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What is the difference between empowering and enabling someone?
I’ve struggled with this in my own life. I want to be compassionate, but how can I know whether I am helping or when I am supporting someone in believing they’re helpless? How do I combine a belief that we are 100% responsible for our thoughts and behaviors at the same time that I increase my awareness of our interdependence?
A few years ago a family came to live with us. They had been evicted from their apartment and because our eight-year-old daughters were friends, when the knock on the door came, we opened up, not just our door, but our hearts. They stayed with us for three months rent free…until at 6:30 one morning, the police banged on our door, arresting the mom for parole violation and theft. Two weeks later a credit card bill arrived totaling $3000+ on a card we had never used and that we thought was still in our desk drawer.
Some details I left out of that story: I knew something was amiss when I was shown the mom’s “ankle bracelet,” her house arrest monitor. On the first day of their stay, she admitted that she had embezzled $32,000 from her employer. She and her husband also admitted that they had defrauded their roommate, making her think that they had used her rent to pay the landlord when they had actually kept it.
So what did I do with this information? I counseled them; I fed them; I drove their daughter to school and events; I cooked for them. Clearly, I was enabling, not empowering, them. Why couldn’t I see that?
I have a habit of assuming the best in people. In other words, I’m gullible. But sometimes seeing something in someone that they don’t see in themselves can bring out the best in them. Hasn’t someone seeing something in you ever made you believe in yourself more?
I also cared very much about their little girl and couldn’t imagine throwing her out into the streets for the sins of her parents.
So, yes, I was an enabler. Yes, I was foolish and disillusioned for a while. I admit fully that I not only didn’t empower her parents; in fact, I made it possible for them to commit further crimes. I could have done more by insisting on their helping more around the house or getting a job or getting drug counseling. But I’m pretty sure that insisting would have made them feel too exposed, and they would have left looking for their next suckers. If I didn’t care about their little girl, this would have been just fine.
Empowering vs. enabling is often distinguished by how people receive our help. When people want to be empowered, not enabled, they don’t ask for pity; they ask for clarity. They don’t give excuses; they overcome obstacles. They show a willingness to change their thoughts and strategies. They take responsibility for their actions. They don’t try to get away with things; they want to get out of their ruts in order to thrive.
Because life is complicated, I still don’t always know ahead of time how my help will be received or if I’m being foolish, throwing away money or energy. I can always hope that good intentions will sow their seeds, even if I can’t know where they’ve been planted or when they will germinate. Maybe, just maybe, this little girl, basking in some unconditional love and living in a safe and secure environment for even a short time will help her not re-create her parents’ life. That little girl is now 15. She still calls us. That feels great. I’ll live with being a fool.
Join Jane at Club Med in Cancun
June 21-28, 2008.
I will be teaching a new, exciting program on Creating Abundance everywhere in your life.
More about this in next week’s e-newsletter.
Handle Stress to Boost Immunity presented by Jane at the KCBS Health Fair in San Francisco with Keynote Speaker Dr. Mehmet Oz
I was honored to be invited as a panelist, along with Melina Jampolis, M.D., host of Fit TV’s Diet Doctor and author of The No Time to Lose Diet; and Dr. Jacob Leone, Naturopathic & Integrative Medicine Practitioner, to discuss Boosting Immunity: Nutrition, Supplements, and Stress. I promise to have the contents of my presentation available for you on my Web site shortly.
About Jane Straus
Jane is a trusted life coach, dynamic keynote speaker, and the author of Enough Is Enough! Stop Enduring and Start Living Your Extraordinary Life. With humor and grace, Jane offers her clients and seminar participants insights and exercises to ensure that the next chapter of their lives is about thriving as the unique individuals they have always been and the extraordinary ones they are still becoming. She serves clients worldwide and invites you to visit her site, www.stopenduring.com. Here you will find excerpts from her book, more articles, TV and radio interviews, and clips from her presentations.
She is also the author of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, www.grammarbook.com, an award-winning online resource and workbook with easy-to-understand rules, real-world examples, and fun quizzes. Contact Jane at Jane@JaneStraus.com.