Tag Archives: loyalty

Enabling Is Not Love

I’ve struggled all my life with confusion about the difference between enabling and love. Most of us think of enabling in the context of addiction, and we’re familiar with the idea that helping an addict avoid the consequences of their addiction is not, in the long run, useful.

It’s a pretty clear idea in theory. In practice, however, it’s a whole different story.

Enabling, denying, or allowing destructive patterns of behavior to continue extends far beyond the issue of addiction. Compassionate, loving people who sincerely want to help and support others wind up enabling all kinds of toxic behavior with the best intentions in the world, or completely unconsciously.

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That’s the problem. Enabling can look and feel so much like love. Choosing not to enable can look and feel so much like rejection, selfishness, or even hate.

I’ve spent years of my life enabling toxic behavior in the name of love, duty, and loyalty. I’ve truly believed that with enough modeling and patience I could heal the destructive behavior of others. For most of my life I’ve lived with the happy but delusional belief that my unconditional love is enough to keep my loved ones happy and healthy.

I only wish I had that much power.

Choosing not to enable or deny is heartbreaking. It’s a choice I’ve had to make, and I feel daily anguish over it, even as I know in my heart I’m doing the right thing for myself and those I love.

Those of us who are intimately familiar with patterns of addiction and toxic behavior know the unrelenting pressure from well-meaning but clueless onlookers to excuse and/or rescue loved ones from the consequences of their choices.

People who expect or demand to be enabled do everything they can to keep the dynamic alive. Remember that those who punish us for our boundaries are the ones who gain the most from their absence. One of the important patterns that helps identify relationships in which enabling is taking place is when we make any kind of excuse for a pattern of destructive behavior. So-and-so is not loved. Nobody has ever understood them (but us). They’ve had various kinds of trauma. The world is against them. Nothing ever works out for them. They’re disenfranchised and alienated. They’re suffering and nobody cares. They have no one to turn to. They can’t afford to get help.

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Solving or covering up someone else’s problems is very different from empowering them. We empower when we teach skills, share resources or give someone tools that support them in solving their own challenges. The difficulty is that someone stuck in a chronic pattern of destructive behavior doesn’t always want this kind of power. Resources, tools and skills are of no use if we aren’t prepared to take responsibility for our troubles, and it’s so much easier and more comfortable to deny or blame someone or something else for our destructive patterns and their consequences.

Unfortunately, the emotional dynamics of enabling are hard to fully understand until and unless we’ve experienced them for ourselves. I want to protect loved ones from going through the pain and damage that occurs to relationships when toxic behavior is present. I never want them to feel as torn apart as I have. I want them to use the resources and tools I can offer and learn from my mistakes.

Again, I only wish I had that much power.

As a lifelong caregiver, I’ve abdicated rescuing myself in favor of rescuing others. This is the shadow side of caregiving. Enabling others, entering into an unspoken agreement to work harder on their problems and lives than they do, is a dead end that keeps us nicely distracted from coming to terms with our own challenges. Even worse are relationships based on an unwritten agreement to mutually enable one another’s dysfunction.

Another part of why we choose to enable can be to help soothe our own anxiety. We don’t want to be in conflict with those we love. We don’t want to lose relationships that are dear to us. We don’t want to deal with a lot of trauma and drama. It’s easier and quicker just to write another check to help out one more time because our family member or friend can’t stay employed due to their substance abuse. It’s easier to manage their lives ourselves than watch them muddle along without clean socks and food in the fridge or listen to their constant complaining.

You’re an enabler if you’re asking why they keep doing it. Ask instead why you keep allowing it. As long as you allow it, they’ll probably do it. They’ve got no motivation to do anything else.

Enabling is painful, stressful, and will burn us out. It might take a long time, but eventually it will eat us up and drain us dry. It may feel like love, or duty, or loyalty, but it isn’t. It’s destructive for everyone involved.

