Are you an enabler? 

An enabler is someone who encourages or allows negative or self-destructive behavior in another.

Here are some examples of enablers:

  • Giving money to someone who has a gambling problem
  • Lying to cover up bad behavior for someone else
  • Making excuses for someone’s bad behavior

There is a very fine line between enabling and helping. When you help someone you do something for them that they cannot do for themselves or as an act of generosity. When you enable someone, you do something for them that they should be doing themselves or is hurting them not to do.

Do you have someone in your life that complains about the same problems again and again, but does nothing to change them? You might be enabling them.

How Enabling Works

You have offered help, suggestions and advice, but nothing ever really changes. And every time you see them you have to hear about the same problems over and over again—the worst part is they don’t see their patterns. They think their issues are unsolvable, completely different every time and extremely interesting.

I do. I have this person in my life and it is driving me crazy. In fact, over the years I have had a few people like this. Can you relate?

  • The girlfriend who always dates the bad boy and every time he cheats on her, treats her like sh*t or dumps her for someone else.
  • The wantrepreneur who has another amazing business idea that will take off and be the next big thing. But it never does.
  • The drama magnet who can never make rent, is always short on cash to pay the check at dinner and runs out of gas so you always have to drive.
  • The addict who asks for money, excuses and cover-ups from you.

I’m sorry if this post is sounding angry. I am a little angry, but I’m mostly frustrated. I’m frustrated because I care about this person so much and it kills me to see them ignorant to their own patterns. I love them and I want the best for them so it breaks my heart that they don’t realize that they are in a cycle of the same problem over and over again. They are stagnant—and blind to their own stagnation.

I call this person a hamster. They are lovable, but they are stuck in a cage going around the same wheel over and over again without realizing they aren’t going anywhere. If you have a hamster in your life, you know how exasperating it is to desperately want to help someone who will not help themselves.

Your desire to help someone is not enough. They have to want to help themselves. 

If you continue trying to help someone who is not changing then you are not helping, you are enabling.

The Cycle:

I have noticed there is a 4 stage process of how enabling can happen:

  1. They tell you about a problem they are having. You offer advice. They nod and say they’ll try it.
  2. The problem comes up again. You ask about the advice you gave. No, that wouldn’t have worked. You offer sympathy and more advice. They take the sympathy, but not the advice.
  3. They want to re-hash a ‘new’ version of the problem. You mention it sounds similar. Could this be a pattern? They get mad. You decide to not try to help and just listen.
  4. There is an update on the problem they want to talk to you about. They spend a long time venting. This time it’s worse and has bigger consequences. Any advice is politely ignored as they continue to vent. You worry that by listening you are actually enabling the problem. You get frustrated and bored.

Repeat.

What do you do when this 4 stage process has repeated itself 5 or 6 times? A dozen? Is this still a healthy relationship? Is this still a healthy person? This might be the start of a co-dependent or enabling relationship.

Codependency is a relationship where one person enables the other person’s bad behavior, poor mental health or even addiction. Typically a codependent relationship is marked by excessive reliance on one another and a constant seeing of approval.

Why does this happen? They have damaging, but powerful self-narratives.

The Power of the Self-Narratives

A self-narrative is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. Do you see yourself as a survivor? A hero? Unlucky? Unique?

Researcher, Dan McAdams has found that most of us have crafted narratives and stories about our lives. This is how we craft our identity and define the forces that shape us. Some examples:

  • The Warrior Narrative: This person believes they are a survivor and have to fight for everything they want. They believe nothing has or ever will come to them easy. Typically, they have had difficult past experiences that they have survived and come out stronger. They say things like, “My whole life has been a battle,” or “I have fought for everything I have ever gotten” or “Nothing comes easy to me.”
  • The Nurturer Narrative: This person sees themselves as a care-taker, a giver and a nurturer. They might have had a number of siblings or fighting parents where they played peacemaker in their home growing up. Or they are in a job where they have to put their own needs aside for others. They typically will always say yes to others even if it is not in their best interest. They tend to overcommit and be people pleasers.
  • The Adventurer: Some people see their self-narrative like a character in a great novel. They thrive in unconventional situations and define themselves by doing unique things. They might have had an unusual upbringing or eclectic tastes and feel this defines them and their identity, therefore they continue to make unique choices that further differentiate them.

