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The difference between enabling and helping someone is often one that is blurred in Borderline Personality Disorder. It is blurred by both those diagnosed with BPD and family members, loved ones, relationship partners (ex’s) – non borderlines of those who have BPD.

When one is in the active throes of Borderline Personality Disorder one does not know who he or she is. One does not have a healthy reference point for or sense of self. Those diagnosed with BPD (until and unless they get professional help) are often seeking (unconsciously) to be rescued, to be enabled, but believe that they just want to be cared about in a way that helps them to cope.

Phoenix Rising Publication

For the family member, loved one, or relationship partner of someone with BPD – for the non borderline, often the desire to rescue the borderline to make things okay for him or her and yourself is a very strong point at which enmeshment occurs. Enmeshed relationships by the very nature of their dynamics are more toxic than they are healthy. Enabling fuels the enmeshment that is central to co-dependence whether one is borderline or non borderline.

There are many different definitions of what enabling means. What I have come to understand through my own recovery is that enabling refers to doing anything for someone else that they "should" be able to do (and need to do) for themselves. When we attempt to do something for someone that they need to do or learn to do for themselves we play a role in compromising their ability to take and hold personal responsibility for themselves.

For example, if someone suffers from agoraphobia, and or anxiety attacks, and has difficulty or feels unable to go to the store – a friend may think that going to the store for this person is "helping" them out. Truthfully, this is an example of enabling because when you go to the store for your friend (something that he/she "should" be able to do for themselves and really need to do for themselves) you are helping them only in so far as you are enabling them to stay stuck in maladaptive coping mechanisms which are not healthy for them. Someone who can’t go to the store on his/her own (who is otherwise physically healthy) due to anxiety or fear, is not able to meet his/her own needs. If you continue to try to meet this need for someone, for example, you only continue to reinforce his/her sense and or feelings of (and belief in) his or her own learned (and then reinforced) helplessness. After a time, it is also likely that the person going to the store for the one that feels they cannot go for themselves will get angry and resentment about the dependence of another will grow.

Enabling plays itself out even more subtly in the emotional arena. If someone has emotional difficulties, a personality disorder and so forth and you try to control them, direct them, tell them how to be, act, or what to do (no matter how well intentioned) chances are much of what you say will apply to what you, yourself, need. It will largely be projection. It will serve the purpose of you avoiding yourself and your own issues and pain and it will simulate some false sense of safety or security to the person who is not yet able to be there and to take care of themselves.

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The dance of codependence is the central point at which those who are borderline and those who are non borderline meet. It is the place where, despite all the differences between the borderline and the non borderline, the similarity of a dysfunctional toxic and enmeshed style of relating in intimate relationships is often shared. It is the place where the issues of each person clash.

This is also a situation, which over time will end up with both parties quite angry with each other. The person who is enabling, "trying to help" will end up being too controlling and the person that is being "enabled" – "helped" will feel controlled and told what to do. No one can change anyone but themselves.

Phoenix Rising Publication

The reason and the way we can get so wrapped up in others has all to do with how much we refuse to know ourselves. So, in effect then, for all intents and purposes, the result of enabling is manipulating dishonesty on the part of both the person being enabled and the person who is enabling.

Herein lies the enmeshment. If you are in this situation with someone else you do not have healthy boundaries, nor does the person you are in any enmeshment with. This is a recipe for a lot of pain as two people try to live through each other instead of living their own lives.

When someone has Borderline Personality Disorder the truth is that his or her needs are many, deep, and profound. The truth is that most who have BPD do not know how to meet their own needs. They do not know who they are. They live through others. They need others more like a child needs a parent than they know how to appropriately need a partner like an adult – in a healthy inter-dependent kind of way.

Enmeshment is a painful and complicated tangling of identities, wants and needs that is not healthy for anyone. Enabling is providing an atmosphere within which another person does not have to take personal responsibility – it is parenting someone who is old enough to parent themselves and who is not a child of yours anyway. It is an over-stepping of what would be considered healthy boundaries. It is a lack of boundaries to be more the point.

Helping someone, on the other hand, consists of giving assistance or lending an ear, after having been asked and doing so without giving direction or advice and without having any stakes in the outcome of the choices a person makes. Helping someone is rendering assistance after having been asked. For example, your friend has to work very late unexpectedly and asks you if you could feed his cat that evening. When someone asks for help they do so allowing and prepared to respond in a healthy and mature manner to being told "NO". It is always alright to ask for help but asking for help and not being able to hear no likely means that you are really asking for someone to enable you and not to help you at all.

Those with BPD (until they recover significantly) often have not matured emotionally to a point where they have healthy boundaries. There is an almost natural tendency to enmesh with others due to the reality that having BPD usually means that you don’t know who you really are. It is also not uncommon for borderlines to need someone else to give them a sense of safety, security and or well-being. It is equally common with those who have BPD for them to not know how to take personal responsibility and so often they will attempt to shift this to others out of their own sense of helplessness and victimization. Those who allow these borderline needs to be shifted to them are somewhat co-dependent themselves and will be enabling the borderline – not helping them.

Often, when narcissistic defenses are being used one can feel more responsible for the pain or conflict of others when truthfully, the other person’s experience has nothing whatsoever to do with you.

Phoenix Rising Publication

For the non borderline, often, over-focusing on the borderline means that you are neglecting your own needs. This takes a toll on one’s self-esteem and one’s sense of inner-peace and independence. The questions that anyone in this situation (co-dependent, enmeshed, enabling and without healthy boundaries) will benefit from asking themselves are:

  • What is it that I really need now that is leading me to do what I am doing with my loved one?
  • What am I getting out of this?
  • What do I want to get out of this?
  • What about what I need? How can I take care of my own needs instead of transferring them on to my loved one and then believing that I am really caring about his or her needs?
  • If I am putting my loved one’s needs ahead of my own or substituting trying to meet them at the expense of my own or our meeting our needs in inter-dependent ways together what is it I am really trying to control and why?
  • Are we working toward mutual goals?
  • Are we on the same page?
  • Are we now working at cross-purposes? If so, what needs to change?
  • How can I make the changes that I need and want in myself?
  • Does it make sense that if you create the change needed for you in your life and your loved one doesn’t that perhaps the only choice left to you is to disengage?
  • Am I holding on and/or trying to control something that just isn’t working?
  • If so, what I am trying to avoid in myself?

When borderlines learn to distinguish themselves from others, achieve a very real sense of who they are, find their own identities and establish healthy boundaries it then becomes painfully clear just what the enabling was really all about. Once one knows who they are and where his/her boundaries are and the difference between self and others this is the point at which one will realize that no matter how much you care for someone else your own needs have to come first. And no matter how much you care for someone else his/her pain or misfortune – while you may feel sad about it, is not something that will change your over-all mood in your own life.

Learning to distinguish between helping someone out and enabling can be a long, difficult, and painful process. I have been down that road. I have climbed that mountain. I can tell you that all of the hard and painful work it took was well worth it.

It is not only those diagnosed with personality disorders that often grow up in toxic dysfunctional families. Enmeshment is not as rare as you might have thought it was.

The difference between helping someone and enabling someone can really be measured by the degree to which you are losing yourself in the process. It can also be measured by the amount of control that you may be exerting over someone else no matter how well intentioned.

© A.J. Mahari July 18, 2008 – All rights reserved.

A.J. Mahari is a Life Coach who, among other things, specializes in working with those with BPD and non borderlines. A.J. has 5 years experience as a life coach and has worked with hundreds of clients from all over the world.

      Borderline Personality – Enabling Versus Helping