For me, one of the most insidious aspects of enabling is keeping secrets. I’m not talking about protecting personal privacy or keeping confidences. I mean pretending not to notice that Brent is high again on the job, or looking the other way when a loved one drives home drunk from the bar. The biggest reasons I’ve kept secrets are shame (I must be a terrible person if someone I’m closely connected to is in such trouble), loyalty, and my effort to protect others.

You’d think I’d learn.

Keeping secrets implies tolerance, and it allows destructive patterns to continue and worsen. Every single time we pretend not to see, cover up or make excuses, we’re making the inevitable crash worse for everyone involved. Another reason I’ve kept secrets is for fear of no one believing me, or being told I’m overreacting (which masks their own denial). It’s easier to just avoid the whole issue and say nothing. Then everyone is more comfortable. Everyone except me. All that unsaid feeling and horror becomes a stone I carry in my heart, mute, but agonizing.

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As counterintuitive and inadequate as it seems, the best thing we can do for loved ones struggling with toxic patterns of behavior, including addiction, is care for ourselves and stay firmly rooted in our own lives. If our offers of skills, tools and/or resources are rejected, we have no further power in the lives of others. We can only meet our own needs and solve our own problems, even if it means we must walk away from relationships in order to save ourselves.

Not everyone will understand or support us in refusing to enable, particularly the person we’ve been enabling. However, making the choice to live another day in our own lives means we can continue to be available to appropriately love and support someone when they’re ready for it, and at the very least provides a model of empowerment and self-responsibility.

Enabling is not love. It may seem like the easiest choice, but love requires much more than easy choices.

Not enabling, but empowering myself and others. My daily crime.

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Whose Story?

I’ve spent most of my life being flung from one story to the next.

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None of the stories were mine.

More than anything else, this blog has been a step-by-step process of finding my own voice and path. It’s not a coincidence that during the same time I’ve surrendered to my need to write and been working on a fictional series.

As an empath, I’ve always been deeply invested in the lives of those close to me, particularly in my role as a character in their stories. All my energy went into becoming the kind of person others most needed in order to have a happier, healthier autobiography. I felt responsible for the quality of their experience.

It never occurred to me to wonder about my own narrative. I defined myself solely through the eyes of others. Living in such a way was intolerably confusing. I was useless. I excelled. I was too smart. I wasn’t smart enough. I was too dramatic. I was too stoic. I was a quitter who lacked ambition. My interests and ambitions were ridiculous. I was selfish and cold. I was generous and kind. I interrupted others. I held space for others. I was loyal. I was disloyal. I was a good ___. I was a bad ___.

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As I entered my 50s, I knew a great deal about what others thought of me, but I didn’t think much about myself. There was no me independent of the perceptions of others.

I read somewhere that other people, even those closest to us, can only see the shadow of who we really are. When our choices, feelings, thoughts, and expressions are attacked, that shadow is the target, not our true selves. The shadow we cast in the world and in the tales of others is a fuzzy, one-dimensional, monochrome shape created by the perceptions, expectations, and experiences of other people. A shadow is not and can never be an accurate representation of a human being.

As a writer, I’m familiar with the process of developing a character. A well-drawn character is not a senseless jumble of contradictions, but a being with his or her own logic and behavioral patterns. A strong character may have ambivalent or confused aspects, and certainly will have attractive or sympathetic as well unattractive or unsympathetic attributes, but it’s the writer’s job to create a cohesive personality that’s logically predictable, even if profoundly disordered.

A vital character will at some point leave the page and enter my dreams, whisper in my ear, and begin to direct his or her own role in my story.

The only time in life we have this measure of power in story is when we’re creating our own narrative about our own life.

Once we absorb that fact, everything changes. We move from being disempowered and captive to everyone else’s expectations and opinions about who we are to standing in our own power to fully express ourselves regardless of what anyone else has to say about it. We move from weakness and irresponsibility with regard to ourselves into self-discipline and responsibility for our lives and choices.

We begin to intentionally write the story of our own lives.

