When Helping Hurts: A Lesson on Enabling


Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a huge advocate for helping others. I believe in reaching out, giving a helping hand, providing emotional support, and contributing financially. I believe each individual can make the world a better place by helping others in some way. On the other hand, it’s relatively clear that anything, including help, can be done in excess. So, what does it mean to help until it hurts?

When Helping Hurts

Helping aids progression, creates an environment of positivity, adds value to the life of another human being. Helping lifts you up, but doesn’t hold you up; it allows you to hold yourself up as best you can. Helping at its best is supportive, not controlling; strengthening, not debilitating; mobilizing, not paralyzing. When helping hurts, it is no longer helping. It is enabling.

Enabling is often disguised as helping, but it’s quite the opposite. Enabling creates a sense of powerlessness, often discouraging and demotivating the person who needs help.

Are you wondering if you are the enabler for someone you know or love? If you’re not sure, ask yourself these questions about your attempts to help:

  • Are my actions helping this person to feel more self-empowered?
  • Are the circumstances staying the same, worsening or improving?
  • Is this person doing his absolute best to help himself?
  • Are my actions motivated by fear? Pity? Guilt?
  • Am I helping this person to take advantage of her full potential?
  • What good has come from my help?
  • What harm has come from my help?

When helping ceases to inspire and empower; it becomes enabling. Your answers to the questions above should help you determine if you’ve crossed that fine line.

Why Enabling Is Helping That Hurts

If you are an enabler to someone, it is likely because you see them as a victim. But guess what? Enabling IS a type of victimization.

When people aren’t challenged to do as much as they possibly can to help themselves, they learn to constantly look for answers, remedies, solutions, and fixes outside of themselves. They begin to feel powerless, useless, incapable, needy. Sadly, the more they feel that way, the more they attract circumstances that prove them right. The more they attract those negative circumstances, the worse they feel. The worse they feel, the worse it gets. This cycle is a vicious one.

Before you can help someone break this cycle, you must see them in ways they don’t yet see themselves. The prerequisite, however, is to understand why you’re engaging in enabling behavior in the first place.

1. The Guilt Factor

One of the most common reasons people give for enabling is that they feel too guilty to stop. Let’s dissect that excuse.

Definition of Guilt (noun)

a) the state of having committed an offense

b) remorse caused by feeling responsible for some offense

If you are enabling self-destruction, self-pity, fear, and self-doubt; that is the offense. There is far more cause for guilt in what you’re doing (enabling) than there is in stopping it. You’ll need to wrap your mind around the fact that your style of helping hurts in order to move past the guilt of changing the enabling behavior that your loved one has come to expect.

2. Unconscious (or Subconscious) Self-Interest

I know it seems highly unlikely that helping another person could be motivated by self-interest but bear with me as I explain why this is often the driving force behind helping that hurts.

If you know you’ve had a pattern of enabling behavior, take a moment to consider what YOU get out of what you’re doing. On some level, does it feel good to have someone rely on you to this extent? Does it bring you a sense of safety and reassurance to know that you’re needed? Is it a way to keep them close? To maintain control? To feel useful?

Do you enjoy the feeling of self-righteousness that comes with compulsive “helping”? Does it help you to feel better about yourself, to feel worthy? Do you get much-desired sympathy for being so self-sacrificing? Do you get to throw your own pity party because you do so much, going overboard, getting nothing in return? Does it allow you to make amends for wrongs you’ve done to this person or someone else?

There is nothing wrong with deriving benefits from helping others, but you must really look at your motives when your helping is hurting someone else.

Once you know exactly what you’re getting from the enabling behavior, you can uncover the real issue. You can learn to meet your own needs in a way that is less destructive to you and others.

A Family Example of Enabling

An example of helping that hurts can be seen in a growing number of households across America. Parents are enabling (not helping) their children, stripping them of everything they need to create success in life. These young people go to school when (or if) they want. They bring home whatever grades they want. They smoke, drink, do drugs and use profanity in the parent’s home. Free room and board, no rules, no expectations—life is grand. These children grow up to expect nothing of themselves.

All too often, the enabling continues into adulthood. They live off mom and dad (or whoever will enable them), continuing to do as they please. Instead of working, they get handouts. Instead of getting an education, they get high. Instead of creating a life for themselves, they take whatever they can get without effort.

When/if they do finally get out on their own, everything seems so much harder than it has to be. Why? Because they only know how to do what they’ve been encouraged, pushed, taught and enabled to do all their lives. Absolutely nothing!

