A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
Being an enabler is a largely unintentional role that bears a lot more responsibility than one might think — and therefore, the power to change.
“If you find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere.” — Frank A. Clark
Well, it’s December and it’s that time of year when we start thinking about the new year ahead of us. Perhaps you’ve begun formulating some New Year’s resolutions? Many of us have.
Personally, I don’t do those. For me they’ve always turned out to be set-ups for failure, but to each their own.
A hugely popular resolution that is made time and again is to become more fit or lose weight or any combination of the two that more or less represent the same type of goal. These days it seems that the at-home fitness solutions such as Peloton are still pretty popular but joining an actual gym remains near the top of that list.
To the detriment of many.
The new year’s resolution army
You can see it every January at a gym: the place becomes incredibly busy and crowded. Overcrowded even. To the point where going to the gym becomes a turn-off for the ‘regulars’ because they are aware of two highly predictable points:
1. All the equipment/weights will be in use. This is irritating.
2. Most people using the equipment/weights will be gone by March, therefore making point #1 even more irritating.
The majority of the new year’s ‘resolutioners’ begin to disappear from the gym floor starting around Valentine’s Day. I have a friend who always jokes about this and credits this particular day as the time when the newly minted gym-goers get reassured by their romantic partners that they’re just fine the way they are. This sweet reassurance then translates into a hanging up of the training shoes (probably until the following January) and a settling back into comfort.
Of course, this philosophy is entirely anecdotal, but the behavior described in it is a ‘tale as old as time’ with a distinct and not entirely self-aware antagonist.
The beloved and dreaded enabler.
And speaking of ‘tales’, this is a good place for another edition of ‘Story Time’ so bear with me as I indulge in a trip to the past.
I can’t recall a time when, while still living with my mom, we weren’t both struggling with weight. There would be countless occasions where we’d decide to go on a diet together to lose weight once and for all. A tongue-in-cheek “D-Day” was written on the calendar hanging — not entirely by accident — on the fridge door.
This marked the day when our supposedly life-altering event would begin. As you may have guessed, this sentiment would completely ignore the many, many “D-Days” prior to that — very likely on the same calendar.
The days would pass, and time marched inevitably towards this starting line of yet another period of starvation. With each passing moment, this would lead to a feeling of dread and uncertainty.
You see, we tried this approach more times than I can count. The reason behind there still being a “D-Day” written on a future square on the calendar was due to all previous attempts ending the same way.
And here is that scenario: while watching TV, one of us would look over at the other and immediately recognize a certain look in the other’s eyes. One that screamed:
“Yeah, let’s just this once order a pizza and ‘take a break’”.
Unfortunately, this communication between some very loud eyes would then repeat itself a couple of times a week. Then, every evening. All without a word about the supposed diet we were on at the time.
Before long, all the bad habits we tried to change would come back as an avalanche of take-out and occasional cooking with little regard to health.
We would take ‘permission cues’ from each other by witnessing the breakdown of willpower and the ensuing feeding frenzy. If one can do this and still go about daily life seemingly unfazed, why can’t the other?
By the time another ‘D-Day’ made its way onto the calendar, many items of clothing needed to be loosened to make them fit, and yet neither one of us would alert the other to this obvious, downward slide.
The cycle would simply repeat itself until my moving out finally changed that dynamic forever.
Supporter or Enabler?
Sometimes it’s easy to confuse the two. I mean, both of these roles are similar in the fact that they are there to help with something. The difference however, is in the long-term effect.
While a supporter will help you do something that you could do yourself given the right conditions, an enabler is someone who will step in and mitigate the consequences that would otherwise be the natural result of poor choices.
This doesn’t even have to be done in an obviously active way either. As in my story of that ever-moving D-Day, the most passive cues can be an insidious part of this relationship. Implied permission is powerful.
The enabler becomes addictive because who wouldn’t at least sometimes want someone to take away the negative fallout of our own bad decisions? Ah yes, but the human mind just so happens to be one where without consequence, it never learns and grows.
Even though it may seem like a noble deed to absorb the negatives on behalf of someone else, an enabler actually deprives you of the material that we all need in order to move forward.
Are you the wolf?
Here are a few questions you may want to ask yourself if you suspect that a relationship in your life is one of enablement:
- Do you find yourself making excuses for someone else?
- Do you regularly put your own needs second because someone else needs your attention?
- Do you suspect or are you aware that the behavior you are seeing is unhealthy or irresponsible?
- Have you lied (or routinely lie) for someone?
- Do you regularly ‘let things slide’?
If you have answered yes to any of these, you may very well be enabling behaviors that really should change.
So what to do?
Well, quite simply: stop.
And yes, it’s easier said than done. It’s human nature to want to help those we care about. It takes work and self-control to allow someone to suffer the consequences of their own choices.
No one wants to see someone they love suffer the effects of bad decisions. However, genuinely helping in these situations often requires you to do just that.
Open communication about the problem and its potential solutions is key.
Identifying your relationship as one of enablement and dependence is a great first step in breaking that cycle. The hard part is changing the behaviors of this relationship moving forward.
You may have to be that person who calls a behavior what it actually is without sugar-coating it as something else — or worse — remaining silent. When your loved one wants to give up their new year’s resolution, you may want to tell them to hang in because when the results start to appear, the process will become more automatic.
And of course, when they give you a certain look and seek permission cues for unhealthy indulgences — know when to draw the line between occasional fun and damaging consistency.
As with everything else, don’t punish yourself if you don’t realize change right away or you slide right back into your enabler role temporarily. No permanent, positive change is ever a straight line from point A to point B. This path too has its twists and turns.
You may for a short time even be viewed as the ‘bad guy’ in the story, but by putting a stop to enabling bad behavior, you will ultimately make a true, positive difference in someone’s life. A worthy goal to work towards.
The bottom line
The hardest path with the most obstacles is almost always the right one. A tough but necessary human fact. We all deserve to feel the empowerment and motivation for better that only a conquered challenge can provide.
An enabler — often full of good intentions — will cushion the important blows one has to sustain on this path to fully reap what life has to offer. They may inadvertently be a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ to the person they want to help the most.
Don’t be that person. Allow your loved one to fall. Let them be exposed to what is uncomfortable without following them around with a safety net.
It may just be the most loving and beneficial gift you will ever give.
Until next time,
Take care of yourself and those you love — within good reason.
Got a question or comment? Drop me a line in the comments section. I always love to hear from you.
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