The Destruction of “Enabling”

Dear Dr. Hurd: If you don’t mind suggestions on articles, have you ever written one on the evils of “enabling”? That is, the phenomenon where a person knows that what someone else is doing is wrong, sometimes morally, but will conduct themselves in a way that allows that person to continue with their bad behavior.

For instance, I’ve dealt with people who have psychological problems that sometimes move them to lash out or otherwise act in unacceptable manners, and the days following the outbreak they pretend nothing ever happened. Worse yet, they’re aided by their victims in that they too pretend nothing ever happened and will even pretend that they like and are still fond of the person, despite the fact they openly detest them out of their sight.

I think commenting on this topic would be both good political commentary and self-help advice. I’ve been thinking about your article that muses that some of our statist problems today may be due to people trying to silence “internal noise,” in that they’re trying to deal with their own problems by externalizing them and forcing others to engage in their demanded modes of behavior.

Enabling may be one of the keys to all the evils in this world, as a sub-variant to Ayn Rand’s term of “The Sanction of the Victim.” If people keep pretending obscene and immoral people are alright and worth dealing with, and actually help them in their bad ways, then they’re assisting in promoting destruction in this world, whether it be the destruction of happiness in relationships or people’s rights under the government.


Dr. Hurd’s reply: “Enabling” is actually a value-free term. It refers to supporting or helping someone in some activity or endeavor. However, the activity can be moral or immoral, healthy or unhealthy, right, wrong or questionable.

This is one reason — a valid reason — why some people object to this term. They think, “Why should I be against enabling on principle? I enable my husband to recover from his knee surgery. I enable my children to get an education. I enable myself to advance my career and make a living.” And of course this is right. Not all enabling is wrong; only a certain kind.

In the psychology field, the concept of enabling has always referred to wrong or unhealthy behavior, particularly behavior related to substance abuse. Let’s say your spouse or another loved one is an alcoholic. Although you know the behavior is destructive, you continue to enable it — by lying or making excuses for the loved one, or even by buying his beer for him although you resent it. That’s the classic notion of enabling, and then it got extended to other contexts.

Relying on this definition of enabling, can we say that enabling is the root cause of destruction in the world, including people’s personal lives? No, but it gets awfully close. Although enabling is a huge error, the root cause is deeper than that. The root cause, emotionally speaking, is fear — specifically, irrational fear.

What wrong ideas give rise to the irrational fear?

The most common one is the false belief that, “I am not one to judge. Who am I to label that behavior wrong? Nothing’s wrong. It must be me.” I cannot tell you the number of people I have encountered — many of them in possession of excellent, and to some extent even very confident minds — who fall prey to the false belief that, “I’m in no position to judge this.”

In reality, we’re all in a position to judge. We’re only entitled to judge — and we can only competently judge — based on known facts, evidence, and rational/objective reasoning about those facts. We’re not entitled to go on knee-jerk, undigested purely emotional assumptions. The problem is, to many people these are judgments. They equate judgment with emotion, and because reason is needed to make a sound judgment, they properly reject emotion as a tool of judgment. But what about reason?

Others, including the intelligent and otherwise confident types who enable, do not have a problem distinguishing reason from emotion. They’re simply afraid to exercise reason in certain areas. Again, the root cause of the enabling is irrational fear. The most common reason they fear using reason to judge others is because they’re afraid of being — or worse yet, being seen as — cruel, unfair or judgmental.

The people you mention, who act unacceptably and then behave as if it never happened? This is the fear they’re counting on, and it’s why when confronted with their unacceptable behavior they often respond, “What are you talking about? I’d never do that.” They’re counting on you to fear making judgments, and most of them will get away with it, sadly.

“Why did you keep enabling your son’s crazy behavior for so long?”

Answer: “I didn’t want to be mean. I didn’t want to be seen as a bad parent.”

Or a bad spouse. Or a bad friend. Or whatever. And the key to the fear is often “being seen.” We live in a culture of crazy conformity. The conformity is to the Judeo-Christian notion that, “We are all our brother’s keepers, and kindness is the essence of goodness, and of course that’s a bit impossible … But I must always be SEEN as such!”

This is the psychology underlying the attitudes and actions of most people who are trying to be good. And most people are trying to be good. The problem is that our notions of “goodness” have nothing whatsoever to do with reason, logic, facts — and what’s even best for those who are being enabled.

You mention Ayn Rand and yes, in her famous novel “Atlas Shrugged” and elsewhere, her name for this mentality was what she called “altruism” — not voluntary or deserved benevolence towards others, but the idea that one must sacrifice one’s judgment, one’s well-being, or even one’s very life for the benefit of anyone for any reason whatsoever: Sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice. That’s what both the Judeo-Christian mentality encourages, and what modern, more agnostic notions of “brother’s keeperism” are preached and imposed by our political and intellectual “leaders.”

Altruism, by that definition, is the “standard” which can only lead to enabling and other forms of self-destruction, in practice. The standard should be abandoned and replaced with reason. Reason, in practical terms, includes adherence to an attitude, “I know what’s wrong and stupid, and I’ll never pretend it isn’t. I’ll never take part in anything wrong, stupid or self-destructive.” There’s no room for enabling with such an attitude.

Reason and logic have done so much to advance mankind in other respects. But in the area of ethics (including politics), we’re still in the Dark Ages, which can only — at the end of the road — lead to the destruction of all that reason, science and technology have brought us in other areas.

Too many people think and feel that reason applies to economics, technology and science — but not to ethics, and not to human behavior. Look how well that belief is working out for people, given the current state of affairs.