Empathetic Support vs “Enabling”: An argument for support

This is an interesting theme which seems to come up a lot with people who don’t understand the decisions, choices and behaviours, that others make.

These people make the judgment that the other person has made a poor decision, and they simply can’t support that decision. This means the agency of the other person is not respected, and more often than not, the responses towards that person become less than empathetic and come across as judgmental, criticising, condescending,  harassing (pressure) or paternalistic.

The argument for this unsupportive behaviour comes from the belief that, to support someone when they make poor decisions is the same as making it possible or easy (enable)1 for them to stay in their situation . Counselling and psychology has defined enabling behaviours as behaviours which “allow, help, or even encourage the problem behaviours of others to continue“.2


The problem with this unsupportive approach, especially when used with people in abusive or dysfunctional relationships, is that it brings nothing good to the situation and can in fact, worsen the situation for the person in question. It is very likely the person needing support will;
  1. feel pressured into decisions or actions which they are not ready for, nor equipped to cope with at that particular stage in their lives

  2. stop disclosing, the consequences of which are; lack of feedback to work through the situation with better clarity; and an increased sense of isolation

  3. distance themselves, meaning the friendship or relationship in question suffers

  4. shut down, meaning they are unable to process or absorb information which may be needed to work through their situation

  5. make excuses for their partners, and engage in true enabling behaviours by covering up or trying to ignore the problems present
One could say that by not "enabling" a person (making it difficult for them to openly disclose), they are essentially being silenced, which makes it easier (enables) them to remain in their situation as they are. Now that could be considered enabling in the true meaning of the term!


The alternative is empathetic support, which is not enabling in the sense of enabling unhealthy behaviours, but rather remaining open to the other person so that the cycle of open and honest communication (disclosure/feedback) can continue occurring, without the negative blocks of judgement, criticism, harassment, paternalism and condescension creating barriers.

With empathetic support, people in difficult situations or dysfunctional relationships are more likely to open up to resources, information, options and possibilities, putting them in a better position to gain clarity and make decisions which benefit themselves. It is a process, and one which takes time, patience and true support!  More on how to offer empathetic support can be found here.

1. Dictionary.com “Enable”. Retrieved 9 Oct, 2010, from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/enable
2. Walmsley & Associates: Professional Counselling Services. “When does caring become enabling”. Retrieved 9 Oct, 2010, from http://www.walmsley.ca/counselling/resources/factsheets/enabling.php

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