How to Stop Enabling

How to Stop Enabling

I often get asked by client’s family members “what do I do to help them with X”.  Often times the answers to these questions can be summarized as me saying “do less”.  In this article I hope to discuss how to think about the help you hope to offer and add some things to do consider when doing so.  The feeling of “just wanting to help” is never wrong; if we want to help it means we care

What is an enabler

Enabler is a type of pseudo-slang term that refers to someone who helps a person maintain a maladaptive behavior knowingly or otherwise.

Rescue reflex

Marital misunderstanding. Young married couple quarreling at bed, panorama
I like to remind people to suppress their rescue reflex.   The rescue reflex is the feeling that we get when we want to “jump in and help”.  This is a feeling that we are almost always conditioned to feel is a positive thing as we often get thanked for doing so and commended by others when we are seen “jumping in”.  I like to ask people their motivation for wanting to “jump in”.  I get a number of answers but they often revolve around: addressing an anxious, scared, or upset feeling within themselves, or acting in a way that they feel like they “should”.  Rescue is almost never a bad thing but rescuing when there is a danger is different than rescue when we fear there may be a danger or someone might be in a pattern of behaviors that they may “want’ you to feel that way.  When you can identify this feeling ask yourself “Am I worried about them? Or do I not want to feel this worry?”.


Boundaries are one of the most important conversations I have with my clients.  Boundaries can range from letting people know how you want to be treated, boundaries can also be introduced with yourself.  Boundaries with others require communication and enforcing those boundaries.  Boundaries with ourselves are important as we have to discover them from experiences and how we hope to sustain change in ourselves.

Communicating Boundaries

I often find that people, when they are reluctant, do not communicate their boundaries as they feel that they will not be respected or observed by others.  This is often robbing them of an opportunity to try for a new experience.  That or they are unsure how to express what they need from others.  This sense of “no one will care” or “I don’t know what I need” often helps sustain patterns that we find to be unpleasant.  This often results in a feeling of being “stuck” with ourselves or with others.

Enforcing Boundaries

Enforcing boundaries is solely our job.  We cannot ask others enforce them as effectively as only we know what we need.  It is important that when we establish a boundary that we choose one that we know is important enough for us to maintain; on good days and bad.   Boundaries can be enforced by reminding others of what you will tolerate or what you will not tolerate.  Boundaries also can be enforced by what you will engage in and what you will abstain from engaging.   Boundaries with ourselves can be how far or how short we may go for a ourselves or for someone else.  We can keep ourselves in mind when we are faced with or asked to do something that we know will have negative consequences for us.  This is when I consider how some people will “burn themselves out” for someone else, a work demand, or a schedule we try to keep.  All of these things are demands that we can likely meet the challenge; however, at what cost?  It can sometimes be hard but we can say a powerful word “No”.
Setting boundaries does not mean saying “no” all the time.  We can also say “yes”.  This can sometimes be the case when we have to press ourselves to do something that if we ignored it would otherwise have negative results to us.  Saying “yes” to things like social gatherings when we need some time with others but may feel exhausted can be good for us after we get there.  “Yes” can also be said to things like days off because we are overloaded, need to make a doctor’s appointment, or need to handle things we would otherwise triage as lower priority and they would never get done.
If the last two paragraphs seem conflicting, that highlights that “stuck” feeling I mentioned earlier.  Being unsure of what we need can cause us to stay stuck or stalled in a maladaptive pattern that may be slowly draining us.  I can’t tell you how to sort things into a “yes” or “no” category.  This is something you have to sort for yourself.  Instead I am hoping that looking to identify the need to “jump” at demands could be for us to feel less anxious or worried.  That is when we give emotional control away.   To keep it I suggest you ask yourself something to the effect of “how big is my worry” and “what else can be done to make my worry less”.   Accepting our emotions when they come is important in order to truly identify if we are worried, scared, or even responding out of habit.

So let’s go over this again

  • Ask yourself “what I am OK with and what am I not OK with?”
  • Considering the past and how you may have felt when faced with similar circumstances.  If you acted in a way you hope to change in the future maybe this is an opportunity to say “no” or even “yes”.
  • If you are struggling with the first two steps go back to the drawing board and phone a friend. We may need to turn to the people we trust and those who know us best in order to gain more insight into how we want to move forward.
  • Know that in most cases you do not have to decide in the moment if you are unable. If you are in a life or death situation act and sort things out later but remember to consider is this a life-or-death situation or have I been told that it is and it activated my worry? You can always decide to think things over before acting.

We may perceive trouble that way because it is an established pattern.  We may think the worse out of habit rather than perceiving what is actually going on.  Does someone ignore your boundaries by acting in a way that requires you to act on your rescue reflex?  Do you resent being given that role?  Do you want that to change?  Consider the steps above if you feel that you have faced, will continue to face, or are facing a situation where you violate your boundaries. 

Enablers, should you consider yourself one, you likely come from a very good place.  After all we tend to feel strongly about others’ that we care about most. The trouble is that they often feel conflicted after they enable.  What this the right thing to do?  Did I regret it? This feeling of “shoulda-woulda-coulda” is often us reflecting on things that we hoped could have gone otherwise.  We can use that information to work on making a better outcome in the future. 

When we think of how we help our loved ones in the moment to alleviate their fear, anxiety, shame, or pain; pause and consider if this is what you are doing.  Often when a helper helps they can remove an obstacle as well as an opportunity for someone to have their own success with problem solving.  Enabling others causes us to take an active role in helping other’s stay stuck.  When we consider this it is opposite of what we hope to do; but it happens often.  Have faith and confidence in others.  Allow them their own successes, or even a greater teacher, and failure.  If they trust it they may come back and ask for our thoughts.

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