When Helping Hurts

Musicians' Assistance Program

Volume CVI, No. 7/8July, 2006

Leslie Cardell, LCSW

We all want to be loving and supportive to friends or family members in times of need. This would be a pretty cold world if we weren’t willing to help each other out when the going gets tough. Constantly having to come to someone’s rescue, however, can be a sign that an underlying problem is not being addressed. And in our desire to express love and concern, we may unwittingly be helping to perpetuate the problem.

A word that is often used to describe this dynamic is “enabling.” When we protect loved ones from experiencing the negative consequences of their own actions (or lack of actions) we make it easier for them to continue behavior that is not in their own best interest. We are accustomed to thinking of this issue as it relates to substance abuse, but there are many other areas of life where it may also play a role.

There are times when the help we offer can seem innocent enough, at least in the beginning. After watching a child collapse into tears over complicated homework, it may seem loving to do the work for them. But with enough help like this, children will learn to depend on others for solutions and miss opportunities for developing skills of their own. They may even come to believe that they’re not capable of solving problems for themselves.

Knowing when love and support cross over the line into enabling can be difficult to assess. Deciding to withhold help can be a very painful decision to make. Perhaps there’s a family member with a serious mental illness. Let’s say he’s a grown son who’s still living at home, unable to support himself. As is often the case, he may deny there is a problem and refuse to get help. One of the symptoms of mental illness can be a lack of insight – that is, the ability even to be aware there is a problem.

So what is this family to do? If their son’s not taking medication, his symptoms could be getting much worse. He may be severely depressed or even hearing voices. His parents want to protect him, not put him out on the street. With advice from a professional, smaller steps can often be identified. Change doesn’t happen without some discomfort, and refusing to pay for his cell phone until he sees a psychiatrist could create the motivation necessary for that first step.

Whatever the problem may be, talking openly about it is an important start. Describe the consequences you’ve observed without making judgments. Talk about how the behavior affects you – how you feel – without inflicting guilt. Describe what you are willing to do to help and what you will no longer do to enable the problem.

Sometimes it can be difficult to recognize when we are involved in an enabling relationship. Our own denial about the other’s problem may interfere with our ability to recognize our role in perpetuating it. Or it may seem like the only way to maintain a relationship with a loved one.

There are times when we may even be getting some benefit from providing the assistance we do. Rescuing another from some negative outcome can make us feel important and needed. Focusing on someone else’s problems can be a way of avoiding having to confront our own.

We sometimes come to blame ourselves for the problem, or see it as a reflection on us: “If I were a better parent, spouse, sibling or friend, then my loved one wouldn’t be behaving in this way.” So we try to fix the problem for them, and in doing so allow them to avoid taking responsibility for it themselves.

The prospect of having to change can be very frightening and people will go to great lengths to avoid it. It may take a very serious consequence like the loss of a job, a home, or a valued relationship, before some people are finally forced to recognize the seriousness of a problem and get the help they need to deal with it.

Loving others does not mean accepting abusive or dysfunctional behavior, and it’s important to separate our feelings about others from their actions. By respecting our own needs, and setting appropriate limits on the demands of others, we model healthy behavior. Enabling people we care about to get by in life without getting help for serious problems cheats them out of the opportunity to fulfill their potential and to lead richer, fuller lives.

As always, if you’d like to discuss any of the issues raised by this article, please feel free to call the MAP office for a confidential appointment.

Leslie Cardell is a licensed clinical social worker and the coordinator of the Musicians’ Assistance Program’s services. MAP office hours are Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 9:30 to 5. Call (212) 397-4802 for an appointment.


I’d like take this opportunity to say goodbye to all the members and employees of Local 802 that I’ve known and worked with over the years, as I will be leaving my job in the MAP office. My last day at work won’t be until Aug. 11, so I hope anyone who wants to will feel free to call me at MAP for a more personal goodbye while I’m still here.

(There will, of course, be another social worker taking my place, so while I may be leaving, the MAP office is not.)

This has been a wonderful job, and I will be very sorry to leave. I had thought of writing a column about all I’ve learned from Local 802, but the list would be far too long for just one column. However, despite my regret at leaving, I have other career opportunities, and I feel ready and eager to take the next professional step.

Wishing you all the best,