ARE YOU CO-DEPENDENT AND DO YOU ENABLE OTHERS? Discover why, learn to stop and gain life balance.

“We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don’t know”. W.H. Auden

Do you sometimes feel as if you were put on earth to serve others? Are you overly accommodating and find it difficult to say no? Are you drained from overdoing for others? When you complain, are you told that you sound like a martyr? If your answer is yes, you might wish to consider the possibly that you are an enabler.

Enablers are motivated by love and the need to be valued; qualities especially encouraged in females. An enabler is a person who through his or her action allows someone else to attain something. Most often the term enabling has been associated with alcoholism but it is not always the case. Enabling can have broader implications and include other forms of codependent behavior. Enabling is considered codependent because the act will often satisfy the need to help someone, but simultaneously foster dependency. Are you an enabler? Are you in any co-dependent relationships? Have you ever wondered why?

If you are like most enablers, you were born with a generous heart and enjoy helping others. You might have been an older sibling or had non-available parents. It was necessary for you to step into the void and help out in your family. Your behavior became identified and you received positive re-enforcement for your actions. The recognition helped you feel good about yourself and internalize the belief that your role in life was to help others. Eventually, your role became cemented into the system and people stopped appreciating your kind acts and came to expect them. This response would have caused you to develop a low self esteem because you experienced love as conditional and feel selfish when you were not doing enough for others. I once had a client who was such an enabler that when someone bought her a thank you gift for helping them out, she actually bought them a “small thank you gift” to thank them for the gift!

Enablers unconsciously believe that relationships can only be maintained by doing nice deeds and placating others. If you are an enabler, as a child you probably became motivated by a desire to be loved, learned to avoid conflict and give in to unrealistic demands. You learned that to challenge a loved one might result in anger and possible rejection. In order to survive in this type of system, you began to ignore and over look problems because to address them or your feelings would be too risky. Unfortunately, this behavior exacerbates the loss of self because with each capitulation, you further disconnect from your true feelings and minimize your sense of entitlement. Your behavior not only makes you appear more accommodating but it allows you to become prey to more selfish people. Suddenly you find your life filled with takers and there is no reciprocity in your relationships! You become increasingly upset because others’ do not tune into your needs, but then criticize yourself for being selfish or not acting in a loving manner.

If this sounds familiar, what can you do about it? The first step is to recognize that you are an enabler or have tendencies toward enabling. If so, admit it and make the decision to practice some new ways of relating to people. Begin to engage in solitary activities that bring you pleasure and satisfaction. This will help you to keep the focus on your needs and get in touch with exactly how, when and where you want to do something. Give yourself some of the pampering that you usually give to others; spend time and money on yourself instead of a loved one or friend. State the affirmation that “I am as important as everyone else” and “I do not have to give in order to be loved”.

Commit to looking for new healthier relationship as you pledge to change your old relationship patterns. Decide to become your own person, not the person others want you to be. Begin associating with people who have the ability to have a mutual relationship and are responsible for their own behavior. Go slowly in a new relationship, and practice new behavior: abstain from rescuing people, stop over-functioning and graciously accept assistance when offered to you.

Are you tired of being the person who seems to have been put on earth to help others? Do you sometimes feel unappreciated, exploited and used? If so, I invite you to explore the following dynamics and solutions:

Ask yourself if the person is asking for your support and if your help is appropriate. Sometimes an individual is merely looking for a listening ear. If you are an enabler, when a problem is presented you tend to feel duty bound to fix the situation. When someone comes to you with a problem, take a deep breath, listen, then ask them “what do you need?” and “how would you like me to help you?” For years, I jumped in and offered my daughter lots of solutions when she came to me with a problem. This resulted in both of us feeling frustrated! I thought that she was not listening to my sage advice. It turns out, she just wanted to vent, knew she could solve her own problem and took my advice as a vote of no confidence.

Sometimes a person does approach you with a specific request for assistance. In this case, you want to ask yourself if this is a reasonable request and consider if you have the time, energy or desire to assist them. While helping others can be seductive and feed your enabler’s “need to be needed”, you do not want to prevent another from learning life’s lessons. An example would be the parent who always brings her “forgetful” child’s homework to school or drives them to school when they miss the bus. Does this merely perpetuate irresponsibility? Would it better for the child to have the consequences in school rather than as an adult? Is this well meaning parent preventing the child from learning to take responsibility? It might be more helpful for the parent to support the child by compassionately asking “what do you need to do about it?” or “what can you do in order to avoid it happening next time?” This offers support and compassion but puts the onus on the person and encourages personal responsibility.

Do you feel good about your participation? Enablers tend to feel used because they go too far with their help. While it stems from a generous heart, they will often over function and end up feeling exhausted, unappreciated and resentful. This is a case where you want to measure the “return on your investment” and estimate what benefit the person might receive from your assistance versus what it is costing you. If you are unsure about whether you want to be of assistance, tell the supplicant that you will need to get back to them, then step away and get some distance.

You will also want to consider your current level of emotional energy. When your energy is low and you assist another, you may end up giving out of your reserve and become further depleted. In this case, everyone would be better served, if it is possible for you to postpone your assistance until a time when your energy is higher and the service does not drain you. When you give from a place of greater emotional energy, you are able to be more attentive and generous with your assistance and feel good about the service.

Is the individual doing 50% or more of the work? Do you feel as if you are dragging the person up the hill? Are you doing the majority of the person’s work? If you are working harder than the person that you are trying to help, you are over-functioning. I have discovered that when I do cartwheels to try to get a client to do something for their “own good”, I am actually more invested in the outcome than my client. This has become a red flag for me to step back, take a breath and ask them what they want. Conversely, I have had experiences where I merely suggest something to a client, and they go off and make monumental changes because it the advice is in line with their desires.

As a psychotherapist, helping others is very seductive to me; I know that I have tendencies toward enabling. To counter my enabling, I always ask the client to tell me his/her goals for counseling. I keep their goals in mind and respect the person’s right to make his/her own choices; even if I do not agree with the alternative. I try not to give advice but if I do, I try to give several possible solutions and assist them in listening to their inner wisdom because ultimately they are the expert on themselves.

If you have a “need to be needed”, allow yourself to recognize this fact and explore the reasons that motivate you, as well as the price that you pay. Is it habit? Is it the way you define yourself? Do you wish to continue over functioning? As you begin to look at the benefit you get out of helping another, notice your reaction, the cost to you and whether you feel used and resentful. The next time you are tempted to “help” another, examine your intentions for doing so as you refrain from automatically offering help and giving advice. When you feel you are being treated unfairly or being taken advantage, speak up right away. Set limits, and say “no, this is not a good time to talk” or “no I will not be able to help you at this time” when you feel that another’s request or appeal would be too demanding for you. Trust yourself to know what you want and need and make your feelings known because they are important. If someone has to be unhappy or do all the giving, it doesn’t always have to be you!

“It never occurred to me that simply because a deed was good in nature, and put before me, that I was not the one to fulfill it, even if I did have the talents to do so” The Gift of the Red Bird by Paula D’Arcy

Author's Bio: 

JoAnne Ceccarelli-Egan, LCSW shares positive strategies that will decrease stress and increase inner tranquility. Listen to her breakthrough CD which teaches you how to gauge your “emotional” energy and provides practices that help protect your inner strength. Develop holistic, healing methodologies that will empower you in self-improvement and personal development. Learn how to become more grounded while you create your own personal coping strategies.

JoAnne is an experienced and sought after lecturer. She has presented weekend Retreats at Our Lady of Calvary in Farmington, CT since 1991. In this capacity, she writes and conducts conferences, runs groups and meets with people for one-on-one counseling. She has prepared day long workshops for NASW and academic programs for social work students. She continues to teach Continuing Education programs and has begun presenting her Journey program to yoga studios, school teachers, businesses and local organizations.
* LCSW- Licensed Clinical Social Worker
* MTS- Masters in Theological Studies
* Certified Hypnotherapist