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When Kindness is Misguided
By: M.D. Abraham Twerski

Two simple statements in the Talmud contain an entire field of therapeutic wisdom that was developed some 2,000 years later. "It is not the mouse (that steals the food) that is the thief, but rather the hole (where the mouse can hide) that is the thief" (Gittin 45a).

The Talmud does not ascribe a minor, accessory role to the protective mouse hole, but the primary role. It is the hole that gives the mouse refuge that is regarded as the culprit, rather than the mouse.

Another Talmudic statement is, "Whoever exercises mercy where strictness is required, will eventually be cruel where kindness is required" (Kohelet Rabba 7:33). These two statements encompass virtually everything that has been written about the "enabling" phenomenon.

Temporary Relief

What is "enabling?" "Enabling" refers to the behavior of people in close contact with a person who is acting destructively toward himself and/or others. The concept was initially developed in regard to alcoholism, but is applicable not only to other addictions, but to many other types of destructive behavior.

To engage in destructive behavior is clearly illogical, and is contrary to the innate instinct of self-survival. Such behavior occurs only when it provides some pleasurable sensation or experience, as can be seen in the case of the alcoholic, whose drinking temporarily assuages tension or relieves a compulsive urge. This temporary sensation of relief encourages repetitive drinking.

Let us follow the pattern of the alcoholic as an example to illustrate the phenomenon of "enabling." Excessive use of alcohol invariably results in unpleasant consequences including physical distress, loss of mental acuity, absenteeism, impaired work performance, aggression, anti-social behavior and frank violation of the law. These consequences can result in so much distress that the drinker may conclude that the pleasurable effects of the drinking are just not worth it. When the misery resulting from the drinking exceeds the pleasure it provides, the drinking may stop, or the person may seek help to stop drinking.

It follows that anyone who in any way relieves the alcoholic of the unpleasant consequences of his drinking is eliminating the only thing that could cause him to stop. The one who tries to be benevolent by "helping" the drinker is inadvertently, but very effectively, promoting continuation of the drinking.

We have used alcoholism as an example, but the same is true of the compulsive overeater, the compulsive gambler, the drug-dependent person, and even other types of destructive behaviors which are not addictive.

The Cover-Up

"Enabling" can also refer to doing things for others which they should be doing for themselves, because this can result in the development of unhealthy dependencies. "Enabling" can apply to parents who cover up for their children's dereliction and blame others for things that are really the child's responsibility. For example, teachers may be maligned when the parents project the child's poor school performance on the teacher rather than onto the child's lack of diligence.

When this is the case, the parents are fostering an attitude of finding fault in others for one's own dereliction, and this trait may persist well through adult life.

Compulsive overeaters may swear that they eat sparsely, and family members may believe them and share in attributing the undesirable weight gain to some glandular problem that medical science has not yet discovered. This, too, is enabling.

In the Talmudic statement, the "mouse hole," the enabler, does not commit the act of stealing and is not the cause of the act, any more than oxygen is the cause of fire, which was ignited by a spark. However, in the absence of oxygen, the fire will not burn. Indeed, to extinguish a flame, one does not go after the match that was its cause, but rather douses it with water to prevent oxygen from reaching it. Effective treatment of destructive behavior requires elimination of the "oxygen," i.e., whatever is enabling it...

The father, wife, or doctor may think (s)he is being kind, helpful and considerate. This is where the Talmudic prediction comes into play: misguided "kindness" ultimately leads to cruelty.

A father of a compulsive gambler rejected my advice to let his son face charges for fraudulent use of credit cards, and he also covered the bad checks his son had issued. Several years later, the son's wife and children were penniless and homeless. Her jewelry had been sold and the children's savings accounts had been emptied. The son was still the same compulsive gambler as before. His father's "kindness" had not helped him in the least, and the wife and children had been dealt a cruel blow.

Reducing The Motivation

But why is the mouse hole, which did not steal, more culpable than the mouse?

It is because the mouse follows a natural urge for food and is compelled to steal. The master of the house is not compelled to leave holes in the wall where the mouse can hide.

An adult who was the child of an alcoholic parent told me, "I could understand my father's erratic behavior, because his thinking and judgment were distorted by the effects of alcohol on the brain. But my mother was sober, her brain was intact! Why did she irrationally cover up for him, justify his neglect of us and cater to his whims?"

The person who is not subject to the compulsive behavior should be acting in a more mature and responsible manner. (S)he has an obligation to recognize the unhealthy behavior and avoid condoning it.

Although addicts are people who are under compulsion, this does not justify their behavior. While they are not responsible for the compulsion, they are responsible if they do not take the necessary steps to bring it under control. Without the proper help, it may be next to impossible to control a compulsion. The person must be motivated to seek appropriate help. Enabling reduces or eliminates the necessary motivation.

Compulsions can blind a person to the principles of morals and ethics, and appealing to these is generally useless. What does work is allowing him to feel the negative consequences of his behavior. This is not punishing him for what he is doing, but rather allowing him to feel the punishment inherent to the improper behavior, to recognize the misery he causes himself.

If a mother manifested her love for her infant by refusing to allow a doctor to administer a painful injection to immunize the child against a terrible disease, we would say that this is a short-sighted, even foolish, type of love. It would be a misguided "kindness" that will eventually result, as the Talmud says, in cruelty. The same is true of enabling done in the name of love.

It is not easy to stop enabling, but few things of true value are achieved with great ease. People in close contact with their "problem person" need help with their own adjustments and reactions. They need to learn what to do and what not to do; what is truly helpful and what may appear to be helpful on the surface, but is in reality counterproductive. They need to be strengthened and encouraged to do what is right, even though it may be unpleasant.

I urge "enablers" to avail themselves of support groups and competent counseling. They are likely to be rewarded by what they desire most -- the eventual discontinuance of the destructive behavior, once the enabling is eliminated.



Source: Originally published in “Jewish Action”.