Why We Self-Define

Here’s the thing about self-narratives: they are self-defined. We craft a story about ourselves and then continue to make choices and behave in ways that further carry out the narrative. For example, if a hamster has the Victim Narrative, they always see themselves as a martyr or defeated. Then they pick jobs or activities that continue to put them in this place. I think this is why some hamsters have the same problems over and over again. Their problems are annoying and difficult, but they are also playing into their narrative.

Enablers often are woven into someone’s self-identity.

This is how self-narratives work when a hamster won’t change: 

  • The Warrior Narrative: A warrior has a job where the boss hates him. You tell him to apply for a transfer with a new boss, but this means having a non-competitive work environment. A warrior isn’t used to having nothing or no one to fight about, this isn’t in their self-narrative. So they complain, but they keep the job because it’s what they know.
  • The Nurturer Narrative: A nurturer is in a relationship where she is taken for granted. She does all the housework and is basically a servant to her partner. You bring this up and encourage her to stand up for herself. Although she wants to, standing up for herself and putting her needs first is against her self-narrative. So she stays in a relationship that is unhappy but familiar.
  • The Adventurer: Your adventurer friend is always complaining about not being able to pay down student debt or afford dinners out. He can’t keep a steady job because they are all so boring. He would prefer to travel the world—great, you say! Then get a virtual job or save up more before traveling. Your idea of responsible is his idea of boring and too conventional. He keeps job hopping and complaining about the bills. He is an adventurer—a 9 to 5 job (even virtual) would kill his personal brand.

Unhappy But Familiar

Self-narratives are defining, they are also comfortable. Children who have been abused often end up in abusive relationships as adults. Why? I think this comes down to a self-narrative. They have a self-narrative that casts them in the horrible role of abuse. They don’t like it, but they know it.

For some, predictably terrible is better than an unpredictable unknown.

I think the reason why some people can’t change is because they are fighting two extremely strong forces:

#1: Their Identity

They are afraid of changing something because it’s not how they see themselves. By acting different, they might get something different and this feels scary.

#2: Fear of Change

Change is scary. We know what we like and we like what we know. This keeps us in a very limited mindset and prevents any kind of growth.

If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.

Henry Ford

So what to do? I think the answer comes down to compassion.

  • Don’t get angry, get curious. You have this person who won’t change, try to identify the forces at play. What do you think their self-narrative is? Is their fear of change greater than their desire to end their problems?
  • Help them change the narrative. Instead of giving them advice on changing the behavior (the symptom) try helping them see the narrative (the cause). Ask them how they see themselves. Ask them what role they play in their relationships, job and friendships. Ask them what it would feel like if the roles were reversed or if someone could wave a magic wand.
  • Let go. I have come to the sad conclusion that some people cannot be helped.

Everyone can be loved, but not everyone can be changed.

Enablers can stop enabling when they admit to themselves that someone might not be able to change — and they might be blocked from changing by the enabling behavior.

I tend to take it very personally when people don’t take my advice or people close to me keep making the same mistakes over and over again. But the truth is, it’s not about me or the quality of my advice. It is about their bravery and courage to see truth and make hard choices that bring change.

All you can do is be the mirror for them to see their narratives and the support if they decide to leap into the fear of change. It’s not easy: We can’t change people, but we can change behavior—slowly, lovingly, compassionately.

How to Change Bad Behavior

You know who is an expert in changing bad behavior? Dentists. They have to convince people to floss, brush and treat their teeth well — a lifelong challenge. Let me tell you how my dentist helped change my bad behavior…

First, I should mention that I do not have a great track record with dentists. I freak out at needles, gag when cotton chunks come near my mouth and am disgusted by every flavor of polishing paste (really, can someone disrupt the fluoride industry already?!). I’m also a terrible patient. Every year since I have had teeth, this is how my dental appointment goes:

Every Dentist I’ve ever had: Vanessa, I can tell you’re not flossing. You need to floss more. If you don’t floss you will get more cavities. Maybe an electric toothbrush will help? You have to get it into your nightly schedule. I will know the difference next time you come in. Floss or else! 

And this is always my response:

Me: I know. I know. I know. I don’t want the electric toothbrush, but I will take the free floss. I’m sorry. I know. 

And then I leave. And nothing changes. In a good month, I floss once per month. A few months ago, I decided to switch to a new dentist a little closer to my house. She—Dr. Vu at Wellness Dental begins my appointment with an exam. Just like normal. But then, everything changes:

Dr. Vu: Vanessa, you have beautiful teeth. I can tell you brush every day. Maybe you even floss once per month? That’s great! That’s more than the average person. I am really happy to see that.

