How do I know if I'm enabling someone?

Helping someone you love can be a balancing act. On the one hand, you care about them, and you want to do everything you can to help them succeed. On the other hand, if you’re putting more into it than they are, what happens when you pull back? Can they stand on their own? And how much can you really afford to do for them?

What does it mean to enable someone?

Mental illness affects a person’s behavior. For example, when someone is depressed, just getting out of bed in the morning can seem impossible. This can obviously make it hard to do well in school, or to hold down a job. If the person doesn’t get some kind of treatment to improve their condition, their life will only get harder—and that will make their depression even worse.

It’s hard to see someone you care about suffer like that. So some people will try to help by shielding the person from the consequences. For example, you could let your depressed friend sleep on your couch without having to pay rent. Now it doesn’t matter if they can’t hold down a job, because at least they know they have a place to sleep.

That’s fine if the person is making an effort to get better, or if it’s only temporary while they get back on their feet. But if it becomes a permanent thing, you’re not helping them get better—you’re helping them stay sick. You’re making the symptoms easier to bear without doing anything to address the root cause of their depression. That’s enabling. When it becomes a pattern, it’s called codependency.

What about tough love?

Some people think that providing any support is enabling. They figure their loved ones need “tough love.” They need to just be thrown out into the world to deal with their problems alone.

A person trying to give tough love might give advice in a blunt or insensitive way. They might cut the person off completely. They figure if their loved one is forced to deal with things on their own, maybe it will knock some sense into them. It’s sink or swim.

People who offer tough love usually mean well. They understand that sooner or later, their loved one will need to take charge of their own treatment. They’ll need honest feedback, even if it’s hard to hear. But tough love can also backfire. It can make the person feel like nobody cares about them or accepts them as they are. It can make them feel isolated and worthless. That not only makes it harder for them to seek treatment—it also makes their symptoms worse.

How much support should I provide?

In order to recover from a mental illness, the person needs to make some changes—whether that means lifestyle changes, seeing a therapist, or taking meds. Unfortunately, mental illness also makes it more difficult to make those changes. People experiencing mental illness often feel hopeless and overwhelmed. They have a hard time believing in themselves. Even the slightest effort can seem impossible. It can be hard to see why they should even bother making a change.

When someone feels like that, a boost from someone else can make all the difference. For example, if your loved one is nervous about seeing a therapist, you can support them by helping them look up therapists online, helping them schedule the first appointment, or going with them to the appointment and sitting in the waiting room until they’re done. Once they’ve gone a few times and they’re starting to see results, hopefully they’ll be ready to go on their own.

Maybe a few months later they get discouraged and want to quit—so you talk them down and help them stay motivated to continue their treatment. With a little encouragement, they get back on track. This kind of thing is what loved ones are for. Chance are, it requires a little effort on your part, with a huge payoff for them.

The problem is when you start to do the work for them instead of supporting them in doing the work themselves. If they won’t see a therapist at all unless you accompany them to every appointment, that might be a problem. It can really take a toll on you—it’s a huge time commitment, and can be emotionally draining. But it also isn’t the best way for them to recover. Mental health treatments work best when the person being treated wants to get better and puts in the effort to make a change.

Setting boundaries

Providing support for a person with mental illness is a balancing act. You want to be supportive without enabling unhealthy patterns. You want to help them, but not to control them.

This looks different for every person and every relationship. If you’re a parent and your child is a minor, it might make sense to go with them to every therapy appointment, or check to make sure they’re taking their meds every day. If you’re just friends and you’re both adults, that’s probably a bit much. If you make a lot of money, providing some financial support may be no big deal. But if you’re struggling yourself, you’re better off helping them find other resources.

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to help determine what your boundaries will look like:

  • How much does it require from me? (Think: time, money, emotional energy.)
  • How much does it benefit them?
  • Am I helping them get better, or am I helping them stay sick?

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