Alex Lickerman, M.D., wrote an interesting article called "The Good Guy Contract." He had a habit of being a pleaser and couldn't stop, even when he wanted to stop. He writes, "The Good Guy Contract was simple; I would agree to be nice to you, to advise you, to sacrifice for you--and in return you would agree to believe that I was wise, compassionate, and excellent as a human being in every way. And, most importantly, you would like me." When he finally saw what he was doing, he stopped doing it. He's one of the lucky few who was able to stop immediately. We should all be that fortunate.
But, what's wrong about people pleasing, you say? It's nice to be nice. And we all enjoy being liked and loved. Here's the thing: people pleasers contribute to family dysfunction. They are the ones who come to therapy, confused about their teen's irresponsible behavior, depressed about their spouse's alcoholism, and anxious to fix somebody else. Their focus is always on someone else because that's the nature of their problem.
Take This Easy Test
1. Do you consider your own needs, wants, and desires in a relationship or are you more likely to put others' needs, wants, and desires first?
2. Does your self esteem suffer when you're criticized, even if the criticism is not true?
3. Do you have a habit of sacrificing your plans, desires, or needs in a caring relationship?
4. Do you often confuse pity with love?
5. Are you generally a conflict avoider?
6. When things go wrong, do you usually blame yourself?
7. Do you stay attached when most everyone else tells you that you need to detach?
8. When a relationship is dragging you down, do you still put the other person's needs or opinions first?
9. Do you have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility to the point that you think it's your job to fix others?
10. Early in your life did you learn to set your own feelings aside to care for others?
If you answered yes to three or more of these questions, you're probably a pleaser. And that's not good. You may have been the unwitting contributor to relationship dysfunction. You may be prone to depression and/or anxiety because of your pleasing pattern. Rather than set limits and follow through with consequences, you may have decided to plead, nag, cajole, beg, threaten, or send guilt trips. And how is that working for you?
Tear Up Your "Good Guy Contract"
If you're a chronic people pleaser who can't stand to disappoint others when disappointing them is appropriate, then you have a great opportunity to become happier. As an added bonus, loved ones often get better when you stop your pleasing pattern. Boundaries and limits are more effective teaching tools. You'll learn to value yourself more as you make important changes. Dr. Alex Lickerman recommends the following:
- Assess your people-pleasing tendencies. Take the test and answer honestly. Ask a friend to give you feedback on the test.
- Practice disappointing people. Say no. Set limits. Write a script of how you're going to refuse a favor, and read it to someone else first. Try it out.
- Keep the payoff in mind. You're going to be happier in the long run. People will respect you more as you stop your pleasing pattern. And you'll be a lot more authentic.
Most pleasers do not give up their pleasing patterns easily. It often takes years to learn a new way of relating. Go to therapy and stay there until you make significant changes in your life. Good luck, and let me know how it goes.
When you're the parent of a substance abuser, it's often difficult to decide what to do. On the one hand, you love your child (no matter how old they are) and want to do everything possible to help your child, particularly if they seem to be missing some basic life skills (such as budgeting their money or paying their bills on time). On the other hand, you don't want to enable them to continue to use drugs or drink alcohol. Addictions can be tricky. Let me give you a real-life example:
My oldest brother began to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol in high school. Marijuana came shortly after that. My parents often didn't know what to do. Naturally, they did the best that they could, but it wasn’t enough. When he was eighteen, my brother joined the Marines. Five painful years later, he was discharged. He had a habit of going AWOL and had to make up his time for doing so. When my dad was assigned by the military to work in Taiwan, they had little time to decide what to do with my twenty-something brother.
Weeks before my parents were to be transferred to Taiwan for two years, they set my adult brother up in an apartment in Denver and found a job for him working in a gas station two blocks away from his new apartment. They asked themselves, "Are we enabling him?" Two years later when they returned, my brother was nowhere to be found. The gas station owner said that he only showed up for a few weeks before he took off. We saw him a few times over the next decade. He would visit for a week or two, and then leave. We knew that he was struggling with substance abuse and alcoholism, but we didn't know that substance abuse and mental illness are often associated with each other.