Me: I do?! Yes, I do! I floss once per month and I always brush twice per day.

Dr. Vu: I can tell, that is wonderful and a really good set of dental habits. Now, I see you have a few very small cavities. I think that since you take care of your mouth, we might be able to fight these and definitely prevent more from coming. But we will have to fight them together.

Me: Yes! Yes, let’s fight them together! How can we do it?

Dr. Vu: Here’s what I am thinking. First, I want you to see your progress. I am 

going to take a picture of every single tooth (cool wand device brought out) and that way you can see exactly the worrisome areas I am talking about. Then when you come back for your next cleaning, we can take new pictures and check your progress to see how we are doing. This is what I think we can fix…

[She pulls up a picture of my tooth on the screen and shows me exactly where there is a tiny dark spot]

Me: Oh wow, I didn’t know you could see it. So you think that I can reverse the damage without drilling?

Dr. Vu: Yes definitely! Enamel can heal if you treat it right, so we are going to go on full attack—last resort is drilling. First, we get you an electric toothbrush, that will really help. Second, we up your flossing. Even once per week would be a tremendous change. I am going to give you some free boxes. Lastly, I am going to give you some prescription fluoride toothpaste.

Me: Ok, definitely I want the electric toothbrush and I think one time per week is doable, but I bet I can do more if I really focus on it.

Dr. Vu: Absolutely! I have no doubt. When you come back we will compare the pictures and see how we did! I am even going to score each tooth with a number for gum health so we can see how much the flossing is helping.

Me: Ok! I hope I can improve my score on most of them.

Dr. Vu: I know you can!

I have flossed almost every day since this first appointment. I did not have to get those two cavities filled because we repaired the damage and I improved my overall teeth scores from average to excellent. For the first time in my life, I don’t dread going to the dentist.

This experience demonstrates far more than how to encourage teeth health. It speaks to an essential part of human nature: Behavior Change.

Why We Want to Change People

We can’t help it: We love to try to fix the people in our life. We give advice to a friend. We tell a family member how they could do something better. We try to suggest, fix and change a partner for the better. Sadly, even though we mean well, changing people usually doesn’t work. In fact, it might even make the person you are trying to help angry at you. This is classic enabling.

Why are you trying to change me?

I know better!

You don’t understand, my situation is different.

Stay out of it!

Mind your own business.

Yet, we keep trying to ‘help.’

Think of how the dentist tried to change my bad flossing habits. These are the common strategies people often try. You might be enabling because you are using the wrong tactics. Here’s how enablers trap themselves in codependent relationships:

Tactic #1: Be Helpful

As a dentist I would recommend flossing more. You know what really helped me? I have some great advice for you. I just want to help! If I were you I would just try to…

Someone in your life is doing something wrong. You think you could help them out with some advice—if only they could be more like you or do it more like you would do it, everything would be easier! So you offer advice, suggestions, send them tips, articles and books. Sometimes this works, but often it doesn’t. This person comes back to you with the same problems over and over again. 

Tactic #2: Incentivizing

My mother: If you floss every night and don’t fight with me about brushing I will get you a new Hula Hoop!

Parents do this a lot with children, but we also do this with colleagues and employees. We offer a reward for behavior change. This can work in the short term, but never holds up in the long term as incentives hold less value over time.

Tactic #3: Threatening

If you don’t floss, you will get more cavities! If you don’t start saving money, we are going to have to sell the car. If you don’t lose weight, you’ll have to buy all new clothes.

Fear mongering and threatening is a typical tactic used by dentists, parents and bosses alike. But the stick is less effective than a carrot (and a carrot wasn’t that all effective in the first place, see above). Threatening only makes you the target of someone’s animosity. People who want to lose weight or eat less calories already know what’s at stake. Threats only add stress, fear and anxiety. This might work temporarily but could destroy your relationship.

Tactic #4: Pleading

Do it for me! Do it for your future kids! Think of all the money we have spent, don’t let it go to waste!

When we are really desperate for someone’s behavior to change, we plead with them. We beg them to change and point to a higher purpose—the future, money, religion, children. We hope that by tying the mission to something bigger it makes people pay attention. Typically this only makes someone feel more alone, not more inclined to change.

Tactic #5: Shaming

Your oral hygiene is below average. Your weight is disgusting. Aren’t you embarrassed by your debt problem? I would be humiliated if I were you! I would never show up late all the time, it is so rude. 

