Throughout my lifetime, I’ve frequently felt compelled to “help” people, regardless of what type of help they might have needed. Given my dysfunctional and abusive childhood, that compulsion to “fix” or “help” became a personal pathology.
I truly believed that I could “help” others reach their true potential, because the responsibility to “fix” the world’s problems had been thrust upon me when I was 5 years old. My father, coming home from work and finding my mother drunk and passed out on the couch, he would say, “You let her drink, again.” Without any choice in the matter, I had been made responsible for the happiness, health, actions, and choices of others. This twisted thought process followed me throughout my life to include trying to “support” or “fix” two ex husbands and countless “friends,” associates, coworkers, and people, in general.
For example, I tried to “fix” the first abusive ex-husband, Victor. I truly believed I could “help” this abusive alcoholic to reach his full potential. Of course that was a miserable failure.
After the second ex-husband left, I spent time with my “friend” Gretchen and watched what was going on in her life. She was juggling demanding college courses, a full-time job, and raising a defiant son, while coddling and tolerating a manipulative addict boyfriend. After the boyfriend finally became violent with her son, she kicked him out. Shortly after she kicked the boyfriend out, her son moved out to live with his girlfriend, leaving Gretchen alone and desperate, on every level.
At age 50, Gretchen had graduated with a degree in her “new” field, but had not tested and taken a certification in the field so her degree was not enough to land her a job in that field. Her life was in a shambles, her house in foreclosure, and she began experiencing what I thought were PTSD symptoms due to her experiences with her former boyfriend, the “loss” of her son, and the core of her childhood traumas. She was becoming emotionally, physically, and spiritually unraveled.
This all began to become an issue about three months after I separated from the second con-man spouse and Gretchen’s issues began to overshadow my own. Even after I lost my home, my transportation, my job, and everything else, she sought me out for “help.” She would ask questions about why she was behaving a certain way, or feeling a certain way, or making certain decisions, and this went on, and on, and on, and on….for almost 3 years. I kept thinking that since she kept asking for my opinions and advice that she actually wanted it. And, when I say that she sought me out for “help,” I’m talking about spending hours on the telephone listening to Gretchen cry about how “horrible” her life was, is, and will be.
She would constantly reference that she didn’t want to wake up, but claimed that she wasn’t suicidal. She would call me, in tears, because her son had grown up and left, and I cannot recollect the number of times that I talked this woman down from the proverbial ledge, but I finally experienced the last straw recently, and I’ll try to explain what occurred, and the whole point of sharing these experiences. I realized I had been enabling her in her disordered thinking and behavior.
Recently, I finally threw in the proverbial towel with Gretchen, who though she “sought” my advice, was not looking for solutions but sympathy and pity. I had been enabling her for a decade, but not “helping” her.
Nearly everyone who has survived childhood abuse, neglect, or traumas will experience some level of dysfunction. To put it in a nutshell, their approach to life may be one where the view themselves as just a spectator waiting for something/someone that will either rescue me, or make everything okay.” Gretchen’s level this thinking began to present after she graduated with her degree and lost her then current employment position, at about the same time. I had encouraged her to apply for public assistance, on (literally) countless occasions. She went for 4 months without any income before she finally applied. Then, she spent the next several months wandering in circles before she decided to file for bankruptcy. She had stopped making mortgage payments on her large home, but somehow kept thinking she could “save” her house in some way.
In between all of this time, I metaphorically had tried to shove her into taking actions to help herself, and I take absolutely no pleasure in this fact. Gretchen had no intention of helping herself, and I enabled her to continue this dysfunctional behavior by continually advising her how to proceed to change her life. I own that, and I can’t change it. I can only learn from it. At no point did Gretchen’s carefully laid plans work out to her expectations – she entered a highly competitive job market that she was wholly unfamiliar with and had abandoned a potential career that she’d had over 2 decades of experience in with the expectation that she was simply going to float into a highly-paid position in her new field without any experience and at an age over 50.
Why she chose the new field that she did, only God knows, but she did herself no favors and complained that she could have earned a degree in the field that she had so much experience in, but that she didn’t want to have to take the administrative courses because they were………”.tedious.” It never occurred to her that she could have actually tested out of most of those courses and have been credited for her experience. Gretchen could have started a position in her current field at 60K per year if she had stopped, calmed her mind, and actually contemplated practical options. Instead, she hedged all of her bets on a Hail Mary attempt to change fields, and it’s not going to meet her overblown expectations. If I slap my forehead, at this point, it’s because cannot imagine what she was thinking, and I don’t believe that she could explain what she was thinking, either, except to say that she found her new chosen field…..”interesting.”
