The Mailman's Survival Guide
the Mailman's Blog
For a long time now, I've been struggling with an issue. That issue is this, how do you help someone who won't help themselves?
As a parent, spouse, or friend, this can be one of the hardest problems we ever face. I think for me, part of my psyche has always lent itself to being the "problem solver". You know...that white knight that swoops in when trouble abounds to save the day. Always championing the underdog, and looking for ways to help. And, if I'm honest, it makes me feel good when I am able to help, but the question I ask myself is, what do you do when a person you know needs the help either isn't ready, or willing to get it?
You can't force a person to get help. The more pressure you put on someone, the more they are going to resist it. Its a horrible catch 22. Over the years, I've tried to do what I thought was right, always rushing in to solve the problem, defending them, when really they were indefensible, and putting off or ignoring issues in my own life and relationships to worry about, or fix things in their life.
I've often pointed to other influences in this person's life, and said that they were bad. I couldn't count the number of times I have wanted to take them out of their situation and bring them into my home to keep them safe. In my mind, it would give them stability, guidance, and a better chance at a future, but have all my good intentions just backfired?
And so, I sit here and wonder...Am I part of the problem? Has me putting on undue pressure just made the situation worse? Am I just enabling their actions?
What do I mean by enabling ? Enabling is offering help that perpetuates the problem.
Its a fine line we often walk between helping and enabling. We want to see people in our family, or our friends succeed in what they do. If someone is really struggling with an issue, and they are doing their best to resolve it, and you are able to do something about it, that's helping. But, if a person is repeatedly getting themselves in the same situation, makes no attempt to change their actions, and you continue to bail them out, or make excuses for them, that's enabling.
Often times we do these things without realizing we are doing them, and they come from a genuine desire to help. So how can you determine if you are an enabler? Here are some questions I found on Psychology Today to ask yourself when considering whether you are an enabler:
Do you often ignore unacceptable behavior?
Do you find yourself resenting the responsibilities you take on?
Do you consistently put your own needs and desires aside in order to help someone else?
Do you have trouble expressing your own emotions?
Do you ever feel fearful that not doing something will cause a blowup, make the person leave you, or even result in violence?
Do you ever lie to cover for someone else’s mistakes?
Do you consistently assign blame for problems to other people rather than the one who is really responsible?
Do you continue to offer help when it is never appreciated or acknowledged?
Honestly, after I read these questions, I realize how much of an enabler I have been in the past. A lot of my good intentions, and a lot of my desires to "fix the problem", have literally just continued to feed the beast. So, I have to ask myself, what can I do to stop being an enabler, and how do I really help the person I am enabling?
First, don't let the good relationships you have in your life break down because you are so focused on the one in need. Even if its a family member or very close friend. Destroying the good relationships you have will only cause you misery in the long run.
Next, and this is one I need to pay special attention to, It doesn't matter how tough their childhood was, whether they were bullied, or mistreated, making excuses does them no good. Instead, encourage them to break the cycle, but whether they do that is their choice. continuing to enable them is yours.
Third, Don't just tell people it's fine. That person's situation is not fine, and it will take time to fix. But the fixing is no longer your issue. You have to allow them to struggle and come to the decision to get real help on their own.
Also, Stop cleaning up their mess. Its theirs, and theirs alone. Stop taking care of their responsibilities, and take care of your own. Hopefully, if they see you doing this, it will set an example they will be willing to follow.
Next, Stop giving them advice. By now, you have probably made your point and given them all the advice they need or want, and arguing about it will on cause more hard feelings. Just distance yourself from the situation. When they are ready to get the help they really need, then be there for them.
Something else, If you tell them you are going to do something as a consequence to their actions, do it. I have been a firm believer and practicioner of this one my whole life. I may be a lot of things, but a liar isn't one of them. I've always prided myself on following through when I told someone I was going to do something, whether that was show praise or provide discipline.
Lastly, Take timeout to work on bettering yourself. By doing this, you are silently showing them by example how to care for themselves. In this way, you aren't shoving it in their face, but instead, allowing them to see how their life could be if they worked on their own issues.
No one says this will be easy, but hopefully by doing these things, and breaking the cycle of enabling, it will inspire those not willing or ready to help themselves, make the changes that are necessary.
Big D is a writer and host of The Mailman's Survival Guide Podcast. His goal is to raise awareness for the mental health community through writing, pod casting, and public speaking.