When I realized I had been enabling some destructive behaviors in someone I love, I did some deep soul-searching to figure out what was going on for me. 

Instead of being clear about how I wanted to be treated, and respecting my own internal “no,” I kept “empathizing” with the other person’s point of view - even as they were speaking to me harshly and dismissively.

A part of me believed that if I just empathized enough, that their behavior would change, and when it didn’t, I remembered the important difference between empathizing and enabling.

Carl Rogers once wrote, “The gentle and sensitive companionship of an empathic stance … provides illumination and healing. In such situations deep understanding is, I believe, the most precious gift one can give to another.”

Empathic connection can be a powerful healing force.

Learning to connect to our feelings and our needs, and to also guess and reflect the feelings and needs that other people are experiencing is a foundational aspect of meaningful, deep and connected relationships.

It’s one of the ways that we feel known and connected to ourselves and each other – when it’s balanced, respectful and mutual.

However, at times, in my deep desire to be empathic and nonviolent, I have actually found myself unintentionally enabling someone else’s destructive, unkind and self-sabotaging behaviors.

True empathy is life-giving for all involved.

It nurtures connection with our deeper feelings, needs and desires. With self-empathy, I connect to my own deep feelings, needs, and desires; when I offer empathy to someone else, I connect to their deepest feelings, needs and desires. I am neither pathologizing nor trying to change myself or another. I am simply trying to be present to and in relationship with whatever is arising within each of us in the moment.

Marshall Rosenberg described empathy as “the ability to be present without opinion,” “respectful understanding of another’s experience,” and also said, “our ability to offer empathy can allow us to stay vulnerable, defuse potential violence, help us to hear no without taking it as a rejection, revive lifeless conversation, and even hear the feelings and needs expressed through silence.”

Powerful stuff.

Empathy is a choice-based action fueled by your heart.

Enabling (however well-intended) is fear-based and life-depleting.

When I am enabling someone’s self-sabotaging behaviors, it’s often because I am out of touch with my own feelings and needs, and singularly focused on just helping the other person to “feel better.” Often, this is because I believe that my safety or connectedness depends on the other person getting their needs met. Or, because I need others to feel ok, for me to feel ok.

My focus is on their need for understanding, their need to be seen, their need to be accepted, and the conversation rarely comes back to what I might be feeling or needing, or what impact they are having on me.

I withhold my own perspective. I don’t share my own feelings and needs. I don’t share the real impact that they are having on me.

Here’s the cost:

By shielding the other person from the real impact that they are having on me, I rob the other person of an opportunity to learn about the real impact of their behaviors and choices, I reinforce my own stuck relational patterns and I take away the opportunity for each of us to become healthy, whole, aware and empowered human beings.

If it’s always all about them, you might just be using “empathy” as a way to avoid feelings of your own, or to avoid setting a limit, or to avoid a conflict.

In the situation I described earlier, I realized that I needed to bring myself back online again and let the other person know the impact that they were having on me.

“When you speak over me, roll your eyes at me, and walk away from me, I feel hurt and disheartened. It’s important to me that we treat each other with respect and consideration. The next time you do that, I will leave the conversation, and we can talk again when we are each in a calmer, more open place. How does that sound to you?”

As I began to express and honor my own limits, and what I was – and was not – available for, the dynamic began to shift. It still has its bumps and bruises, and we are still finding our way through it, but we have a shared awareness and a shared goal of both people mattering equally. It makes all the difference.

Here are some signs that you might be enabling someone to stay stuck in a disempowered or entitled frame of mind, and mistaking it for the kind of healing empathy that Carl Rogers and Marshall Rosenberg were referring to:

  • Do you have a pattern of putting your own needs aside to continually take care of the other person?

  • Are you beginning to feel resentful because you’re taking on more than your share of responsibilities?

  • Do you find yourself covering and putting a positive spin on someone else’s (self) destructive behaviors?

  • Are you spending a lot of time and energy focusing on trying to help someone else change something self-sabotaging? Are you working harder than they are?

  • Are you using self-blame as a way to avoid overt conflicts with this other person?

Life-affirming and meaningful relationships are grounded in mutual respect and care. They help us to stretch, learn and grow into our most empowered, open-hearted and effective selves.

You are allowed to ask for what you want.
Your feelings matter.
Your needs matter.
Your dreams matter.

Life-giving relationships make space for both people to show up fully, while encouraging us to grow into our fullest capacities and strengths.

As always, here are a few questions for further reflection:

  • What situations are you still enabling in your life?

  • What fears are driving you?

  • What one step could you take to change a fear pattern in your life?