Life conspires a hundred times a day to distract us from what is ours. Our love and care for others can quickly turn us away from our story and into theirs. Video games, movies and headlines clamor for our imagination, sympathy, attention, and outrage. We are trained to believe everyone has a better or more valid life experience than we do. All that energy is lost, energy we gave away instead of investing it in our own story.

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It’s interesting and amusing to think about shadows. If others can only see the shadow I cast, it follows that I see only the shadow they cast. Why, then, am I investing energy into nothing more than shadows? Is it useful to get deeply enmeshed in our perceptions of the experience of others? Do we have the power to force others to use us as specific kinds of characters in their stories? Do we have the power to write a single word of anyone else’s story, no matter how closely connected we feel to them or how deeply we love them?

No.

If I go out in the world and actively criticize and judge or praise and support others, that’s material for my story, not theirs. At best, I can only see their shadow. I can’t possibly know the entirety of their narrative and experience.

If I am criticized and judged, or praised and supported, I can choose what to do with that feedback, retain it or delete it. I can change settings and get rid of characters. I can emphasize some elements and deemphasize others. I can have adventures, trials, and tribulations. I can follow paths that catch my interest or compel me. I can make choices and deal with the consequences. Only I can decide what my story is.

Interestingly, this idea of writing one’s own account intersects with the practice of minimalism. So many of our possessions are props for various stories. There are the stories we wish were ours, the stories we hope will be ours, the outdated stories that once were ours but now have changed, the stories we want others to believe about us, the stories of others who are no longer with us, and the stories others say should be ours. Somewhere in the hairball is the true thread, the simple narrative that is ours right now. The only one we have. The only one we can write. Everything else is clutter, noise, and distraction.

Stories are for telling, sharing, inspiring, and learning from. My life is enriched beyond measure by the stories of those around me, and I’m honored to be able to share them. I’m also honored to add mine to the mix. I can’t write yours, and you can’t write mine, but we can listen, and witness, and bless the stories of others with our presence and attention.

And then turn back to writing our own.

My daily crime.

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Unconditional Love

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I’ve noticed that I’ve been using the term “unconditional love” in some of my most recent posts. I wondered why. I’ve never thought much about the term, or what it means, until the last year or so.

One of the things I most appreciate about life is the fascinating journey of it all. When I came to Maine, I knew exactly what I wanted. I was sure it was here, waiting for me, the love I’d been looking for all my life.

I was wrong.

Rather, I was not wrong. What I was wrong about was how that love would present itself, how it would look and feel and be expressed. I realize now part of what I was searching for was unconditional love, and it is indeed here.

But it was there, in my old place in Colorado, too. The possibility of unconditional love has been with me every day of my life, and my inability to understand that meant I also did not recognize unconditional love that others gave me.

You see, it had to start with my ability to extend it to myself, and I never was able to do that until recently.

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Unconditional love is best defined by its opposite—conditional love. Love is “an intense feeling of great affection (Oxford Online Dictionary).” Conditional love is the intense feeling of affection we give to others as long as they are compliant with our expectations.

In other words, as long as the one we “love” behaves in a manner we approve of, we “love” them. If our “loved” one makes choices, develops beliefs or expresses themselves in ways we disapprove of, we withhold or withdraw our love. Conditional love always comes with iron chains attached to it.

Much of the confusion around what unconditional love is has to do with our individual beliefs about how to express and receive love. “An intense feeling of great affection” can probably be communicated in as many ways as there are human beings, and that’s where the trouble starts. We don’t just want to be loved. We want that love to be communicated in specific ways, or we reject it. We also want to demonstrate our love for others in specific ways they may reject.

A further layer of confusion occurs because sometimes we identify our desire for power, control, codependency, romance and other benefits as “love.”

Conditional love is a manipulative tool used to benefit the one who claims to be the lover.

