enable - verb. to make able; give power, means, competence, or ability to; authorize
While there are indeed some contexts in which it can be a good thing to enable someone to do or be something, most of the time we hear this word in a negative context. "Oh, you're such an enabler." "Can't you see you are just enabling him and his bad behavior?" In other contexts, to enable someone means to empower them or grant them the opportunity and means to continue in their established patterns of self-destructive and/or other-destructive behavior.
To be fair, most of us (maybe even all of us) can be said to "enable" certain behaviors of those we are in close relationship with. Maybe there is some idiosyncrasy or personality flaw within the person that, if looked at objectively, is not really all that conducive to a perfectly healthy lifestyle for them or relationship with them. But, in the grand scheme of things, we have decided to not let it be a big deal. Maybe they snore. Maybe they are not very warm and fuzzy. Maybe they can be selfish at times. Maybe they are insecure. Maybe the just have terrible taste in music or walk around the house in ugly underwear. Whatever it is, we've grown to accept that about them. We've grown to accept their imperfection and recognize that no person can change another person. We will love and be with them as they are.
But in many cases, enabling is far more serious than this. In many cases, enablers grant the opportunity and means for others to continue in patterns of abuse, neglect, blame-shifting, lying, laziness, and addiction. This is what it means, in the negative and psychological sense, to be an enabler.
Some examples of enabling behavior:
-Doing anything to keep the peace
-Ignoring the problem
-Giving the other person "one more chance". Then another. Then another
-Trying to soften the consequences of bad behavior.
-Trying to fix the other person
-Giving them money, food, paying their bills, etc.
-Putting themselves through stress and pain and frustration in order to assume responsibilities for the other person that should be theirs alone.
-Holding in their emotions, often leaking them out just enough through passive aggression or mini temper-tantrums, while they continue to allow the same situations to happen over and over.
-Feeling badly, and bad about ourselves, when we don't take up every opportunity to help someone who says they need us.
-Finding ourselves stuck, overly busy, and over-committed to things that really don't have to be our problem.
-Having a hard time "drawing a line" of where our responsibilities end and where others begin and sticking to it.
Why do we enable?
The short answer is that enabling the addict, loser, deadbeat, abuser, or otherwise dysfunctional or mentally ill individual promises us a sense of control. We are trying to control something. We refuse to let go of something (or someone). We demand it. With the enabler, there is almost always an identifiable "I can't let that happen" item. There is almost always a clear "terrible outcome" they are trying to control or prevent. So, enablers try to create an alternate reality so that they don't have to face actual reality where there is senseless loss, grief, disappointment, betrayal, and rejection.
Enablers are great at rationalizing their enabling behavior, as well. They may even be quite aware of what they are trying to prevent, but they will often rationalize why they are doing it. "Oh, I just don't have the heart to let my kids see how their dad really is." That may be true, but perhaps what is really going on is that we don't have the will to face the mountain of grief we have for the whole situation, including what we feel for our children in their tragically obvious loss.
Enabling is the silent crime. It is much easier to become angry at the openly dysfunctional person and "all you have done for them" to try and make things "normal" than it is to look in the mirror and realize our very large hand in this big, crazy, painful, dysfunctional mess. As hard as it may be to listen to, the truth is that our enabling hurts people.
-It aids and helps extend highly dysfunctional and abusive situations.
-When we refuse to live in reality, we abandon those who do live in reality and need us. Our children live in reality. We may think we can try to soften the blow by telling them white lies or trying to cover up the problem, but their little hearts sense something is wrong. When we refuse to live in reality, we abandon them to face it alone.
-We hurt the dysfunctional person. Maybe you loathe them deep within, so you really don't care. But the truth is that you aren't helping them. Maybe you rationalize, "They aren't going to change anyway," but the truth is that you deprive them of any need to. They get to continue what they are doing and then get angry and defensive at you when you lash out at them, which enables them to continue to look away from their own actions and at yours -which, incidentally, is exactly what we are doing. We are so wrapped up in what a jerk they are they we don't look at our own problem. Maybe that is intentional, ya think?
-We lose ourselves. It isn't always that obvious to us, maybe not for years down the road, maybe not ever, but when we continue to enable others, we pick up so much responsibility and so much of the unseen emotional burden, a burden which really belongs to them, that it becomes all-consuming. This is where denial plays a huge role. We don't see it until there is almost nothing left of ourselves, if we see it at all.
Who are enablers?
We may tend to think of enablers as people with very low self-esteem. That may be true. But I think all it takes for someone to be an enabler is a tendency to avoid deeply painful feelings (to avoid reality) combined with a strong ego, a strong sense of "I can do this, I can figure this out, I can handle this on my own" and a disbelief (conscious or unconscious) in the ability of their core emotional selves to handle life without that other, controlling, figuring-it-out part. Put that together, and you have a person who lives on the surface, who prefers control over reality and vulnerability and freedom and true peace, a slave. Enablers give up their own personal and emotional freedom, and often put those who need them in further dysfunction and pain, in order to try and control the uncontrollable and avoid the unavoidable.