Is it Empathy or Enabling?

by | Jul 15, 2019 | Healthy Relationships


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?

3 Comments

  1. Janet Merrill

    This was exactly what I have been doing. I had just come to the conclusion on my own. But, this articulates it so well. Thank you. Janet Merrill

    Reply
  2. Brooke Brightweather

    This is HUGE. Thank you for sharing this important distinction, Yvette.

    With two of my former romantic partners, I definitely, in my earnest attempts not to be judgmental, and to stay connected with them in the moment, just kept on empathizing with them without sharing my own feelings/needs. And whenever I did, I’d feel so guilty, and I’d apologize, saying things like, "I know I shouldn’t feel this way, (or have these needs), I’m just a messed up person…, etc."

    It seemed like whenever I’d dare to say something about how I felt or what I needed, I would somehow end up triggering defensiveness in them. But then I became less and less empowered, and the dynamic shifted to one where I was playing small all the time and they were acting almost like they were on a high horse – yeesh! And then I’d think, well I created this situation, it’s my fault they’re acting like this… So I would almost feel bad for them, and I’d give them extra slack, and I’d validate and empathize with them even more without talking about my needs. I didn’t realize how I had created the situation, of course. What a mess it was!

    It was quite different than what you were describing about your situation, I’m guessing, but it had the same underlying issue. In my situation, I was empowering and enabling them to continue acting in ways that disregarded certain needs of mine, and I was continually validating their feelings and needs, while discounting and apologizing for my own. And I’ll admit I started trying to hint at my needs or talk about other situations where people had similar needs to mine, as a way of trying to get them to understand and see/hear me with out me having to tell them directly in a straight-forward, empowered way.

    I felt so hurt, and eventually very resentful, towards them for not "caring enough" to try to see things from my point of view, for not validating and empowering me the way I’d been caring about them.

    The romantic relationships didn’t survive, but I’m glad to say I’m friends with each of these people. I’ve long since stopped playing games and apologizing for my needs, and I regularly empathize with myself now, so that’s been a very empowering shift for me, but I still find myself sometimes avoiding expressing my feelings and needs because I’m afraid it will mean disconnection! I’m going to keep on working on this.

    Thanks again and I hope your vacation brings you lots of joy and meets lots of your needs, heheee! 🙂

    Reply
  3. Pam

    This is brilliant. Thank you, Yvette.

    Here’s a challenge that might be even more difficult. Imagine that the person in the situation, the one who is not only rolling eyes, but also calling you vulgar names, is a 15 – year-old boy, and your son, for whom you are responsible. I would love for you to tackle that situation in one of your wonderful posts.

    Hope that your travels are safe and wonderful.

    Reply

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