Truly Helping Others

If you really want to help someone, envision them in a more favorable light than they can see. See them at their best, even if they can’t show it to you. Help them to access their own strength, to reach their full potential. Challenge them to own up to who they really are—to feel the joy of personal empowerment and self-confidence. In everything you do for another, do it with this vision of them firmly planted in your mind’s eye.

As you continue reaching out to help others, I hope you’ll keep in mind the difference between helping and enabling. Always remember to look at your intentions, your motives, your actions and your outcomes. If you find that you need to make some changes, let your hope and faith, not your guilt and fears, guide the way.

Photo by h.koppdelaney

48 thoughts on “When Helping Hurts: A Lesson on Enabling”

  1. Very nice article, Nea! The parenting example is perfect, and one of my biggest gripes about this generation. Some parents seem to fail to realize that their job is to make sure that their kids don’t need them anymore – starting from birth. That way, when they are adults, they can start living completely on their own. It’s hard for some parents to cut through the emotion of that, but that’s how you show true love to somebody – helping them to do it on their own!

    1. Hi there Tom. I love your comment. It is sad to see parents do their kids such a grave disservice in the name of love. As a mother, I know how difficult it can be to draw that line; but you just have to constantly remind yourself of the greater good.

      1. This is where I am at. I don’t want to be preachy and judgmental. But I was to stop helping in a situation that is not improving. It’s tricky, how to break the news that the help is going to stop.

        1. I don’t know your situation, but I am practicing saying, “What are you going to do,” instead of offering advice and help. It’s hard. One of the red flags that I am helping the wrong way is that I get resisted. Gone too far if they are getting defensive. Back off, say I am sorry, and “what are you going to do?”

  2. Hi Nea,
    This is a really smart, well written article. Enabling is dangerous on so many levels. It’s hard to recognize and it’s hard to stop. When we enable to the point where others expect it of us, it is a struggle to change that dynamic with the other person. You’ve done a wonderful job of explaining what it is and how to recognize it. Thanks so much for your knowledge!

    1. Hi Dandy. I really appreciate your comment. Enabling is a tough subject and it’s painful to be on either side of the equation. I think it’s safe to say that turning around a relationship with someone you’ve been enabling is one of the most difficult tasks a person can face in life.

  3. This is one of the best blogs I read in a while. It’s a subject quite close to my heart and has some very challenging statements in it.
    All too often, I’ve worked places where I see people enabling or rescuing people. I have a fair idea of I have done and still do this myself from time to time. I have a great belief in self empowerment. This mainly comes from hating being told what to do by others. I like to make up my own mind, but that still requires a reminder from time to time!
    This subject always reminds me of the people that make up committee’s. There is always the martyr who tiresomely goes on about how they are they only ones who “do” anything, thereby projecting guilt on to others.
    Thank you!

    1. Hi Marty. What a great comment. There are definitely those people who are perpetual enablers. Enabling others is their way of controlling, or attempting to control, the world around them. It gives them the opportunity to play the victim while others take advantage of their “helping”, but the truth is that the enabler is the creator of the problem. This subject is extremely complex and it sounds like you’ve seen your fair share of it.

  4. Thanks this is a good post.

    I do think that seeing people at their best can become a problem. I think it is important to relate to them where they are – especially when someone is in pain. (I guess might be what you meant and I’m just being picky about words.)

    1. Hi Evan. No, that’s not what I mean. I truly mean that others benefit when you hold a better picture of them than the one they hold of themselves. An example is a person who feels incapable and unworthy. You can’t help to uplift that person by seeing and treating them as someone who is incapable/unworthy.

      I hope that clarifies things a bit.

  5. Enabling is definitely dangerous. The sad thing is that more people actually enable than actually help. The worst type of enabler is one that insists on imposing their “help” on you. (I’ve dealt with those types of people).

    I believe that a person has to be willing to help himself, otherwise any type of help will be futile.

  6. Hi Nea,

    I remember reading Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth Series and one of the things that stood out for me was this phrase, “The greatest harm can result from the best intentions.” As Terry puts it, kindness and good intentions can be an insidious path to destruction. Sometimes doing what seems right is wrong, and can cause harm. The only counter to it is knowledge, wisdom and forethought. I love how you differentiate between helping and enabling. It is critical to our lives that we be aware of the difference. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for life.”

    I believe that life is a series of lessons that we have to learn. If we do not learn a particular lesson, we will not have the wisdom to progress to greater lessons. Therefore, how we help someone can affect the way they learn a lesson. Thus when it comes to helping, we must be very careful about the way we help, our own motives and to think ahead to see the consequences of our actions.

