Tag Archives: responsibility

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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Reciprocity Again

It’s no secret that many small businesses are feeling devastating impacts from coronavirus. There’s a general push to support local small businesses, which are the lifeblood of neighborhoods and communities. In rural areas, many of us are also doing our best to support local farmers.

Before the pandemic, my partner and I had a weekly breakfast date at a local diner. We enjoyed the food. We enjoyed the people, both employees and other patrons, and we often met friends there for a leisurely, friendly, old-fashioned diner breakfast. The diner is a small, family-run place, and was an important part of my community and routine.

As the pandemic swept over the country, the diner closed, and we stopped eating out altogether. We did get take-out from them a few times, but we found that the food alone did not satisfy our desire for connection and community, and it seemed a chore to make the rather lengthy round trip when we could more easily, cheaply and safely cook for ourselves at home.

As the summer wanes, conspiracy theories abound, and the election approaches, fear, frustration, hostility and division are everywhere. I heard that the diner has reopened, but I’m not comfortable eating in a restaurant right now, although I do frequently support a local sandwich shop that provides take-out, has CDC recommendations posted, and is staffed by employees with masks.

Yesterday I heard that the diner is heavily advertising the owners’ political allegiance and the employees are not wearing masks.

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I felt upset by this and chewed on it yesterday and last night. My initial reaction was loss and sadness, followed quickly by the feeling that I’m being intolerant and unsupportive of my community. I took a walk at dawn this morning, listening to a couple of owls carrying on a lengthy conversation at the same time the birds were waking, and it occurred to me that community support is a two-way street.

I’ve written about reciprocity before on this blog. At the time of that writing it was a fairly new concept to me. This was no surprise, as I realized most of my relationships, past and present, were remarkable for the absence of reciprocity. It was a relief to be given language and concept for my recurring feeling of giving every bit I had to give to a relationship and getting nothing in return.

Now I recognize the lack of reciprocity in interpersonal relationships much more quickly and take steps to limit or exit from those connections.

This idea of community support, however, is a new angle on reciprocity, and it took me a while to see it.

Small businesses are valuable and it’s hard work to make a success out of them, mostly because giants like Amazon and Wal-Mart undercut them so easily. One of the things I love about living in rural communities is getting to know the artisans, farmers, and others engaged in unique and high-quality arts, crafts and food production. I’ve never owned a small business, but it seems to me if I did I’d work hard to provide my customers with the best product and experience possible. In return, I’d be grateful for those who patronized me and told others about me, as I’d want to attract all the customers I possibly could.

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This is reciprocity.

As a customer, it doesn’t occur to me to wonder about the political views or underwear color of a small business owner. My interest is in the business’s product or service, not the owner’s personal choices.

I have no need or desire to control whether or not people wear masks or social distance, unless I’m at work and it’s my responsibility to do so. If I’m uncomfortable with lack of masking and social distancing out in the world, I leave rather than making a scene. I also feel no need to lead in any situation with my politics or ideology. Neither are the most important things about me.

I still patronize most of the places I visited and bought from before the coronavirus, although I go a little further out of my way now, even if it does take extra time or an extra dollar or two, to support small businesses. I have encountered some hostility and glares in various local businesses that I assume are about me masking, but nobody has said anything to me about it, and (being an adult) I know how to ignore dirty looks.

However, the diner is a different proposition. Plastering a small business with political signs and posters feels to me like a Keep Out, as their presidential pick is not mine. It feels hostile and hurtful. As I said, we aren’t in a hurry to eat in anywhere just now, but it was my intention to return to the diner and resume our weekly habit one day.

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Except now I don’t feel welcome.

I also don’t feel safe. I can only assume people who refuse to mask in their business feel no need to take other precautions, and I don’t want eat food prepared and served by those who don’t follow CDC guidelines, both at work and in their private lives.

I’m sad about this. It’s hard to feel like a part of a community and then suddenly feel I don’t belong, after all. My affection for the diner, the people there, and the food is real, and I wish them all well. I thought we were friendly acquaintances and it never occurred to me that differing political views would disconnect us.

But I wasn’t responsible for the disconnection. I’ve missed the diner all these long weeks, and looked forward to the day we could resume going. I want to support this particular small business, and I feel unable to. I won’t go out into the community and bad mouth them, but I won’t be giving them my business, either, or recommending them to others.

Maybe they don’t want support from people with my politics and coronavirus concerns. Maybe their choice is to support the false equivalency of the two. Maybe we as a culture are deciding that divisiveness and politics are more important than good will and community, but that’s not and never will be my choice.

During these times and all times, we need to support one another. The best support is mutual, reciprocal. Communities need small businesses, and small local businesses need communities. I want to be a part of that, but I need some support as a customer in order to show up and buy.

My conclusion about all this is that breakfast at the diner is yet another sad loss. I’m not going to compound that by distorting my efforts to stay as healthy and safe as possible into intolerance and lack of support. Neither are true of me. Both might be true of others, but I can’t do anything about that.

Supporting businesses that support me. My daily crime.

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