Shaming is a standard tactic for behavior change—you see it a lot on weight loss reality shows for example. The problem is that shaming can work, but it has devastating consequences on someone’s self-worth and long-term health. When you shame someone into changing their behavior they work out of a negative space and attack their own sense of worth. Even if they end up changing the behavior they often have a hard time getting back their self-esteem.

Ok, so all of these tactics don’t really work in changing someone’s behavior. What does?

How to Stop Enabling

Dr. Vu did something powerful with me that day in her office. She showed me how to really get someone to change behavior. 

Here’s what we can learn from her on how to stop enabling and start changing:

Step #1: Pride

Dr. Vu started out by invoking feelings of pride. She told me I had beautiful teeth. She also mentioned that I do floss and that was ‘better than average.’ This immediately made me feel proud of the little I do floss as opposed to ashamed about how much I don’t. This is a major difference. Pride makes us want to rise to do more, it makes us feel powerful and we want to live up to the definition. If you want to change someone’s behavior make them feel proud.

  • Point out what is going well
  • Praise them for what they are doing right
  • Invoke their feelings of pride so they live up to the label

Step #2: Togetherness

Dr. Vu also uses “we” more than “you.” It took me a while to notice this, but when I did I realized it made me feel calmer. She wasn’t accusing me of bad dental hygiene, nor was she saying I was on my own. In fact, she was putting me on her team. She was saying that we would fight cavities together and I was not alone in the battle. If you want to change someone’s behavior put them on a team.

  • Say ‘we’ not ‘you’
  • Join their cause
  • Find them people or allies to change with

Step #3: Progress

The next thing Dr. Vu did was to help me catalogue my progress. She took pictures of each tooth and gave my gums a score. This gave me a benchmark—it’s like seeing how much you have in savings or weighing yourself. Specific, measurable goals are always easier to achieve. I could see the little dark spot on my tooth—and I wanted to get rid of it. I could see my teeth scores—and I wanted to improve them. She made my target defined. Other dentists would just tell me to floss more. I had no idea if it was working or not and my only measure was if I didn’t get any cavities. That’s not enough for sustained behavior change! Every night when I floss, I imagine how much my score will improve and that little dark spot fading. That is a powerful motivator and mental image to floss more.

  • Define a measurable benchmark
  • Track progress
  • Make it easy to visualize change

Step #4: Tools

The last thing Dr. Vu did was give me specific tools and steps. I had heard all of these before, but never in such a direct, prescriptive way. When I heard them before they felt like annoyances. But after Dr. Vu’s first 3 steps, they felt like powerful weapons! She broke it down into 3 steps and promised a measurable outcome. I was hooked.

  • Give steps
  • Provide helpful tools
  • Make a clear path to change

These 3 steps to behavior change work in any kind of environment. For example, let’s look at a parent trying to get their child to clean their room more:

Tactics that don’t work to stop enabling:

  • Helpful: If you cleaned your room more, you would be able to get ready for school on time.
  • Threatening: If you don’t clean your room you will be grounded!
  • Incentivizing: If you clean your room every day for the next month I will buy you a new video game.
  • Pleading: I am begging you to clean your room, it would make me so happy for when guests come over!
  • Shaming: Your room is disgusting! It is shameful and a total pigsty, I would be so embarrassed to have friends over if I were you.

Steps that do work to stop enabling:

  • Pride: Thank you for always packing your backpack at night, it saves us so much time in the morning. You are so organized with your school stuff. I also really like the new posters you made for your walls. They look awesome, your friends will love them when they come over.
  • Togetherness: I would love to help you get your room clean. What can we do together to make that work? How about we use the dishes and laundry schedule to help?
  • Progress: I am going to keep a calendar of laundry days and do the dishes every morning. This way you know exactly when to bring things down and when I will be coming up there—so you don’t feel like I am dive bombing your room randomly. I am going to keep track of when you bring down yours. If we can do it 3 of the 7 days of the week that would be great.
  • Tools: I am going to get you your own laundry basket. I also got you a Nalgene bottle for your room you can refill upstairs instead of using the water glasses. That should save a lot of time. I also just ordered these sheets that make it easier to strip and make the bed. They are pretty cool.

This is a totally different approach to behavior change. It goes against our instincts, but actually gets results without making people feel bad in the process. We all have bad behavior, it’s great to get some compassionate help sometimes. Use these steps to help someone break free of their bad habits. Oh, and thanks so much Dr. Vu! You are the best = )

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