    Thank you for sharing this lovely article! :)

    Irving the Vizier

    1. I’ve never read the Sword of Truth, but you’ve piqued my interests. Good intentions can indeed cause the greatest harm. Furthermore, I believe that an enabler will realize he is the one who needs help if he truly analyzes the deep motives behind the enabling behavior.

      Thanks so much for your comment.

  7. This is what A LOT of nonprofit organizations need to hear. I am constantly wondering about the impression that we’re leaving on the people that America aids by simply giving them supplies and rarely educating them.
    We need to help people on a path to self sustainability in order to achieve a society that is skilled, sufficient, and happier.

  8. Hi Nea, excellent! I really enjoyed this and it has a lot of insight.

    “I know it seems highly unlikely that helping another person could be motivated by self-interest”

    On the contrary I think that is very often the case. People don’t recognize that in themselves, but I do think it is very common.

  9. Great article! I just started following this blog & I’m really happy I found it.

    You hit on some very important and sometimes very touchy points here.
    I look forward to your future posts. :)

  10. This is a subject you just don’t hear spoken much about. Why? Because it requires ones to look at themselves as you so aptly brought out. So who wants to do this? All the same, the article brings out need to know facts for ones who want to break the cycle.
    We appreciate your article

  11. Thank you for such a brave and wonderful article!

    I was blessed by being surrounded by a strong, loving, supportive group of women in my family, and those lessons taught by them, have served me well in my nearly 50 years. One lesson which has served me well over the years was on offering advice or assistance. They explained if the advice, and help you are offering someone, doesn’t improve their situation, then it’s time to stop. To conitnued, they believed, only makes you an enabler, which is detrimental not only to the person you are trying to help, but to yourself as well.

    When I have applied this in my life, very often others see me as impatient or cold, and while their views can sting, I have seen with my own eyes how enabling some individuals, has no end game. In short, it’s like ground hog day! Also apprent, there are those indivduals who enjoy on some level, being the enabler; which can be as worrisome as those who are in cronic need, and can’t or won’t, help themselves.

    I look forward to reading more of your insightful and optimistic blog.

    Have a lovely day!

  12. My family scenario is that my older brother is the enabler and he emotionally attacks me and my wife for not “helping” with our mother, especially when it comes to the outcome of the debt ceiling. If she doesn’t get her social security check, she could potentially be homeless. The logical idea of talking through expenses didn’t happen and his control of the situation and not letting her speak is frustrating.

    The doctors say she can’t work due to medical issues undiagnosed. If I had the means I would help in a more supportive way and empower her to do something positive with herself. The last 8 years of his enabling are very difficult to reverse and now I feel that he’s trying to drag me into his life decision to be in control of her financials. What advice do you have if any? Thank you.

  13. I realized that I was enabling instead of helping. I had ‘good’ intentions but the people around me are not ready to wake up and take responsibility for their lives. They’re not open to hearing how their beliefs and thoughts contribute to creating their reality. They’re not ready to look in the mirror and acknowledge they have the power to live a great or not-so-great life. This is alright; however, I’m no longer to be a part of the drama-rama. They’re free to have their own ‘Private Idahos,’ but I won’t participate. I simply say, “I hear you, but I won’t be a part of the drama. Good luck.”

  14. This is very interesting and i understand much of it however I would like to know more. I have some questions as I feel that the human condition needs connection for fear of further individuation and it is important to offer support, generosity and kindness without dis-abling any one. I caution the writers to be mindful of the potential of creating a state of paralysis in their reader around giving assistance, support or generosity of being part of the greater whole of humanity through connection. I agree that INTENTION is the key here and we.must all be mindful of the power imbalances however at times no matter how you look at it good intentions can get in the way of positive outcomes just as those requesting help can distort. the support, love and generosity provided depending on their perceptions, mental health and unresolved trauma. So lets be generous of spirit in all that we try to achieve in our lives in partnership with those we live, love, work and play with and realise that nothing is perfect but it is important to stop outside ourselves and connect with others in positive uplifting albeit at times slightly imperfect ways and that is how we learn and develop as individuals and evolve humanity.

  15. Thought provoking read.

    Sounds like when someone does what they can and should for themselves it’s called helping when you do it for them it’s called enabling. Big difference in the psyche of both individuals.

    There’s a book called “Setting Boundaries With Your Adult Children.” Looks like a good read.