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Unconditional love is a state of being in which love is extended to others selflessly, with no thought of reciprocity or benefit to the lover. Unconditional love is free. It’s not payment of a debt, and it doesn’t have to be proven. It’s a spiritual practice, an offering we choose to make over and over. Sometimes it’s completely invisible and unappreciated. We can unconditionally love people who don’t meet a single one of our needs.

When we think about love, are we thinking more about giving it or receiving it? I admit I’ve spent most of my life thinking about receiving love (or not receiving it in the form I wanted!) rather than giving it. I also admit I haven’t always recognized the love I have received. Further, I haven’t always recognized the difference between toxic relationships and giving and receiving healthy love.

On the other hand, I know a lot about codependency!

I don’t want to admit that unconditional love is impossible to give others if we can’t give it to ourselves, because the truth is I just figured out how to do that and I was a new parent (the parent-child bond is the most important place for unconditional love) 30 years ago. I have never experienced the depth and intensity of the love I felt as a new parent, either before or since, but I’m only now growing into my ability to extend truly unconditional love to my (now adult) children.

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When I was a new parent with young children, I took it for granted that the love I felt for them would always be returned in a way I could understand and appreciate. It wasn’t a condition of my love that they do so, but it certainly was an unconscious and deeply-rooted expectation. Since the moment of conception, they were my priority and the center of my world, and I assumed, without really thinking about it, that we would remain the most important, intimate and trusted people in one another’s lives.

My love for them was not and is not conditional. I know that now that I’ve received some brutal and much-needed reality checks! As they have stepped into their adult lives and the inevitable challenges and journeys life brings to us all, I’ve understood that they are not responsible for responding to my love in any particular way, and I’ve also understood the fact of their continuing love for me, expressed in their own unique ways rather than the ways I expect and want!

Our longing for love can be all-consuming, and sometimes we sacrifice everything we are and have in order to find it. Unless we can unconditionally love ourselves, we become absolutely dependent on those around us to convince us we’re loved. Our dependency leads us into pseudo self, self-destructive choices, enabling and despair.

Nothing and no one can replace our love for ourselves. No one can love us and express that love to us in a meaningful way better than we can, not a child, not a lover, not a family member or friend. Our desperate external search is a waste of time and energy. It also exhausts and depletes the people around us and results in a painful pattern of broken relationships. Nothing is more futile than trying to prove our love to someone.

Unconditional love does not mean love without boundaries. It doesn’t mean relinquishing the power to say no (or yes). It doesn’t mean there’s no physical distance between ourselves and those we love. It doesn’t mean we agree on everything. It doesn’t mean we accept abuse or manipulation, or enable destructive behavior.

Unconditional love is clear-eyed; it doesn’t argue with what is. We accept ourselves and others in all our weaknesses, wounds and struggles. However we need to be, we love ourselves through it. However others need to be, it’s okay with us, AND we reserve the right to take care of ourselves, whatever the circumstances.

Sometimes unconditional love requires the hardest thing of all—letting the loved one go.

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My practice of minimalism has helped reveal to me my desire and ability to extend unconditional love. In order to practice it, I have to release expectations of myself and others, my grievances and grudges, my scorecards, my pseudo self, and some of my stories and beliefs. I need to give up trying to control others, being a victim or a martyr, or being concerned about what others think of me.

Most important and difficult of all, I must take responsibility for my own needs and choices, choosing to love myself, day by day, unconditionally, because I know I’m doing the best I can in life and I’m worthy of the same compassion, kindness, respect, loyalty and support I give to others.

As adults, it’s not the love and recognition we long for and demand from others that makes us whole, heartful and soulful. It’s the unconditional love we give ourselves that allows us to make positive contributions, shape healthy relationships, and lead effective lives.

We are on the threshold of a new year. We could approach this fresh start with unconditional love for ourselves, for some of those around us, and for life in general. We could release our fears and expectations about the future and retain a simple intention of unconditionally loving whatever the new year brings to us, difficult challenges and changes as well as unexpected opportunities and joys.

Practicing unconditional love. My daily crime.

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