by Sarah Alexander, LCSW
I see a lot of good, tender-hearted people in my practice who have deep wells of sympathy (even empathy) for the people in their lives, which is all well-intentioned and good. Just like any well-intentioned and good thing, however, it can become unintentionally problematic in excess: for example, when living with an addict or trying to teach children (especially teenagers and adult children) how to be self-sufficient. In these instances, I use the analogy of a chick hatching from an egg to demonstrate the gift you give someone in allowing them to learn from their own life struggles.
Those of us who haven’t grown up on a farm might envision fuzzy little chicks emerging from eggs once hatched (like the picture above). The truth is, chicks come out wet and messy (more like the picture below):
Some new hatchers assist emerging chicks too soon and/or too thoroughly. Anxiety at this stage is high, especially for first-timers. They misinterpret the needs of the chick and prematurely intervene, sometimes with dire consequences. Some of these dire consequences are due directly to the well-intentioned intervention (ex: hemorrhaging due to torn membranes) and some are due to the consequences of the well-intentioned intervention (ex: the chick’s circulation wasn’t allowed to pump hard enough to allow them to warm themselves up once hatched). The bottom line is, chicks actually need to peck their own way out of their own shell. Without the strengths developed within their struggle, they are left vulnerable to their environment.
This is true for people too. Our life experiences (including how we respond to them) are our shells, and figuring out how to navigate them effectively prepares us to effectively navigate our world. A great early-life example of natural consequences is a kid who wants to run outside in the snow without their jacket. If you let them do it the first time, they may get wet and cold (possibly even sick), but they are going to learn pretty quickly (for themselves) the benefits of being appropriately dressed for the weather. If, instead, you insist each time (over their protests) that they wear their coat, all they are learning is to fight and resent you; the fight is going to be on-going and they are never going to learn for themselves the benefits of being appropriately dressed for the weather. When you protect your loved one from the consequences of their own behaviors, it may seem like you are helping them when, in fact, you are enabling their inappropriate (even unhealthy) behavior. Enabling prevents your loved one from learning valuable life lessons and sets them up for future repetition of their problematic behavior.
It can sometimes be difficult differentiating enabling action from helpful action. Enabling action may save your loved one from immediate pain, but it doesn’t necessarily allow them to learn life’s lesson or prevent the same thing from happening again.
Helpful action creates space for people to sit with their problems until they are able to find their own solution. Helpful action requires patience, emotional awareness, and a basic trust in your loved one’s ability to deal with their issues utilizing their own value system (even when it’s painful, messy, expensive, or different from what you would choose for them).
In their book “Boundaries,” Henry Cloud and John Townsend use biblical scripture to support the use of healthy boundaries and offer a very useful analogy for deciding how to differentiate when to assist versus when to allow people their own struggle. They point out that while we are responsible to other people, we are not responsible for them:
“The Greek words for burden [‘Carry each other’s burdens,’ Galatians 6:2] and load [‘each one should carry his own load,’ verse 5] give us insight…. The Greek word for burden means ‘excess burdens,’ or burdens that are so heavy that they weigh us down. These burdens are like BOULDERS. They can crush us. We shouldn’t be expected to carry a boulder by ourselves! It would break our backs. We need help with the boulders – those times of crisis and tragedy in our lives.
“In contrast, the Greek word for load means ‘cargo,’ or ‘the burden of daily toil.’ This word describes the everyday things we all need to do. These loads are like KNAPSACKS. Knapsacks are possible to carry. We are expected to carry our own. We are expected to deal with our own feelings, attitudes, and behaviors, as well as the responsibilities [of daily life], even though it takes effort.” [Emphasis mine.]
It is important to determine where your responsibility ends and theirs begins. Help your loved one with their “boulders” (crisis or tragedies), but allow your loved ones to carry their own “knapsacks” (feelings, attitudes, behaviors, and responsibilities of daily life). For further reading see The Difference between Deep Empathy and Niceness by Karla McLaren.