  16. Thank you for making this so simple to understand. I love the questions. I went to therapy for years for enabling and this article makes it so clear. I am happy to say that I have recently passed the test, meaning, I am finally able to recognize the difference and stop myself… most of the time.

  17. This is a beautiful article :) Its inspired me a lot and has helped me think beyond myself and seriously introspect. The past can’t be changed but you’ve helped a lot of people out there figure out the real deal behind ‘helping’, helps put things into perspective and gives the larger picture.
    Thank you so much for the eye opener :)
    God Bless you.

  18. The article was very informative. My friend has dyslexia. She hates herself and others constantly make fun of her. When we became friends I liked talking to her because i felt like she needed me. I’ve been listening and supportive but i feel like I’m not getting anything out of the relationship. She doesn’t want to help herself at all and I’m getting so frustrated because I feel as if im wasting my time. I really love her but all we ever talk about is her problems. The relationship is coming from a good place but it’s been like a ticking time bomb. This article really helped me realize that I need to back up and reavaluate. Thanks!

  19. I love everything you fully understand about enabling! But I come to you with a HUGE issue in my family life…

    My family is ginormous with a capital G. Everything seems great from the outside and it almost is; all of my grandmas children have grown up to be quite proud of themselves and hard workers, all for just one. My aunt Renea. She has a bit of depression and I know because I live with her but she’s really an awesome person that has a positive knowledge of what it means to live a happy life. She chooses not to though and feeds off my grandma, for years I blamed my aunt Renea for the way she lives and no expectations but I found out!!!! about “enabling” and thats exactly what my grandma does times 1000!!!!
    My aunt does nothing. Autely nothing. But yet how doesshe have her own house? Her own car? Two dogs? Everything! And please I desperately ask for advice how to actually help from my point of view as the struggling grandson . Grandma wont be here forever and the rest of the family just looks at it as awh well we’ll deal with it when we get there.

    My email is robert.grove38@gmail.com and any advice would be deeply appreciated

  20. Thank you for being the first thing to catch my eye in my search tonight! The concept of help is quite huge. There’s emotional, spiritual, physical and monetary and probably other ways to sort out the descriptions. This write up gave me clear articulation I needed. I’ve operated with an inside kind of ‘knowing’ and rarely could express to another human being sometimes what I was choosing and why. So far this directily aligns with what I somehow unconsciously consider. I’m at the point of saying NO to something because it would be enabling and the person is trying to do all sorts of unhealthy communication in discussions. I was about at a point where I thought all I could say was No Means NO! and this has provided me with more ways to express my no without going into those ‘discussions’ where the attempt was nothing but to try to manipulate, guilt and blame which exactly mirrors the idea of what ‘self serving’ is about. Not that I considered to allow myself to be hyjacked in that way. I just needed clarity with words so…Thank you thank you thank you!! I would hope that anyone reading this, rather than throw a label on themselves as an ‘enabler’ for any past mistakes, perhaps some helpers need to learn how to keep there feelings of wishing to help in check while they evaluate what they are really choosing and WHY!!

    This also helps clarify my point that when I give, I truly give to another and even though it’s with love, sometimes the most loving thing we can do for another person is to make sure our loving helpfulness doesn’t get in the way of their important life lessons! And it’s not that I can’t help this person, it’s that I can’t do it the way they THINK it should look. I likely should be able to at minimum help emotionally and be a listening ear. Time will tell because I don’t plan to ‘enable’ a repeat of their idea of a discussion. :) Thanks again ~Kierra

  21. This article is truly a blessing and very timely! I am soul searching about helping vs. enabling. This article has taught me to encourage and self-reflect. As I continue on this journey, I plan to re-visit this article as a self-check and reminder about the significance of my motives as well as the outcomes when I choose to help. Thank you so much for bringing clarity to this personal process.

    God Bless you!

  22. I came across your article while trying to find ways to STOP enabeling. I think your article is fantastic and very insightful. I just wanted to add something to your article. I grew up with an alcoholic mother. I was expected to raise my younger siblings while my mother was out or passed out. I also took care of the house, started working when I was 9 to bring money into the house, and went to pick up my mother whenever she called (starting at 11 years old). I was raised to be an enabler. I was brought up in a time that what happened in your home stayed in your home. Those people that now know what went on in our home are always shocked as they thought we had an amazing family. I am now 42 and still enable my mother and now my husband. I am desperate to find a way to “fix” myself. I do not want to raise my 5 children to become enablers or to take from one. My husband and I are at a breaking point because he will never take responsibility ( thanks to the help of his mother and myself). I feel guilty to leave him and take our children away. I hope to get stronger every day and maybe finally learn who I can be when I am not taking on all the responsibilities of others. Thank you again for your insight.