Gretchen had been heading towards a catastrophic meltdown for a while – I could hear it in her tone and the staccato cadence of her speech pattern. She hated the woman that she worked for. She hated the fact that she had been abused as a child. She hated everything…..and, she cornered someone who worked in the field that she had earned her degree in (but hadn’t obtained a certification necessary to get a job in that field) to get her a job. Her actual quote was, “Maybe, SHE can get me in and I’ll be able to keep my house.” Well, the “getting in” position only paid a couple more bucks per hour than her current position as a teacher’s aid does, and it was no guarantee that it would lead to a better paying position.
She did get an interview in the field that she got her degree in, but she went to the interview with such a chip on her shoulder that she did not get the position. The individual that interviewed Gretchen was later labeled by her as a biatch because Gretchen showed up to the interview obviously sick, wearing inappropriate attire, and unable to explain why she wanted to secure the position that she had applied for. Instead of telling the interviewer the truth, “I want to get my foot into the door of this profession, and this job will allow me to do that,” she rambled on about how the position for which she applied would enable her to “help people” – utter rubbish.
Shortly after this interview, Gretchen visited another medical specialist because she long ago refused to accept my explanation that her emotional meltdowns, behaviors, and “feelings” were symptomatic of her traumatic childhood. She had spent the better part of a year going from one specialist to another trying to get a diagnosis that would medically explain her behaviors and reactions, and she became more and more furious with each specialist that told her, “No. It’s not ____, it’s trauma.” It’s important to understand, at this point, that she had begged me to help her understand why “….life is so hard….” for her, and I did. Whenever she asked and I responded with facts and personal experience, she would say (again, I quote), “But, you’re not trained in that field. How do you know this?” Other times, she would lavish me with flattery by saying, “I’ve been in therapy for ____, and you’ve helped me more than ____ did.” But, when push came to shove, she would respond with, “Yes, but………” And, all of the talk about “hate” and how “terrible” her life was were all harbingers of another inevitable meltdown.
When she mentioned what the most recent medical specialist had to say, I thought about my response and said, “I tried to tell you this, Gretchen,” and she reacted (quote), “I had to rule everything out, so now I can start working on this.” I was confounded because, regardless of whether an issue is medical or emotional, the focus should have been on managing the symptoms, and it finally had come streaming out of her mouth that the past 24 months of her crying, threatening suicide, and moaning about her son leaving her had never, at any time, been about sorting out her life and helping herself. It had all been about an ongoing Pity Party, and I had enabled it.
The rage came down on me when Gretchen was recollecting (for the fourth time) what a biatch the HR person was that had interviewed her, and I said, “Gretchen, do you realize that this event is in the past and that it’s over with?” She flew into a state of rage, and let me have it with both barrels. Gretchen spun on me quicker than a cyclone and said, “WHY can’t you just BE MY FRIEND?! Why are you always judging me and analyzing me?!” I was very hurt, but not surprised because her vocal tone and cadence had already been enough of a warning – Gretchen wanted to fight someone – anyone. And, I was the target for her rage of the past five decades. When I told her that I was hurt by her accusations, her reaction was, “I’m sorry YOU’RE HURT!” Sadly, I cannot duplicate the vocal inflections or bellowing of this assertion, but I fully expected for her to finish her remark with, “….but, I don’t CARE.”
The whole point of this recollection is that there are some people that, regardless of their pleadings, have absolutely no interest in helping themselves or taking responsibility for their own actions. They live in denial. They wail, they cry, they moan, they groan, and they wallow in self-pity until they reek of it. People who are compassionate and empathetic can be drawn into their crazy making behaviors in an attempt to try to help relieve their obvious pain, while people who have a sociopathic agenda will use their own emotional/behavioral pathologies against these people for their own entertainment. The one constant that is unwavering is that Gretchen likes where she is. None of her problems are of her own making or a result of her poor decisions, they are always, to her thinking at least, the fault of someone else. Denial is her long term defense.
