THE BLOG
22/09/2015 06:44 BST | Updated 21/09/2016 06:12 BST

Getting Tough on Enabling

Practising tough love is ... well, tough, particularly when in difficult circumstances; at least, it is for many people in parts of my world. In other parts, exercising tough love comes a bit more easily. Some folk are more practical than others. Their mantra: if a lesson isn't taught, it can't be learned.

Admittedly, there is a slew of lessons to be learned through the act of tough love, especially before dysfunctional patterns set in. One example I remember from several Thanksgiving celebrations ago centred on one of the children collapsing in tears when she didn't win a game. Another took losing with a pinch of salt. The father of the latter didn't believe in forfeiting games to children, with a view to teach them the lifelong lesson that winning, at all costs, isn't responsible; nor is believing that one is entitled.

Sometimes with children, no matter the circumstances, tough love is easier to enforce because doing so is often a compulsory responsibility. With adults -- whether family, friends or just acquaintances -- it's not so easy.

'You do the best you can and that's all you can do,' says one acquaintance, who struggles with offering tough love. 'It doesn't always feel like one's best. In fact, it feels awful, maybe immoral, unethical.'

For example, is letting someone be kicked out of their home when you could pay the rent, even if you have done it before, the best you can do? What about getting a restraining order against an unmanageable adult offspring, estranged spouse or sibling?

Tough call? But the flipside -- paying someone's rent repeatedly and accepting unruly behaviour -- is not only risky business but it is also unhealthy, and reflects poorly on the values and beliefs that you are trying to uphold. My acquaintance couldn't argue with that, having suffered both physical and emotional stress over such matters.

The bottom line is this: unhealthy love, if you will, perpetuates dysfunctional behaviour, and worse, preserves what experts call 'enabling', which in psychological terms, is often used in the context of an addict. The enabler somehow makes it possible for an addiction to continue.

But in a wider context, an enabler is anyone that contributes continuously to an unhealthy/dysfunctional situation in the name of love, religion, support, family secrecy, and so on. Sadly, enabling can be as counterproductive as the addiction or dysfunction in question.

Eventually, to resolve the problem for all parties, enabling has to stop. But how? Now, that's easier said than done, too.

First, let's put enabling into perspective: most enablers are well-meaning folk, as a therapist told me years ago. We -- yes, I admit it -- are often the doers; the ones who fix everything in the family, the friendship, the office, all at the risk of feeling used, badly done by and seeing the dysfunctional world eventually collapse anyway, sometimes pulling us down into it.

Why bother then? There is something in it for enablers too, even if it is misguided. From feeding one's ego and self-worth to assuaging guilt or alleviating fears, enablers find plenty of reason to bother.

Tough pill to swallow, isn't it? Mine is still stuck in my throat. However, facing up to enabling and its pitfalls is one of the first steps to quitting. Nevertheless, owning up doesn't mean sidestepping responsibilities to help, but it does mean understanding what is helpful and what is harmful. Continuously bailing someone out of the same emergency, or allowing someone's lack of planning and responsibility to become your emergency, or your responsibility, won't teach anyone a life lesson. Quite frankly, it will probably enforce inappropriate messages and a cruel way of life, not only for immediate parties but also for those looking on, such as children.

Saying no, however, doesn't mean throwing the book at someone or acting recklessly. It means suggesting real help with the wider problem in mind, such as planning; living within their means; even counselling; and drawing a line in the sand, setting boundaries and not crossing them when challenged.

Also, kicking the enabling habit means speaking up. When trapped in a dysfunctional situation, staying silent is as good as sanctioning it. But keep in mind that speaking up is not the same as arguing with an unreasonable person, or negotiating a non-negotiable. It is letting people know where you stand.

Recently, I had to do just that, finally grasping that not doing so feeds into mental instability, which is more common in society these days than tough love. The point is that some people who live dysfunctional lifestyles don't know any better, simply because such ways of life -- getting everything they want whether they can afford it or not; disrupting family life; disrespecting boundaries, and so on --have been enabled to become the norm.

An acquaintance confided that she had put the phone down on a friend who insisted on talking to her rudely, because she talked to everyone in her circle that way. Everyone! Another had disengaged from a dysfunctional relative and instantaneously found life healthier and more stable, even if she did get stick from other family members at first.

Admittedly, she didn't disengage lightly, but when all else failed, this was the only way to isolate the problem; to not allow it to become a norm.

So what happens to those enabled into addiction, dysfunctional living without us enablers? No doubt it takes a while to reverse patterns and change habits, but more people would get the real help they deserve and learn some of life's most important lessons ... sooner rather than later. And the very lifestyles that most enablers are trying to protect and preserve would be more prevalent.

As for me, I'm going to toughen up on love; that is, quit enabling once and for all.