Whose Problem Is This?

Photo by Ben Hershey on Unsplash

“Allowing others to suffer the consequences of their own actions, without enabling them, is the best motivation for them to undertake the difficult task of change.” ― Darlene Lancer

I remember the freedom I felt when I considered the question: Whose problem is this? The problem wasn’t mine, though it felt like mine. I was the one who worried, asking myself: What is he doing while I am at work? Where is he now? Did he do the chores I had assigned? It was my son’s problem. We both thought it was at least partly mine. But I didn’t need a summer job. He did. Once it was clear to me, I set a boundary. He found a job the next day.

Someone recently asked me: What is the difference between empowering and enabling? The short answer is boundaries.

I understand why we enable. We believe our safety, self-esteem, and power are dependent on their behaviors.So often we want to assist others in their success, progress, happiness. It appears supportive, makes us feel good, moves them along (or so we think). Invariably, it is someone we love and care for. But is it something that feeds our ego rather than contributes to their growth and long-term success?

The problem grows when we are focused more on their success than they are. When we encourage, nudge, explain, persist, they can sit back and let it all happen.

Enabling is at the heart of codependency. Author and addiction therapist, Michael Speakman, says “Although you want to help, enabling means you are actually helping someone continue in his or her addiction, which is the opposite of your intention.” Not only that, by over functioning for someone else, we under-function for ourselves and impede our own growth.

Empowering on the other hand teaches, trains, and then trusts someone to do it themselves. It supports independence and personal growth. We empower when we are clear in our communication, encourage reasonable risks, and foster expanded support systems. When we provide feedback rather than answers. Empowering leads to the other’s learning. When I empower, I trust that even if my loved one fails, they will learn something important. When I enable, I do whatever I can for them to succeed because I am not willing to tolerate my own discomfort in their failure.

SEE ALSO  Having Healthy Boundaries: A Necessary Way to Love

I understand why we enable. We believe our safety, self-esteem, and power are dependent on their behaviors. For instance, if my spouse loses their job because they can’t get up in the morning to get to work on time, I suffer, too. If my child fails a class, I feel embarrassed. If my parent bursts out in anger, I carry the family shame. But that is not a good enough reason to deny them the consequences of their actions. When I absorb the consequences, they don’t have to experience them.

These are some of the questions that we can ask ourselves as we consider whether we are enabling or empowering:

  • Is this the first time I have done this or is it a pattern that my loved one expects?
  • Am I afraid of a blow-up if I say no?
  • Do I think this is my problem? Is it?
  • Am I feeling their feelings rather than my own?
  • Am I providing them information that is transferable to other situations?
  • Does this build their confidence in their own skills?
  • Do I think my loved one is capable of managing this? If not, is it a maturity issue, a laziness issue, or an addiction issue?
  • Do I think I can rescue them from a dire consequence?
  • How do I feel about being the rescuer?
  • Do I like the power I feel when I manage their situations?
  • Is this about them or is it about how I look to others?
  • Am I avoiding knowing something I don’t want to know?
  • Am I afraid of letting go of my parenting role? Who will I be then?
  • Is this supporting them in being their most healthy self?
  • Is it supporting me in being my most healthy self?
  • Am I afraid of being left and abandoned? Am I abandoning myself?
  • Is my action stemming from fear or love?
  • Am I clear about why I am doing this?

These questions remind me that when I am enabling, I am in a codependent relationship.

How do I stop enabling? I set boundaries and make agreements. I am willing to do this, but I am not willing to do that. You are welcome to live with me for three months, but you need to keep the bathroom clean, pay rent, let me know when you will be home and when you will be gone, and be responsible for dinner twice a week.

SEE ALSO  The Need to Be Supported and to Support

How do I stop enabling? I set boundaries and make agreements.Yes, I will listen to your problem and help you brainstorm a solution. I expect that you will let me know what you have decided to do and what happens.

No, I will not give you money for that. I am not responsible for your money choices, you are.

Besides setting boundaries and making agreements, I let go of the myth that I can be in control of others. Anne Wilson Schaef says, “Co-dependents believe that they can control others’ perceptions (through impressions management); control how others see their families; and control what their children perceive and feel and how they will turn out. They believe that with just a little more effort, they can get their families back to normal and make things turn out the way they want. There is almost nothing that co-dependents do not try to control.”

Those many years ago I thought I could make things turn out how I wanted. I couldn’t. What I could do was let go. Let go of taking responsibility for my son’s choices. Let go of feeling his feelings. Let go of thinking I could manage what others thought of me. The answer was to let go.

I am still tempted to take care of others’ feelings, solve their problems, advise when not invited to do so. Then I remember to ask myself: Whose problem is this? If it’s not mine, I let go.

Mary Lou Logsdon is a Spiritual Director in the Twin Cities. She can be reached at logsdon.marylou @ gmail.com.

Last Updated on March 5, 2023

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *