – thus helping the patient avoid the consequences of a binge and the motivation to get  treatment.    A less obvious example might be a spouse who spends on luxury items beyond the family means.  Instead of setting and enforcing real boundaries, an enabling partner may take a second job, make cuts in necessary and/or important expenses like education or retirement to provide a continued source of funding to the spender, or perhaps do nothing as the debt piles up putting the family at escalating financial risk.  The behavior is enabling because it is neither questioned nor stopped, and the cash flow is maintained at great expense (pun intended) to “enable” more spending, possibly at the expense of the partner or the family itself.

My own version of enabling has to do with caregiving.  My sometimes subconscious script and self-talk dictate that I “must” take care of not only myself but those around me.  For years I told myself I was being a good Mom, wife, daughter, friend, employee.  I would rarely ask people for help, and instead eagerly carry their load or fix their problems.  I did not require them to help me when I needed help,  to do their share, or fix their own problems.   So how did they respond?  You got it.

This dynamic was unbeknownst to me, though obvious in hindsight.  What I thought was a selfless gift was really just me caving to satisfying my emotional script at the expense of those around me.  By failing to both teach, have reasonable yet high expectations, and enforce age- and role-appropriate actions in those around me, I was encouraging the lowest common denominator behavior.  That is no way to develop the best behavior, talents and independence of others.  To add insult to injury, it was not uncommon for me to get stressed and then resentful for – you got it – no one helping me.   A lil’ darling, wasn’t I?

I don’t mean to sound too harsh or judgmental about my behavior back then.  After all, I was doing what I thought was the right thing for those around me, misguided though it was. The dynamic was in my blind spot, so by definition, was outside my awareness.  Now that I am aware of this disabling and counterproductive tendency, I am more sensitive to the impact of my actions.

If only awareness is enough.  Instead, it is only the beginning of trying to find the right balance for helping others without protecting them from the age-appropriate consequences of their choices.   To complicate matters, what each person needs or views as help is as individual as they are, and subject to change.   I also must focus on finding and maintaining my own balance of asking for help/being independent.  I know when I’m stressed out and reacting by being grumpy to the family, I am not doing a good job balancing my enabling/vulnerable spectrum.  Being willing to tell others I need their support is a good strategy to counter my enabling tendencies, and not just waiting to do so when I’m already stressed out.   Otherwise it’s like a pop quiz – they were not expecting it, they won’t know what to do, they’re like to resent the sudden change in expectations and unlikely to do well.

This is one of the many facets of my personal journey.  On some measures I’m pretty far ahead, others I’m way behind.   I have a feeling the road ahead for me is much longer on improving this enabling issue than it is behind me.  I’m moving forward; don’t judge me for where I am now.   More importantly, don’t judge yourself if you have not yet mastered this or another skill.  At least we know more now than we used to, and we’re getting more proficient.   We will be better parents, spouses, friends and workers as a result, and help model healthy behavior for the next generation.  We have to walk before we run, run before we can fly.

6 thoughts on “When Helping Becomes Hurtful

  1. Ouch. This is so true! You’ve nailed it right on the head! Learning to set boundaries has been a big challenge for me! Oh, the guilt! 😉
    But, the relief and sanity I’ve gained has been well worth the effort!

    1. Denise, it sounds like we’re birds of a feather. That’s not saying too much for you I’m afraid…. 🙂 though I’m proud to be a work in progress (and probably a piece of work at the same time).

      1. Ha ha ha!! Your reply definitely tickled my funny bone!
        Yes, I believe we probably are birds of a feather -at least when we gain flight we’ll have company!

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