Supporting vs. Enabling

Spotlight On Mental Health

People often ask – how do I know whether I’m helping or enabling? The answer is often not that easy. When you help out with money, is that helping or enabling? When you tell your son that he has to do the dishes even though he is depressed, are you mean, or are you helping him to do something, rather than to ruminate?

A rule of thumb is

Enabling: doing something for someone who can (and maybe should) do it themselves

Helping: Helping with things that the other person can’t do, or that are clearly too hard for them to do; supporting them in moving towards better health and wellbeing.

Below are some examples of helping and enabling behaviours. We hope they can assist you in better telling the difference.

Examples of Helping Behaviours

Not all of the behaviours listed will help all people all of the time. But you may want to try some of them out, and or see if you can substitute the odd enabling behaviour with one of these.

Listen: If you don’t do anything else, LISTEN. Listen without interruption, and without giving your opinion. After a while, you can clarify and summarize, to show that you’re really listen and to deepen your understanding. E.g. clarification: “Was that John you had the problem with, or Joe?” Summarizing: “So you’re saying that walking helps you but running stresses you out – is that correct?” You can also practice the LEAP method – Listen, Empathize, Agree, Partner.

Ask: Ask about your loved one’s needs, especially in those situations where you wonder to yourself what to do. Just ask! E.g. “Sometimes I wonder if it bugs you when I ask you how school is coming along. I don’t want to bug you; I want to help you – how can I do that?”

Respond, don’t React: Sometimes we get triggered. You may be stressed already, or your loved one touches on a topic that just sets you off. Try to train yourself to take a deep breath before you blurt out a reaction. In fact, maybe you don’t need to do anything, or maybe just say, “Mhm.” Avoid words like “Why don’t you just …” “Can’t you just …” “What’s your problem?”

Navigate: The medical system, including mental health and substance use services, can be quite difficult to understand. Particularly if your loved one has cognitive challenges, you can help her or him understand and navigate the system. In Vancouver, the FSI team can help with that.

Decisionmaking: In an acute crisis, making certain decisions for your loved one can be helpful. (E.g. “Ok, we’re going to get in the car now and go to Emergency.”) In all other situations, it’s better to help with decisionmaking, rather than making decisions for your loved one. E.g. “If you go with option A, what are the advantages?” or “So you have two options here and you think you have to choose between them but you don’t like either. Let’s brainstorm a bit to see if there are more options.”

Physical Wellbeing: Take your loved one to a salad bar instead of to a donut shop; go for a walk instead of sitting in front of the TV; read an article with them about how to deal with insomnia.

Educate Yourself: Learn about mental health and/or substance use, and about your loved one’s particular diagnosis. Go to support groups. Read the Family Connections newsletter. Sign up for the email list on!

Just Be: Hang out with your loved one. Don’t try to fix their problem – often all they need is just for someone to be around. Give your loved one a hug. Cry with them. Laugh with them. Tell them you love them.

Examples of Enabling

Below are some examples of enabling. We all engage in some or many of these behaviours off and on. If you find yourself doing many of these behaviours, and/or often, it can become a problem. Also, we want to point out that some people see the term “enabling” as negative. Instead of using the term “enabling”, we can also think of helpful/useful support as opposed to less helpful/useful support.

Preoccupation: Spending great amounts of time thinking about the loved one

Increased Tolerance: Becoming increasingly tolerant of behaviours that you would not tolerate from another person – e.g. abusive language, a complete lack of helping around the house even though they’re able, etc.

Loss of Control: Examples: Going back on a promise to self or others (E.g. not going on a weekend getaway you had promised yourself ages ago); communicating with loved one in an unhelpful way even though you have practiced better communication many times before; giving in to unreasonable demands

Too much Control: Feeling that you can get a handle on the situation by controlling your loved one or your environment; e.g. needing to know everything your loved one did during the day

Some problems that can come with too much enabling:

Medical/Psychological Problems: Family members experience stress-related health problems such as high blood pressure, ulcers, insomnia, depression, mood swings, fatigue, migraines, clenched jaw, dental pain, heart disease and other chronic health issues.

Unhelpful Thinking: Rationalizing, justifying, minimizing, denying, blaming, sneaking, lying, hiding, keeping secrets and isolating. Example: Mother blames herself for her loved one’s illness (“I shouldn’t have left his father!”) and isolates herself to “protect” her loved one (“I shouldn’t go on a date; it’ll be too hard on him.”)

(Some of the ideas expressed in this article were inspired by and the book Loving Someone With Bipolar.)

Please also read the follow-up article on this: More On Helping Your Loved One