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Maybe You’re Enabling When You Think You’re Helping

There’s a difference between helping someone and enabling someone. I had to learn the hard way about this difference. I was always taught to try to help people. It never occurred to me that not sometimes when I think I’m being helpful, I’m actually harming them.

I had the hard experience of trying to help a mother and her adult daughter to get off of living on the streets. Each month, they came to me, needing money and more money: sometimes for a motel, other times for gas, and then another chunk of money for their storage shelter. I gave them money, but then it occurred to me. Would they be willing to undergo counseling? Would they be open to longer term solution?  (They had a house full of furniture, which they were storing in an expensive monthly storage unit. And they wanted to get off the street, but the actions they were taking were short term, rather than long term solutions.)  I tried to have a hard conversation which they didn’t want to have. They just wanted me to help them do it their way.

And then I realized: I wasn’t helping them. I was prolonging their pain. As long as I gave them money, they didn’t have to make hard decisions. So, I had to ask them to consider doing something different: Go into a shelter which was set up to get them off the street. Yes, they’d lose their short term autonomy, but ultimately, they would have a way out.  Can you guess what they chose?

Here’s what I learned from the experience:

– Sometimes crazy-making people can make you feel crazy. Once I became aware of this, I made a choice to step back and not buy into the crazy.

– If someone asks me to do something for them that they should be doing for themselves, that’s not helping them. That’s enabling them.

– I am allowed to say ‘no’ to a request when it doesn’t feel right in my gut.

– Doing the right thing doesn’t always feel right at the time.

I have to trust that no matter what I do – help or don’t help – that person will find their way. I do not have to play “God” in their lives.

It’s like the metaphor of the butterfly in the cocoon. When a caterpillar enters a cocoon, it has eaten everything it needed for the process. Its next step is to struggle its way to get out of the cocoon. However, it’s hard to watch this struggle. It is normal to want to help the poor butterfly get loose. But if one steps in and breaks open the cocoon before the butterfly has had enough time to struggle, it will not undergo the metamorphosis. You see, it’s the struggle which causes the friction that allows the powder to fall onto the butterfly’s wings. That powder is what makes the butterfly able to fly. If this process doesn’t happen, then the butterfly won’t be able to fly, and it will die. Thus, I have not helped it, but rather hindered its process.

Have you been asked to help but that it was really enabling?

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