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The 2021 VJLAP Annual Retreat will be held on September 17th and 18th, 2021 in Lynchburg, Virginia. 

The Beacon

Finding the Line: Helping versus Enabling at Work

November 16, 2020
Finding the Line: Helping versus Enabling at Work

It is human nature to want to support someone we care about. It is also easy for what we see as being helping to actually be hurtful. The line between supporting recovery and enabling bad behaviors is a thin, blurry line and, because of that, people frequently end up on the wrong side of the line and don’t even know it. Whether it is alcohol, other selfish behavior, or general irresponsibility, allowing someone to continue to choose damaging behaviors by being passive or assisting in them through your own actions, only deepens the damage. When your intention is to help, acting as an enabler does just the opposite.

So what is the difference between supporting and enabling? Supporting includes assisting with things that the other person is incapable of doing for him or herself or doing things that help them gain control of their behaviors and life. Enabling behaviors is doing things that the other person can and should do for themselves and keeping someone from dealing with the negative consequences of his or her actions which then leaves the impression that their behavior is somehow acceptable.

Many recent studies show that more than 20% of attorneys struggle to manage the disease of addiction. Addiction is a progressive disease that may take years or even decades to enter the late stages. Friendships and cooperative working relationships develop in most work places but work is usually the last place that signs and symptoms of the disease present themselves.

When an attorney struggles with substance abuse, they most likely have developed many positive, long-term relationships with their colleagues. Both inside and outside of work, most of us want to help out our friends when they are experiencing difficulties. But, but addiction, it is very important to know the line between helping and enabling. No one wants to help our colleague’s disease to progress and for our colleague to become sicker.

This “help” usually begins with little things like:

  • Excusing tardiness or what seems to be forgetfulness.
  • Making excuses why work product is below the standard expected or inconsistent with his/her general work product.
  • Making excuses for the person and covering up to others for behaviors that one witnesses.

This is a slippery slope and can progress for the “helping” co-worker the same way that addiction can for the addict. It will start to feel uncomfortable and resentments can build. Most people are uncomfortable with confrontation, and the problem in the relationship builds. There may be more than one co-worker struggling with his or her “helping” behaviors and the general well-being of the workplace suffers. Collegiality and satisfaction at the job declines. Productivity suffers, and frequently no one is aware of the underlying circumstances resulting in this taking place.

The easiest way to avoid the progression of this unhealthy pattern of behavior is to develop honest open communication between co-workers. If a coworker is in need of assistance, it is possible to nonjudgmentally and supportively make everyone in the system aware of the problem and have everyone provide support in a healthy, non-enabling way. It is much easier for a group of people to recognize aberrant behavior quickly than any one person. This also will lead to less deceitful and manipulative behavior to occur if the problem is due to addiction. It is easier to encourage an individual to get the help they need if more people are aware of the problem. This also takes the responsibility of getting the person help off one person.

Of course this sounds easier than it is when we apply it to the people, friendships, and myriad of other issues that complicate our lives and relationships. Often when something is wrong with one of our colleagues, we are at a loss of what to do or how to approach them. The staff at VJLAP is always available to help explore and problem any work or personal problem in a confidential way to help you, your work environment, you colleagues, and your family.

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