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.
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.
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.
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.
Projection is a defense mechanism used to displace the responsibility of one’s negative and unacknowledged feelings, behavior, beliefs and choices by attributing them to someone else.
The goal of projection is to create a distraction that helps avoid ownership and accountability. The victim becomes the focus, and is manipulated into taking responsibility for the abuser’s behavior, beliefs and feelings.
For example, an obviously angry parent confronts and accuses their child of hating them. The child, in fact, loves the parent, feels disliked by the parent, and walks away feeling ashamed and guilty for hating their parent, even though that’s not theirfeeling. For the moment, the parent has successfully displaced their own self-hatred onto the child.
Another example is a friend talking to another friend about her experience of a chaotic yet transformative life event that’s picked her up and set her down in a different place. The speaker is accused of being negative and making her friend feel stressed and upset, in spite of the speaker’s attempts to be clear about the exhilaration and joy of her experience. The speaker walks away with her friend’s displaced inability to deal with change and loss of control, her own joy forgotten.
Projection is a common defense mechanism, and most of us use it to one degree or another. It’s not necessarily a Big Evil. On the other hand, projection can be a subtle and cruel blame-shifting game of power-over, and some people who employ this tactic intend to win at any cost. Their victim and the world at large are blamed for everything that’s wrong or feels bad. The projector is an innocent victim of the machinations and manipulations of others, the general unfairness of the world, and bad luck.
People who use projection as a weapon can have a devastating effect in our lives, but I’ve been even more devastated by my own use of projection, and this is a skill the culture has actively and systematically taught me to perfect.
I’ve been brainwashed since I was a child to believe that all people share my desire for peace, compassion, and cooperation. I’ve been led to believe that all others share my empathy, my thirst to learn and grow and my priorities for healthy connection. I’ve been taught the Golden Rule, the application of which ensures being treated with love and kindness. We treat people the way we want to be treated, and voila!
Furthermore, as a female, it’s my responsibility to be a representative of all these values. If I fail to exemplify peace, empathy, loyalty and kindness towards others, I fail to be a good daughter, wife, lover, friend, mother and woman.
It’s also my job to be the keeper and carrier of feelings the people around me don’t want to deal with. It’s what I’m for.
No one ever suggested to me how dangerous it is to project my own value system onto another person, and I only just discovered this for myself recently. As it gradually dawned on me, I struggled for a time to find an alternative way to look at the people around me. If I don’t approach others with all my naïve projections, then what? I don’t want to assume everyone is destructive and dangerous, either!
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Then it occurred to me that our approach to strangers (or even those we think we know) needn’t be either/or, friend or foe. A stranger is a stranger. An unknown. It’s not necessary or useful to project anything onto a stranger. The Golden Rule still applies and I still conduct myself authentically and respectfully and pay attention as I interact with an unknown person. I’m learning not to manufacture stories, make assumptions or project. I inquire, listen, watch and take responsibility for my own feelings and behavior.
Projection is a complex technique and can be very hard to see when it’s lurking under the bed. However, in this house we’re skilled at pulling all sorts of monsters out from under the bed (metaphorically, of course) and letting the cat sniff at them. Once identified, projection is perfectly manageable.
Projection, like gaslighting and mice, leaves tell-tale signs.
Any conversation about a challenging issue (money, parenting, fidelity, keeping one’s word, the nature of the relationship, why you got hit) winds up being about why it’s all your fault.
You’re accused of something (a feeling, lying, cheating, stealing, being demanding, interrupting) that’s not true.
In spite of your best efforts, communication isn’t successful. You can’t get your point of view heard and you feel chronically disempowered.
After an interaction, you feel ashamed and guilty.
No matter what you do, you seem to be continually hurting someone you care about.
You don’t experience reciprocity; the more loyalty, understanding, empathy, love, gratitude and forgiveness you extend, the more drained and alone you feel.
You feel like a disappointment, a failure and a burden.
You’re always bleeding; you had no idea what a terrible person you are.
You feel manipulated, used, disliked, and angry, which increases your guilt and shame.
You feel confused, baffled and bewildered. Every time you turn around you seem to get sucker punched, literally or figuratively.
Abusers and personality disordered people who employ projection invariably give themselves away, right in plain sight, because at some point they project onto others something so bizarre the victim and/or onlookers have an Aha! moment and recognize the manipulation. For example, someone with sexual boundary issues accuses someone else of an assault that never happened. A thief projects stealing onto someone with scrupulous integrity. A liar accuses an obviously honest person of lying. A rageholic accuses everyone else of being angry while they put their fist through a wall.
Another common projection is “You don’t care!” when in fact we care so much we feel terminally ill, and we still can’t make it work.
Shame and guilt have enormous isolating power. One of the best defenses against projection is to verify someone’s stated perception of you and your behavior. I had a boyfriend who accused me of “always interrupting.” I was crushed. It was a heated, angry accusation that blew up out of nowhere, and he’d never given me that feedback before. I’ve studied good communication techniques for a long time, and communication is something I care about doing well. Furthermore, I frequently had the experience that he interrupted me, but I tolerated it because I loved him.
My choice (after I stopped crying) was to ask other people in my life if they had this experience with me and get a reality check. I had a couple of close girlfriends whom I knew would tell me the truth. If it was true, I wanted to know so I could change that behavior.
They thought I was nuts. One of my best friends, who had years of experience of me in groups as well as one on one, said she appreciated the way I always held space for others to speak.
I didn’t cry anymore and I immediately dumped that projection. Not long after that the relationship also ended.
Another good defense against projection is to name the behavior and refuse the projection. There’s no need to fight, raise your voice, cry, argue, persuade, explain, justify or throw something. Those are all distractions from the fact that the abuser is employing a toxic tactic that’s about them, not you. Let them escalate—it’s their game. You’re don’t have to play.
“No. That’s not how I feel. That’s a projection.”
“No. That’s not what I did. That’s a projection.”
“No. That’s not what I said. That’s a projection.”
Stand your ground, look them in the eye and refuse to get distracted from their behavior, no matter how juicy the bait they dangle. Hang up, disconnect, block, delete, walk away, disengage. If you can’t get away from them, repeat a simple statement like the ones above as many times as you need to.
Projection can be abusive and toxic. It’s essential that we recognize it, both when we employ it and when others use it against us. Good boundaries go a long way to disabling projection, and so does the work of authenticity. We can’t control the behavior of others, but we can learn to recognize and excavate our own projections and take responsibility for our choices and feelings, which makes us far less vulnerable to this tactic.