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Empowering vs. Enabling

What amount of love does it take to say “No,” to set boundaries and allow for people to learn from the natural consequences of their actions?

Enough to fill an Olympic stadium. Hard to sit back and watch someone you love self-destruct before your eyes; especially if it is your child, regardless of age.

The parents of a mid-20’s man find themselves in that unenviable position. This intelligent, creative and loving young man is also, at times at the mercy of various mental health diagnoses including ADHD and OCD.

He has been in treatment, but is not always compliant with recommendations and is lax about keeping appointments. His parents and significant other are at their wits’ end in terms of how to successfully intervene as his choices and behaviors impact on them. While his intentions may be solid, his follow through is not. They question how they can demonstrate concern without crippling him. This situation is still unfolding.

A familiar story is that of a butterfly struggling to emerge from a chrysalis. A person witnesses it and attempts to help by cracking open the encasing structure. What they don’t know is that there is a natural process by which the creature pushes up against the shell which moves the fluid from the swollen body into the wings to assist them in spreading. By offering such help, that activity is halted and the butterfly limps around and then dies.

In much the same way, even out of compassion, we hobble those who struggle when we do for them what they are capable of doing for themselves.

A few years ago, a single mother had to face a difficult decision when her young adult son asked to move back in with her when he was in a highly dysfunctional relationship that was contributing to elevated levels of stress, as well as feelings of depression.  

She was facing a health crisis and having him return would likely have exacerbated it. Mustering her fortitude and having learned about her own co-dependent behaviors, she said the one two letter word that is sometimes the most challenging. N-O.

Although he attempted to convince her that it would a positive move for both of them, she stood her ground. Her position was reinforced by friends who were familiar with her circumstances. Several years later, both mother and son are glad that she made that painful choice. He was able to tough it out, left at the end of his lease, and is now in a healthy, loving relationship.

What is the difference between enabling and empowering?

Enabling is encouraging another to relinquish responsibility for feelings and decisions by taking over life tasks such as housekeeping, bill paying, waking up even after the alarm has been ringing for a while, getting to work or school on time, driving if they have become impaired.

It may also take the form of excusing outbursts or violence, since they relate it to intoxication or mental health diagnoses. These behaviors serve to continue the status quo.

Empowering allows for growth and independence and in many ways, helps to obliterate the otherwise self-sabotaging behaviors. There is risk involved in stepping back and allowing the ‘baby bird to leave the nest,’ since it will either fall or fly.

Hard to say which is more difficult for a parent. If one is accustomed to making it too comfortable for their child, they may need to create a new role for themselves. There may also be push-back from the offspring, since what might have felt like a perpetual childhood, is vanishing.

A few questions to ask to determine if behaviors are enabling or empowering:

  • Am I doing for them what they are able to do?
  • Am I acting out of guilt and obligation?
  • Am I walking on eggshells, fearful of reaction if I say no?
  • Am I worried about them feeling rejected?
  • What if they didn’t need me as much?
  • Who am I if I am not a rescuer?
  • Do they have a track record of success in one area that can translate into another?
  • Can I reinforce their abilities if that is the case?
  • Do I hold a vision for them of success?
  • Do I have my own self- doubt that is contagious?
  • Do I trust them to make good decisions?
  • Do I want responsibility for another person beyond the point at which it is healthy for either of us?
  • Do I want to be seen as the savior?
  • Are there others who can offer support and assistance to this person?
  • Can I help them put a plan in place to move forward?
  • Have I used encouraging “I believe in you” language or discouraging, “Are you sure you can do this?” verbiage?
  • Do I feel good about my decision?
  • Is it in their best interest?

It is in alignment with the proverb that if you give someone a fish, they will eat for one day. If you teach them to fish, they will eat for a lifetime.

Encourage them to cast their nets far and wide and see the bounty they bring in.

Empowering vs. Enabling


Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW is a journalist and interviewer, licensed social worker, interfaith minister, radio host and best-selling author. www.opti-mystical.com


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APA Reference
Weinstein, E. (2018). Empowering vs. Enabling. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 13, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/empowering-vs-enabling/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.