Loving versus enabling
When we care for someone, whether it be our spouse, our child, a friend, or an aging parent, we try to take into account their limitations, their preferences, and maybe even their quirks. This is part of being a loving human being. This sentiment extends to caring for and living with people whose behaviour is somewhat self-destructive: the child with an eating disorder, the spouse who works too much, the parent with an addiction issue, or the teenager who spends way too much time “chilling” with a video game.
But what is enabling and when does an act of loving kindness cross the line? One definition of enabling is when you take more responsibility for the problem than the person who has the problem does. This is a loving act when that person is a child or otherwise incapable of taking care of themselves. However, a necessary part of growing up is learning to solve one’s own problems. And so loving would cross the line into enabling when we stop holding the other person capable of solving their own problems, and rob them of the opportunity to fully experience the consequences of their problem avoidance or poor decisions.
Why do loving people enable? The answer might be because we love way too much. But the more likely and difficult answer is that we don’t want to create discomfort for the other person, and – here it comes – for ourselves. Yikes! I am sure we all think that our acts of caring are selfless, but the sad truth is that we have a stake in it too. A loving/enabling act also has the consequences of keeping the peace with an addicted spouse, preventing a hole in the wall with a teenager who can’t hear the word no, turning a blind eye to things that are unpleasant to see, and alleviating our feelings of guilt or fear.
It turns out that loving is actually more work than one might think. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Travelled defines love as, “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own, or another’s spiritual growth.” This means that it is a totally loving act to say no to a teenager and suffer your guilt and their temper tantrum. It is a totally loving act to let a loved one experience the unpleasant consequences of their choices. Because doing so will “enable” their growth.
When you are about to engage in an act of loving kindness stop and think: what is my motive? If your motive is to alleviate your own guilt or fear, or to make life easier for your son or daughter, and consequently more comfortable for you too – you might be enabling their dependency. If your motive is to keep the peace, avoid an emotional outburst, avoid being disliked by the person in question – you might be enabling their narcissism. When you enable someone you become part of the system that allows them to maintain their own little garden of narcissism. It’s their garden – you can provide the water and fertilizer for it, or not! Remember that it is also a loving act to ask them to grow a garden of independence, accountability, and courage instead.
Liz van Ryn, M.Sc. RP, is a psychotherapist in private practice just west of Creemore. You can find her at www.creeksidetherapy.ca.