Enabling typically gets a bad rap—mainly because it’s typically associated with self-destructive behavior, like addiction. Healthy enabling is, in fact, part of any sound interpersonal relationship. With this in mind, if we remove the immediate negative association around enabling, approaching it from the perspective of Buddhist psychology, enabling boils down to accepting and allowing. That is, accepting the behavior of another person without judgment, then allowing that the person is going to engage in that behavior—good, bad, or indifferent. A less cumbersome way of thinking about this is ‘holding space’.
With accepting and allowing comes a certain degree of passive support—or even sanctioning—of the behavior. That’s where the slope can get a bit slippery. For instance, in the case of anxiety or depression, accepting and allowing can subtly turn the corner from the healthy enabling of passive support to the more familiar toxic enabling we typically encounter. Consequently, our holding space for a behavior may, in fact, contribute to the overall fabric of a person’s dysfunction.
An individual suffering from debilitating anxiety, for example, may be paralyzed into a state of inaction and unable to engage in the common activities of daily living, like driving, grocery shopping or doing housework. The normal, human response here would seem to be helping with—or even taking over—those tasks for the person. At first blush, this looks like simple, sensible caretaking, but, on closer examination, it may be hurting more than helping.
Allowing for a behavior in the service of caretaking, when it doesn’t actually support the individual’s progression out of the maze of their mental illness, can be every bit as disempowering as the mental illness itself. Rather than genuinely supporting the individual, this kind of enabling can ultimately be disabling, keeping the person stuck in their dysfunction and, in some cases, even driving him or her deeper into it.
When we see someone in pain, our natural inclination is to help. The question we need to ask ourselves is, ‘Whom does it serve?’. Are we genuinely helping, or are we potentially robbing someone of the personal power and autonomy that is, ultimately, the engine of his or her healing? Ultimately, the answer to that question lies in a recognition of our own boundaries, and our ability to exercise them. Our ability to dial back our intention so our holding space doesn’t turn the corner into toxic enabling is key to genuinely providing help and support.
© 2018 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved