I know what you’re thinking. This is (another) appeal to play nice. Wrong.
I’m asking whether you are user friendly – do you have the uncanny ability to draw users to you like a moth to a flame except that you’re the one getting burnt? Users are people who see others (or perhaps just you) as a convenience store. A 24-hour convenience store where they love to shop for advice, money, late night agony aunt talks, favours. The best part is – they don’t have to pay, ever, because there are just so many specials…
And you aim to please. All the time. Funny thing is that every time your ‘needed’ barometer goes up, so does your resentment. Because somewhere there is this nagging suspicion that something is not right, is not fair.
No one likes to be taken advantage of, but for enabling personalities it is very difficult to break the cycle. ‘What is wrong with being an enabler?’ I hear you grumble as you renew your ex’s drivers licence. Again. ‘Am I not just being a good, caring person? I’m empowering others, that’s why they come to me.’ You continue.
To answer your first question, oh teeth-grinding one: In linguistics ‘enable’ and ‘empower’ might be synonyms. In real life, the psychology of ‘enabling’ has taken on a different meaning. When you empower, you help someone to help themselves. When you enable, you perpetuate a problem rather than solve it – the problem lies in the lethal concoction created by the person you are ‘helping’ as well as with your need to please.
Yes, you are a good and caring person – and that, as counter-intuitive as it may sound – is part of the problem. You give and give and give. The same advice, the same time, the same favours to the same people, who come back for more of the same over and over – they do not learn, they show no signs of following your advice, they rest in the comfort of your sacrificial care. Clear?
This also brings us to empowering others.
Remember when you paid for your office professional to go on that course so that she could find a better position? She went, she gave her best and is now moving up the corporate ladder, happy as a creditor on payday.
That was empowering, enabling on the other hand is … when your friend stayed over because she and the partner had a tiff. And you had that long conversation about warning bells? And 3 weeks later she was back, bag in hand, with the same story? And some time later she phoned at 1 a.m. and you found yourself in the realm of déjà vu as you repeated the same advice? Remember how that drained your energy; that sandpaper taste of frustration that you cannot allow to show because that would not be ‘nice’? That is enabling. The girl needs to take responsibility; you need to stop enabling – for your sake as well as hers.
Getting out of this cycle is a long process. How do you start?
- Accept that there is a problem. List those relationships that give you energy and those that drain energy; chances are that the latter are also the users.
- Honestly examine your motivations. Do you like to feel needed all the time? Why? Do you attach your value as a person to how much others need you? Why? Why would it bother you if people are upset because your convenience store is closed?
- You know the signs by now, the phone calls, the start of conversations, the droopy expression in the eyes… Acknowledge how these make you feel – resentful, tired, drained. Decide if you want to continue like this – is it really worth it? It is not helping you and it is not helping them. Look that fact squarely in the eye otherwise you will not be able to go to the next step.
- Have the talk. Be prepared to sever the relationship if need be – especially if the user starts manipulating you (cries, ‘but’, ‘how could you’, ‘I thought you were my friend’, ‘you’ve changed’.).
- Find an accountability partner – speak to someone – a trained professional or a good, trustworthy friend. It will help you to have an accountability partner throughout this process of growing into the empowering person you are instead of swallowing the dissatisfaction of being a stop-gap.
I would love to hear from those who have had to walk this road. What advice would you give?