Learn How to Be a Supporter, Not an Enabler


There is a huge difference between being a supporter and an enabler. To support someone through a difficult situation is to provide resources which help them cope and recover. Enabling is merely allowing or creating the conditions for a sufferer to behave destructively without improvement. These two ideas are worlds apart. However, in the real world, distinguishing them can be a real challenge.

What everyone wants to do is support a loved one who is suffering, without enabling destructive behaviors. But unless we prepare ourselves with knowledge, our help can end up doing more harm than good. With that in mind, here are a few things you need to know about the difference between supporting and enabling:

Support Is Not the Same as Coddling

To coddle is to deal with someone in an overprotective and indulgent manner. This is almost never a good idea. Support is something that helps a person get stronger, while coddling just keeps a person in their state of weakness. The article entitled, “Family Therapy for PTSD” sheds more light on the subject:

Tenants of this kind of therapy emphasize clear communication that allows for all parties to safely express emotions. Sometimes family members can offer too much or too little of one emotion. Sympathy, for example, can be great in small doses but coddling a trauma survivor may not encourage their own feelings of strength, self-esteem, or capability.

While this article is specifically dealing with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it is universally applicable. Be careful about letting your support veer into coddling territory.

Support Is Not the Same as Self-Endangerment

Supporting a person with a mental illness is a little like trying to rescue a drowning person. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you will end up being the one who needs rescuing. Stuff.com reports:

Rescuers are losing their lives while saving a drowning person – often a relative – with tragic frequency in New Zealand. Between 1980 and 2012, 81 people drowned while attempting a rescue. The phenomenon is so widespread it is referred to as aquatic victim-instead-of-rescuer, or AVIR, syndrome.

PTSD sufferers are often former military. They are highly trained to do violence at the drop of a hat. The violence experienced during the course of duty may be exactly what caused the PTSD in the first place. Trying to free a bear from a bear trap is inherently dangerous at every level.

Sometimes, sufferers turn to drug and alcohol abuse. An addict is unpredictable. Because illicit drugs have to be illegally obtained, you have to be aware of the friends and associates of your loved one. Even if they wouldn’t do you any harm, the same cannot be said for the people supplying them with the drugs. Expect to have your valuables stolen. And know that much worse is in the offing. This is not an amateur rescue. You need professional help.

Support Is Not the Same as Emotional Attachment

There is a good reason why professionals like doctors and counselors maintain professional detachment. They have to keep a certain emotional distance so that they can stay clear-headed in a crisis. They must be able to dispassionately suggest the best course of treatment, rather than the one that seems the most emotionally satisfying.

In the previous section, I referenced the would-be rescuers who become victims. In most situations, they are close friends or relatives. In other words, they are emotionally compromised.

This is why family counseling is so important when a loved one suffers from mental illness. Your objectivity is non-existent. You need someone who can help keep you grounded. If it is bad for a doctor or counselor to make purely emotional decisions about your loved one, how much worse is it when you do it? Confusing emotional attachment with support is a recipe for disaster.

Coddling, self-endangerment, and emotional attachment is not the stuff of support. It is the stuff of an enabler’s toolbox. One of the best things you can do to support a sufferer is to make sure they get professional help. The same goes for the whole family.






  1. nicolthepickle says

    This is such a hard topic as everyone is a little bit different. It takes so much love patience and wisdom.
    When you're being an enabler sometimes (often) you can't see that you are.

Speak Your Mind