As humans, we are put on this planet to help, not hurt, one another. But the line of good intentions can get blurred because despite our greatest gift of compassion, there’s an underlying shadow side of control.
But when does empowering cross over into the realm of enabling? This is an essential distinction we need to discern so we avoid irreparable harm to the recipient, as well as to ourselves. Empowering is reaching out to another with true love. It entails unconditional acceptance, unconditional respect, and unconditional dignity. Empowering has its roots in compassion and has an attitude of partnership (win-win) for all those involved. Enabling is about me doing things for you because you can't, or won’t, do them for yourself. You have an identity crisis, and it is up to me to fix you. Enabling has its roots in power and involves beneficiaries and victims (win-lose).
At the core of where you fall on this spectrum is, how do you view a human being? Are they bound for greatness or unable to exist on their own? Are they capable of independent living or do they need you for a created dependency? What starts out as an attempt to aid morphs into a structure where the individual is either incapable, or unwilling, to do things of their own volition.
We don’t intend to treat people as if they can’t fix their own problems, but when we do we deny them the opportunity to live life on their own terms. Tough love may be tough, but it still loves. If the individual does not want to ignite their own innate great, anything you do to “assist” them is enabling. And that is not helping; that’s hurting.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
Must the individual I am empowering rely on me for handouts or resources? Here’s a recent example; A friend of mine is a manager who must provide multiple daily feedback sessions to an assistant manager who ought to know better by now. Is this repetitive coaching and correction empowering or enabling?
Are my actions providing revitalization or maintenance? Many of us have a friend who has a sad outlook on life yet will not take steps to engage in serving organizations, read material that will renew their mind, nor control their negativity. If we continue to meet with them to listen to their resigned outlook on life, are we empowering or enabling?
Are my motives to inspire or to patronize? I’ve worked with many leaders on their succession planning. They say they want to pass the mantle of leadership, yet they delay handing over the reins. By staying at the helm to ensure continuous operations and a “smooth transition” and delaying their departure, are they empowering or enabling?
Empowering is drawn out; enabling is dumped in. People who are willing to be developed need a hand up, not a handout. I'll do anything for anyone, but if you will not begin to pick up your own slack, I'm off to spend my resources on someone who'll use it to put their lives on a whole new trajectory. That’s genuine compassion and tremendous empowerment. Until the recipient owns their part of fixing life, the only thing they’ll want from you is more enabling. Give people the tools, and not just the solutions, and let them get to work. Invest in people wisely so you can help them and not hurt them.