How to Show Compassion without Enabling

Mature Parents Frustrated With Adult Son Living At Home

If I had to guess, I’d say most of us genuinely want to help others.

There are times when, for whatever reason, someone just pulls on your heartstrings and you feel overwhelming compassion and an unshakeable desire to help. That’s one of the many beautiful qualities of the human spirit.

Unfortunately, things can get complicated, emotions get all tangled up, and you lose perspective. The next thing you know, you’re feeling drained, confused, frustrated, maybe even depressed or bitter.

What happened? Is this type of “messiness” inevitable when you’re helping others? What happens when you need to say no but you don’t want to hurt people you care about, or damage the relationship? How do you avoid becoming jaded and losing the desire to help altogether?

It’s true, there is a very fine line between showing compassion to someone and enabling their destructive behaviors. It’s important to know the difference between compassion and enabling so you can learn to help in a healthy way, to set boundaries and even sometimes say that dreaded word, NO. (And to understand that saying no can sometimes be the most loving and selfless gesture of all!)

Let’s start by distinguishing between compassion and enabling.

Compassion is defined by Dictionary.com as “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering”. Compassion is an emotion we feel that causes us to take pity on another person’s pain and often moves us to take action, to help.

For example, you might feel compassion for the homeless man you see on your way to work every morning. You feel sorry for him. He looks cold, dirty, and hungry. You imagine that he’s lonely and sad. Maybe you are so moved by his apparent suffering that you decide to drive through McDonald’s and pick up a breakfast for him one day a week, or give him a granola bar and a few dollars out of your wallet. You had compassion on him, and it led you to take action.

When does compassion cross over into the unhealthy territory of enabling?

Perhaps you know someone with a lazy or immature adult child. The parents accept the excuse that their child “can’t find a job in this economy” and lament that “if we kick him out, he won’t have anywhere else to go”. They might give him money or let him continue to live at home without working or contributing in any way. He goes out with his friends and stays out all hours of the night partying, then sleeps in till noon the next day. He has even gotten a DUI. But “he’s an adult, after all — what can we do?”

No one sets out to become an enabler. It happens because deep down our hearts are in the right place and we don’t like feeling pain or guilt or sadness. Our human instinct is to stop pain, guilt, and sadness when we feel it, and sometimes we take unhealthy measures to accomplish that. The trouble is, in reality enabling doesn’t lead to feelings of satisfaction or peace or happiness at all. Instead, it leads to unhappiness, frustration, confusion, anger, bitterness, resentment, and even depression.

According to this article by Pathways to Create a Great Life, enabling does harm by:

  • keeping someone from having to face the consequences of their own behavior,
  • robbing them of the opportunity to do something on their own and so gain self-esteem, or
  • making things too easy for them.

If your “help” is actually harming someone, either now or in the long run, it is enabling.

Sherry Collier, LMFT of Creative Path to Growth, groups enabling under the umbrella of codependent behaviors. She states:

When we find ourselves trying to fix the other person’s problem or if we find ourselves needing to help the other person for our own sense of identity – then we are dealing with codependency.

Now here’s where it gets personal.

Are you an enabler? Chances are if you’re enabling, you kind of know it already because you don’t feel good about it. You feel conflicted; perhaps you already resent the person you’re “helping” because they don’t appreciate it, or they haven’t used your help to improve their situation.

Maybe you feel taken advantage of, and you’re tired of it — but you fear that if you stop “helping” they’ll either hate you forever or spiral downward even further.

But that no longer makes it about helping the other person, does it? It makes it about you.

The true test of whether you’re helping someone out of compassion and love or enabling (harming) them is:

What is my REAL motive for helping?

If it’s any of these, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, and you’re not helping them at all.

  • I can’t stand to see them in pain.
  • They will owe me.
  • They make me feel needed and important.
  • I’ll feel guilty if I don’t help.
  • I don’t want them to think I’m mean.
  • They’ll love me more if I help. (source)

“Am I hoping to help this person so I can rescue them? Am I helping this person because it seems like my identity rests upon my ability to help others? Am I helping this person because I don’t feel strong enough to help myself – so their problem becomes a distraction from my own challenges?” (source)

But that doesn’t mean you have to stop helping altogether.

There are healthy ways to help, to show true compassion and empathy and love, and actually do good rather than harm.

Sometimes it means making hard and unpopular choices, but when you see the difference it makes in yourself and your loved one, you’ll know it was worth it.

How to Show Compassion without Enabling

Dr. Collier offers this sound advice:

One of the best ways to steer clear of codependent behaviors is to approach every relationship you are a part of with a healthy sense of boundaries. If you balance kindness with being able to say ‘no’ when you or the other person is stepping over the boundaries – you will be able to stay in compassion without enabling the other to continue to depend upon you.

Each person should take full responsibility for his or her own self-care (emotional, physical and spiritual) with the knowledge that no other human being can do this for you. When you cannot help yourself, it is healthy to ask for help, but to do so without feeling entitled to it. When you reach out to help someone else, seek to support them in their own journey while refraining from creating an unhealthy dependence upon you.

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