  23. It’s by the grace of God that I found your article this morning. I’ve been struggling with the inner turmoil of wanting to know the difference between helping and enabling. Friends have offered their advice, my spouse, etc.. but it’s still so very painful. I’m about to tell my 21 year old son that I won’t ‘enable ‘ him anymore by giving him free room and board while he spends any cash he gets his hands on to buy spice aka synthetic marijuana. … I’m scared. very scared because it’s cold out and is going to be even colder tonight. He’s already been told to leave 3 days ago but showed up at 11:00 last night. My heart couldn’t bare the thought of him sleeping under the bushes so I gave him a sleeping bag and we let him sleep in the garage at least out of the wind. ..but I know that’s not the answer. I googled for help and came across your article. I need to print it out and read it again and again for the strength to know what I’m doing is out of love. ..thank you. God bless.

    1. Hi Marie. I just ran across this blog and enabling article. Realize it was in January 2014 that you posted your comment regarding your son. It is now May 2017 and would really like an update on how your son is doing. Can you please reply.
      I have two sons 34 and 31 and I have been enabling them for so many years. I hope I have the strength to gently stop and am reaching out for some support to help me. Thank you.

  24. After 3 years of being an “enabler” I got to the point where I feel the need to lose him for his own good. For him to be able to stand on his own feet. I’ve done everything I could, to the point of me having to sacrifice my own finances, but then I achieved nothing. I did that because I’ve already considered him as part of our family, and as a person who goes extra mile to help someone, it’s not a surprise.

    Some people are just plain parasites, their efforts focused to fulfilling their from you, they don’t even bother to clean the house you had for them.

  25. Great Article, I was an enabler for a long time. I thought I was helping by listening and encouraging. At first, I thought that person was being helped, I found myself 10 yrs later having the exact same conversations with her. Through examining the scripture and God healing me, I began to realize I was an enabler. I told my friend that I loved her too much to continue having the same conversations over and over. If she truly wanted the Lord to help her that she needed to claim the promises found in the scriptures. Another 10 years have passed and she is the same. I have not spoken with her in 8 yrs. I pray for her but she does not want help. It is so sad. I love her but I cannot enable her anymore. Thanks for this article

  26. I stumbled across this article while trying to figure out how to stop helping someone. I always helped people because I felt like if I were in need I would hope someone would do the same. I had good intentions but I never imagined that I would be an enabler. How could my intentions to help only affect someone in the end. But I finally understand why it would. I mainly help those that I feel sorry for, but in the end I always end up feeling sorry for me because the more I help, the more they expect it and the cycle continues everytime they are in need. I am going to read this article again and again to remind myself of the benefits of saying NO.

  27. Hello,
    I realize I’m coming to this way late, but I happened across your article while doing some research on Asset Mapping. I had actually just read a fantastic book titled “When Helping Hurts” by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, and I think you’re saying a lot of the same things. Thank you for your good words here and God bless.

  28. My siblings and I are trying to balance the fine line between being a patient advocate for our aging Mother (almost 79 with many health issues) and not being enablers for her alcoholism which in recent years has caused numerous hospitalizations. Do we just check with doctors about her care and then not interact with her? Her last trip to the bar let to a fall with a skull fracture and brain bleeds and her neurologist saying she can’t be left alone until her follow up in another month so we are scrambling to have someone be with her. Yesterday was my day and she found a beer in my house and started to drink it. We do love her, but are we enabling her by always making sure she is ok after one of her falls?

  29. I am an enabler who cannot say no! I cannot trust just anyone to talk to about it ! If only someone could tell me of an excellent caring therapist I would go in a minute! I’ve tried and haven’t found one that really cares,who explains why I am the way I am!

  30. Oh my! This message reflects my own terrible feelings of guilt for how I have enabled both of my sons who are now 34 and 31 yeas old. How did. I get to this place in my life? Well, I did what I thought I was suppose to do but now realize how very wrong I have been.

    My guilt overpowers me along with tremendous feear of what will happen when they no longer have their apartment rent paid for them, actually their everyday needs paid for them by me, their mother. I’m at the point of feeling there is no way out of this dilemma without a horrifying outcome for them both.

    I pray that God will give me the strength I need to stop enabling them like I have been doing for so many years.

    1. Remember, adults can enable their parents too. This isn’t just about parents enabling their kids and I don’t think it was meant to be solely about that.

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