NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Crossing the Line From Being Compassionate to Enabling

Compassion for oneself and for others is an admirable quality that many of us strive to cultivate in ourselves.  Learning to be compassionate can help us to experience peace of mind within ourselves and with others.  Unfortunately, there are times when you might think you're being compassionate, but you're actually enabling other people's destructive behavior and creating a self destructive situation for yourself. 

It's not always so easy to distinguish compassion from enabling, especially when the situation involves people that you love.

Let's take a look at the following vignette, which is a composite of many different cases with all identifying information changed:

When Ann was in her early 30s, her father died unexpectedly from a heart attack.  It was a terrible shock to Ann, her mother, and Ann's siblings.

Crossing the Line From Being Compassionate to Enabling

A couple of months after Ann's father's death, Ann's mother, Laura, asked Ann to have brunch with her to talk about Laura's finances.

It turned out that, even though Ann's father had left the mother well provided for, she was no longer able to live in the manner that she was accustomed to, and she asked Ann if she could help her for a few months until she could sell the house, move into a smaller house, and pare down her expenses.

Ann earned a very good living, and she felt a lot of compassion for her mother, so she agreed immediately to help her--with the understanding that Laura would pare down her extravagant spending and sell the large family home.

Even though Ann earned a very salary, after a while, contributing to her mother's expenses created a financial hardship for her.  So, a few months later, Ann asked Laura if she had any potential buyers for the house.

At first, Laura gave Ann a strange look, as if she didn't know what Ann was talking about.  Then, as if coming to herself, she brushed off Ann's question by changing the subject.

Ann knew that her mother had a strong emotional attachment to the family home, so she didn't press her, especially since she also knew that her mother was grieving.  She allowed a few more months  to go by before she asked about the sale of the home again.  But, by that point, Laura seemed annoyed and she told Ann that she had no intention of selling the family home.  It was as if she and Ann had never had their talk over brunch.

Ann wasn't sure what to do.  On the one hand, she knew that her mother was accustomed to being maintained in a certain way, and Ann felt sad for her mother.  But, on the other hand, she also knew that she couldn't afford to keep giving her money, and she felt very guilty about this.  When she spoke to her siblings, they wanted nothing to do with their mother's finances, and they refused to help.  So, Ann felt the burden completely on her shoulders.

At that point, Ann was having many sleepless nights and she came to therapy to deal with this thorny problem.  She told me that she had always considered herself to be a compassionate person, and she cared about her mother very much.  She felt this problem was such an emotional dilemma for her that she didn't know what to do.

As we explored this issue, Ann began to see how self destructive it was for her to keep supporting her mother, especially since it meant that Ann was making certain financial sacrifices to do it and her mother wasn't willing to curb her spending or change her lifestyle at all.

Over time, Ann realized that her mother was caught in a vicious cycle of overspending, and she was in denial about the changes she needed to make.  These were changes that would still allow her to take a few vacations a year and have most of what she wanted.  But she would have to pare down her extravagant living and sell her expensive home.

Ann also realized that she had crossed the line from being compassionate to enabling, and she wasn't helping her mother.

Gradually, Ann summoned the courage to have a serious talk with her mother and to set boundaries with her.  She gave her a reasonable amount of time to sell the house and to make other changes in her spending habits.  Initially, Laura was angry and hurt.  This made Ann feel guilty at first, but she knew in her gut that the current situation was untenable, and she was doing the right thing for both of them.  Eventually, Laura accepted the situation and began making changes.

For a while, Laura was cool towards Ann.  But, over time, they reconciled their relationship.  During that time, Ann also allowed herself to see that her mother had a long history of being self centered, which Ann's siblings were able to see before Ann could admit this to herself.

Crossing the Line From Being Compassionate to Enabling is a Common Experience
The fictionalized vignette above, where compassion turned into enabling is a common experience.  Very often, the person, who starts out feeling love and compassion, has his or her heart in the right place, but their judgment becomes skewed.

In the vignette above, the original agreement for Ann to help her mother was reasonable, but Laura didn't abide by her end of the agreement.  At that point, when Ann continued to go along with her mother, Ann crossed the line to enabling.  This is so easy to do, especially when there's a loss or a crisis.

The important thing to remember is that enabling a loved one in destructive behavior is not good for either one of you.  So, even though you might feel like you're helping him or her, your enabling is doing more harm than good, even if your loved one can't see it.

Getting Help in Therapy
If  this vignette above resonates with you and you find yourself stuck in a similar situation, you could benefit from getting help from a licensed therapist who can help you to untangle all the emotional threads that make you feel stuck.  

A therapist, who has expertise in helping therapy clients with this type of issue, can often be more objective and see certain enabling dynamics that you're unable to see and help you to work through them.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.  

I have helped many clients to distinguish between being compassionate and enabling so they could make positive changes in their lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.