Denial is probably one of the best known defense mechanisms, used often to describe situations in which people seem unable to face reality or admit an obvious truth (i.e. “He’s in denial.”). Denial is an outright refusal to admit or recognize that something has occurred or is currently occurring. Drug addicts or alcoholics often deny that they have a problem, while victims of traumatic events may deny that the event ever occurred. Denial functions to protect the ego from things that the individual cannot cope with. While this may save us from anxiety or pain, denial also requires a substantial investment of energy. Because of this, other defenses are also used to keep these unacceptable feelings from consciousness.
Joyce has written extensively about the type of behavior that Gretchen is displaying. Dr. Eric Berne, in his book Games People Play, has termed the “game” they play as “Yes, but…” . These people won’t even accept what the professionals tell then, let alone someone who doesn’t “have a degree” in whatever field it is. They ask for advice, but always give reasons that the advice won’t work. “That’s good advice, but….” People who play this game are soul-suckers. They are thieves of our essence……they take and take and take, and then blame those who cannot (or, will not) give any more to them. I’m not talking about financially, though Gretchen has confessed that she actually “used” both her ex-husband (to produce an offspring) and her ex-boyfriend (to pay the mortgage), but I’m mainly talking about emotional robbery. If we enable them they will frustrate us, confuse us and suck us dry.
When we are in recovery, our vulnerabilities are more easy to abuse than they ever were because our emotions are raw and we are just learning (or, re-learning) how to protect those precious qualities. I was hopeful for Gretchen, but I finally “got it” about what her core issues really are. “Getting it” is 90% of the challenge when it comes to individuals who have survived the ravages of a convicted or un-charged criminal psychopath, and Gretchen’s parent was extraordinarily abusive and was, by definition, an abuser and didn’t face any consequences for her crimes against her own offspring. Gretchen has “magical thinking” and refuses to see the hole she is digging for herself.
Even our family members will beg for help, again and again, and, each time that help is rendered, it will either be squandered or thrown back into the faces of their loved ones who attempted to help. Nothing – no amount of money or percentage of our souls – will ever be enough to satisfy the “Yes, buts.” The “Yes, buts” are typically not sociopaths or psychopaths, but, they are wholly toxic and pathologically needy. The one thing that comes to my mind is Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Nothing that we give of ourselves will ever be enough. They beg for answers, and we give them the facts, and logic, but, our facts are dismissed. They ask for empathy, but there isn’t enough empathy in the world to fill their voids. They demand pity for their mistakes, but accuse friends and family of standing in judgment if we even HINT at personal responsibility. The only “safe” method of dealing with a person playing “Yes, but..” is to back away, very slowly, and to keep in mind that they tend to stampede if they are startled.
If we choose to interact with people who play “Yes, but..” the response to their demands for answers, etc., is a firm, “I don’t know. You need to speak to your therapist.” Or, attorney, or clergy, or whatever….but, we cannot “help” them. We can’t. Any attempt to help them results in a portion of our essence being siphoned away, and I have worked too long and hard to get where I am to give any bit of my recovery away to anyone else, no matter how much I might care about them. And, it is possible to continue to care about a person playing “Yes, but…., ” however, we don’t have to enable them or engage in their crazy making games.
Enabling is doing for someone what they should do for themselves. Wiki says about enabling
Enabling is a term with a double meaning in psychotherapy and mental health.
As a positive term, “enabling” references patterns of interaction which allow individuals to develop and grow. These patterns may be on any scale, for example within the family, or in wider society as “enabling acts” designed to empower some group, or create a new authority for a (usually governmental) body.
In a negative sense, “enabling” can describe dysfunctional behavior approaches that are intended to help resolve a specific problem but in fact may perpetuate or exacerbate the problem. A common theme of enabling in this latter sense is that third parties take responsibility or blame, or make accommodations for a person’s harmful conduct (often with the best of intentions, or from fear or insecurity which inhibits action).
Each of us is an adult and we are responsible for the consequences of our thinking and our behaviors. If someone asks for advice repeatedly and always says in response some form of “yes but..” or if they continually blame others for the consequences of their own behaviors and choices, we need to recognize that we are helpless to support this person as they spiral down into the abyss, all the while shoveling the hole deeper and deeper. When you’re in the bottom of a hole. STOP DIGGING. When there is someone in our lives who keeps on digging, we are not able to “rescue” them from their own bad choices and for us to stand on the edge of the abyss and shout out “stop digging” we are only going to frustrate ourselves and waste our breath.