When we saw him, he would talk about the voices in his head that told him what to do. Clearly he was in need of psychiatric help. But this was the 70s, and my parents weren’t very tuned in to seeking help. Jim talked about riding the rails (as a bum) all over the USA. He introduced us to some of his very interesting homeless friends, who also heard voices. He tried a few jobs over the years, but never stayed with a job. He needed to be free. And he needed to do what the voices told him to do.
Then my parents moved again and there was no way to notify Jim. So we lost touch with him for twenty-five years. Twenty-five years! When my sister located him through the Salvation Army, we were all grateful.
My brother is schizophrenic. Thank heavens he now lives with my widowed dad and they take care of each other. My parents took him in and made sure that he got enough to eat each day. He’s clearly disabled, but doing well as long as he takes his medications (which he does as a condition of living there). He no longer smokes, drinks, or uses illicit drugs. This was also a condition of living at home. And Jim was just plain tired of living the life of a homeless man. He was in sad shape when we found him—thin, toothless, and frightened.
So, what do parents do when they have an adult substance abusing child who clearly needs help? Talk to a professional….at length. You've got to figure out if your loved one is disabled or enabled. It's too difficult for a family to try to make these kind of distinctions on their own. There are often no easy answers. Boundaries and rules need to be clearly defined. Love needs to be shown. A contract needs to be made in many cases. But I’m here to tell you, there are often very happy endings. Good luck and God bless.
Everyone ELSE can see what is happening. So, why can't they? Here are a few reasons:
- Social dependence distorts my perception of what is normal. Everyone in my group is living the same way that I am. My way of living is just NORMAL!
- Enabling removes some of the consequences. For years people around me covered up for me, made excuses for me, bailed me out, reduced the pain and the consequences of my choices. Then they wonder why I can’t see that my problems are related to my choices.
- My psychological defenses trick me (and yours trick you). Even if I get fired, expelled, divorced or abandoned, it is their fault, not mine.
- State dependent learning removes the impact by the time I’m sober again. The pain, embarrassment, and shame that I may experience while intoxicated is very real at the time. When sober, it’s just a hazy fog. Addiction can be tricky that way.
- Withdrawal learning confirms my distorted view. What happens when I stop drinking? I get sick—sometimes VERY sick! When I drink again, I get “well.” So, drinking saves my life!
- Impaired abstract thinking blocks understanding cause and effect. Drinking impairs the brain’s ability to link cause and effect. Problems don’t occur EVERY time I drink!
- Memory blackouts erase some of the problems. If I get in a fight when I’m drunk, my blackout prevents me from remembering the occurrence. To me, it didn’t happen, no matter what other people say or do.
These are just a few of the possible reasons why the alcoholic can't see what is happening. Of course, there are more.
What is enabling? How is it different from helping?
Helping is doing something for someone else that they can't do for themselves. Enabling is doing something for someone else that they can and should do for themselves. Enabling allows your teen to comfortably continue with his unacceptable behavior. Enabling can be intentional or unintentional. At any rate, the teen remains the same because there are no consequences for bad behavior. The enabler facilitates the continuation of unacceptable behavior.
Quiz for parents of teens:
- Have you ever "called in sick" for your teen when they didn't feel like going to school?
- Have you accepted part of the blame or excused his/her drinking/drugging or bad behavior?
- Have you avoided talking about the bad behavior or drinking/drugging out of fear of hearing the response?
- Have you tried drinking/drugging with him in hopes of strengthening the relationship?
- Have you given him "one more chance" and then another and another?
- Have you bailed him out of jail or paid for his legal fees?
- Have you paid bills that he was supposed to have paid himself?
- Have you finished a job or project that the teen failed to complete himself?
- Without first checking out the evidence, have you marched down to the school (jail, job) to give them "a piece of your mind" when they accused your teen of using drugs?
