Most of us, at one time or another, have been accused of Monday morning quarterbacking after a family member or friend finds themselves in crisis. We are quick to point out how they could have done X, Y or Z in order to prevent their current predicaments. But while we all have to take individual responsibility for our present fates, it's important to remember that even though there may be a star player, crisis situations are usually created through a team effort. My aim with this piece is to show you how you may be playing in a game that produces no winners when you enable the self-destructive behaviors of others.
This episode introduces us to Travis Harding. A young man accused of an unspeakable crime that he swears he did not commit, and his mother, Sandra, who will spare no expense to protect him from unfair trial and imprisonment. For someone in his position, Travis seems to be taking the whole ordeal in stride. Perhaps this is because he's led a life in which the negative consequences of his actions have never been real or tangible. Instead, they amounted to nothing more than mere inconveniences and harmless slaps on the wrist. Sandra is the type of mother who is always there to—literally—bail her child out of trouble but she never takes that extra step to deal with what got him there in the first place. Perhaps, because in doing so, she would have to take a look in the mirror and examine her own role in enabling his actions.
As a crisis manager, part of my job is to not only work directly with clients in crisis, but to work with those in their inner circle. I have found that in these inner circles, the tendency exists to try to manage crisis by fixing the visible symptoms while conveniently ignoring the cause. I suspect that many can relate to this in some way. Perhaps you are a parent who constantly is paying your child's bills even though that child is now an adult and has been so for some time. Instead of dealing with the issues that contribute to the reoccurring budget shortfalls, you do what you can to cover their mounting expenses. Or maybe you have friends who always find some kind of trouble whenever alcohol is involved—which in their case is often. Instead of examining their aversion to sobriety, you figure if you can just keep a close eye on them, you can keep them from immediate disaster.
But here's a question you need to ask yourself if you find yourself putting band-aids on the larger issues faced by your friends and other loved ones: What's your endgame? What are you hoping to achieve by aiding behaviors that will more than likely take a toll—be it financial or emotional—on them, and on you as well? While at times, certain situations call for short term tactical approaches, they need to be followed up with a larger strategic focus. When I counsel those who find themselves enabling others I tell them they need to get the ball back in their court and REBOUND.
Realize that you are being played and refuse to be an enabler
If someone knows that you will always pick up the phone, day or night, when they are in trouble, they are less likely to avoid trouble in the first place. If someone knows that they can always count on you for a cash advance, they are less likely to make sound fiscal decisions. If someone knows that you will go along with the lies they tell themselves and others, they are less likely to ever need to cop up to the truth.
Explore what you get from the dysfunction
One reason we enable others' bad behaviors is because we get something out of it. Perhaps you feel a twisted sense of closeness when you are the one that is constantly by the side of someone in trouble. Maybe you continue to enable them because you feel that you owe them something. Maybe you receive some sort of validation that you are a good friend, parent, sibling, etc., by constantly coming to their aid. Perhaps it prevents you from a confrontation and its resulting fallout. Knowing the reasons behind why you enable someone will help you avoid doing it.
Back away from your role in managing the outcome
When we are in control of something, we tend to experience less anxiety. But by assuming control as an enabler, you are shifting the responsibility away from the person who is headed towards crisis. As tempting as it may be, you cannot manage other people's lives. Sometimes in order to learn, they have to first fail. That can't happen if you always are rigging the odds in their favor.
Object to inevitable push-back and excuses
Nobody likes it when the dynamics of the relationship suddenly changes. Saying "NO" for the first time will be jarring and difficult. You will be accused of everything from unfairness to betrayal. Both sides will experience hurt. Stand your ground.
Understand what's at stake
Enablers often don't want to face the truth because the truth carries implications that they don't want to accept. You need to understand though that your avoidance of the real issue doesn't make it any less real, it only makes the problem worse in the future—for the both of you.
Navigate the unknown
Once you accept that you are no longer in control, you have to accept the unknown. As difficult as it may be, you can't take responsibility for other people's lives. They also need to realize that although they have your support and concern, they will have to decide if and how they are going to confront situations without your constant help.
Develop new rules for moving forward
Once you have decided that you will no longer enable behaviors that will inevitably lead to crisis, you need to create guidelines as to what will and will not be tolerated in the relationship. It would be unrealistic to expect perfection. There will most likely be a time when your friend or loved one needs your help again. You should develop rules as to what that help will look like—what you are and are not willing to do.
Judy A. Smith is the founder and President of Smith and Company, a leading strategic and crisis communications firm with offices in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles as well as a Co-Executive Producer of ABC's Scandal. You can follow her on Twitter (@JudySmith_) or "Like" her on Facebook, and you can get more information about managing personal and professional crisis situations by visiting her site, judysmith.com.