- Have you ever told your teen, "Just don't get caught" when you've talked about illegal behavior such as underage drinking or using illegal drugs?
Are you happier or more gratified when you are doing for others than when you do for yourself? Do you feel guilty spending time, money, or resources on your own projects instead of devoting time to others' needs? Do you take on the problems and cares of others with vigor and become stressed if you cannot solve their problems? Are you annoyed and angry if people don't give you the thanks and accolades you secretly feel you deserve for all the good things you have done for them?
Of course, if you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you at some point in time have enabled your teen to avoid responsibility. Rather than "help" your teen, you have actually made it easier for him to get worse! You have not only enabled your teen, you have probably become a major contributor to the growing and continuing problem and chances are have become affected by the problem yourself.
As long as your teen has his enabling system in place, it is easy for him to continue to deny that he has a drinking/drugging problem -- since most of his problems are being "solved" by those around him. Only when he is forced to face the consequences of his own actions, will it finally begin to sink in how deep his problem has become. Some of these choices are not easy for friends and families. If your teen gets in trouble with the law, that affects you. The rest of the family will likely suffer right along with him.
Calling the police and reporting your teen's illegal behavior helps him or her to come face-to-face with the problem. Those kinds of choices are difficult. These choices require " tough love." But it is love. Unless your teen is allowed to face the consequences of his own actions, he will never realize just how much his drinking/drugging has become a problem -- to himself and those around him.
Who are the enablers?
They can be teachers, doctors, judges, therapists, parents, attorneys, teens....you name it. They are everywhere. They're rich, poor, middle class and everything else. They can be highly educated, uneducated, street-wise, or naïve.
Why do they do it?
This is most easily understood from the perspective of the symbiotic relationship. The pilot fish tags along with the shark and eats the parasites on the shark. They both get something from the relationship. The shark gets clean; the pilot fish gets food. Like the shark and the pilot fish, the enabler and the addict (or alcoholic or mentally ill or incapacitated person) fit together like a hand in a glove. They both need each other. They both get something out of the relationship.
Enablers thrive on the weaknesses and needs of others. They are needed! They take too much responsibility for the actions of others, always feeling they can somehow manipulate the person or situation and somehow bring about a positive change.
Beware of "nice" people
Enablers may appear to, and even fool themselves into thinking that they are loving and kind and giving. However, they seek out or "enjoy" relationships with "victims" as these kinds of relationships help them to feel good about themselves. Their acts of kindness are a means of control and manipulation. They exert enormous amounts of energy trying to "help" the victim; if the victim gets better, it does not really meet their aim. They need to feel "needed" and useful thus enabling the victim to remain in their unhealthy situation. Most codependent people gain their sense of self worth from their relationship to the needy person or abusive relative. They feel magnanimous by lavishing all of their time and attention on the other person, never looking at or filling the hole in their personality.
Enablers are most likely to "shoot the messenger" because the messenger tells the truth. Like the addict, the enablers don't want to hear the truth. So, they lie to themselves. Because they have an agenda-that you meet their needs to be needed-they aren't interested in healthy solutions. Their motto may as well be, "Let me help you hurt yourself." They are the ones who are most likely to hurt the ones that they say that they love.
Enablers have huge unmet needs
Here are some of the typical needs of enablers: the need to be needed, the need to control things, the need to be "loved" or appreciated, the need to rescue, and the need to "look good." They also suffer from mixed-up priorities, poor boundaries, denial and delusions.
Enablers are typically overly responsible. Their motto is "give until it hurts." And they often hurt. They appear to sacrifice their own needs for the sake of the addict. They put all of their focus on the addict. And, although it can be quite subtle, they often manipulate and control others through their "niceness."
Who suffers because of the enabler?
Everyone-the addict, the other family members, society and, of course, the enabler herself. Because there are no consequences for bad behavior, the bad behavior continues. So everyone suffers. Until the enabler stops enabling, everyone continues to suffer.