Bullish Life: Are Your Friends “Supportive” or “Enabling”?

Jennifer Dziura writes life coaching advice every Tuesday here on TheGloss, and career coaching advice Fridays on TheGrindstone.

I have noticed this a lot on Facebook: someone posts something like, “I know my doctor said no drinking while on meds, but sometimes a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do!”

And then 15 people chime in underneath: “Haha I know!”, “Doctors are just fronts for pharmaceutical giants that want to take your money and feed you poison,” “Tequila’s on me!”

Are you kidding me? It’s hard to be the Internet killjoy who types, “That could actually be really dangerous. Did you ask your doctor or pharmacist what could happen if you do that? Your life is more important than being able to blah blah blah now I’m your social networking mom except you sound like you never had a (sensible) real mom in the first place.”

Of course, this happens in real life as well. I once had a very sweet and buoyantly enthusiastic friend who Loved! Any! Idea! I! Had! As in, “Really, that strangely aggressive guy proposed to you after two weeks? Awesome, that will be really good for you!” and “You want to start a retail store for goldfish owners? That’s an amazing idea! You should sink all your savings into that right away!” and, “You’re so depressed you want to quit your job? I bet that will make you feel much better, just like you are saying right now into your beer!”

Sometimes, being nice in the moment is not actually being nice. If someone is about to drive off a cliff, a friendly wave is an insufficient expression of friendship. If someone is about to leave her perfectly nice husband because the sex has become somewhat less exciting, “I support you in everything you do” is actually a pretty terrible response, not just ethically, but also in the sense that people making decisions when they are depressed or undergoing major life changes will often regret those decisions later.

An enabler, in psychological (and Alcoholics Anonymous) parlance is a person whose behavior makes it easy for someone with an addiction or dependency to continue her damaging behavior. Enablers might lie to cover up a person’s addiction, ignore the behavior entirely, or engage in extraordinary efforts (doing someone’s job or schoolwork for her) to compensate for her dysfunction. The enabler helps the troubled person avoid responsibility, and assists her in continuing her harmful behavior. Why do people do this? Sometimes, out of misguided expressions of love, of course, but often to avoid conflict.

Living your whole life trying to avoid conflict can cause many problems.

An anecdote: I, not long ago, rejected a guy for a date when he told me he was a pacifist, and when questioned, said that “I would never attack anyone ever and I would go to jail rather than participate in any way in war.” Including, apparently, that one war in which we freed people from concentration camps. You know, that one. (It didn’t occur to me to also ask him if he would attempt to defend me if we were attacked while on this proposed date.)

I replied that I would fight to the death in a war against not only the Nazis, but any number of gang-raping warlords. Once you’ve raped and murdered a couple dozen women, I will personally, if given the chance, stab you in your hideous rapist throat. Obviously, I believe conflict is sometimes necessary and just. (See also Bullish: In Praise of Anger [and How to Use It].)

I think it is a sign of an underdeveloped ethics to only have answers to ethical questions that involve everyone else also being ethical. For instance, “Should you ever invade another country just to take their land?” Um, no. Obviously. That is not an interesting ethical question if you are over the age of seven. How about, “Should you ever invade another country to stop genocide? How about campaigns of rape? How about child sex trafficking?” Can you shoot someone who’s about to shoot your mother? Nearly all complex ethical issues involve the question of how we ourselves should act when others act unethically.

The ethical and relational issues most of us deal with in our personal relationships are obviously much less serious. (Wait, did this week’s Bullish really bring Hitler into it? Apparently. This is what we call a “debate team fail.”). Nevertheless, avoiding conflict is often not being nice at all. It’s just being spineless and cowardly. Ever notice that women are rarely called out for being “cowardly”, and rarely praised for being “valorous”? Well, I’m starting.

Many of us make the mistake of compulsively avoiding conflict on both sides of the equation — we don’t tell our friends hard truths even when asked, and we don’t seek out advice from those we know will disagree. The Internet allows us to curate our relationships in ways that were not possible when we were constrained by physical distance, technology, and stricter social structures: today, you really almost don’t ever have to talk to people you don’t agree with.

The result is that you don’t have to be a fat-cat CEO to surround yourself with yes-men; some of the least influential people on the planet are able to surround themselves with an insulating circle of ever-chipper flunkies.

A gentlewoman (see Bullish: How To Run Your Career Like A Gentlewoman) has a stronger constitution than this.

Are you enabling?

Do you make excuses for your friends? Or even for your employees? Managers who enable can end up hurting far more people than they help; someone who makes excuses for an underperforming employee is saying that it’s okay that all the other employees have to pick up the slack. It also doesn’t help the employee, who never takes responsibility, fixes the problem, or finds a more suitable career.

A 27-year-old woman I know posted to Facebook, shortly after her wedding: “I’m 27. I wonder if I should be thinking about having a baby, but there’s so much to do. But I wouldn’t want to wait too long and not be able to.”

I have regularly written (see Bullish: Financial Planning for Motherhood) about how, quite inconveniently, our eggs do not last as long as we might want them to; I was an egg donor, and I especially notice when fortysomething celebrities just seem to effortlessly have babies. Many of those babies are not biologically theirs. If Halle Berry’s daughter is genetically the offspring of a (super gorgeous!) egg donor, you and I will never know. Also keep in mind that there is a reporting bias in our perceptions of who is able to get pregnant: 38-year-olds who are able to have children tell everyone their happy news, while 38-year-olds who are stabbing themselves in the stomach with expensive fertility drugs don’t talk about it as much. This gives us a warped perception of the possibilities.

Below my friend’s post, various women wrote, “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine!” and “I got pregnant at 39! Never worry!” Never worry? I mean, if you’re already 39, maybe some relentless positive thinking is in order. If you’re 27, though, smart planning is far superior to careless, mindless optimism. The only time I’m ever caught in the rain without an umbrella is when I irrationally tell myself, “It won’t rain! Today is so special for me that it couldn’t possibly rain on my parade!” And then it does. Irrational optimism is wildly inappropriate when smart problem solving is still possible. That is, if you already have cancer, I might tell you any positive thing you want to hear; if you don’t have cancer and you smoke two packs a day, it would be pretty fucking irresponsible for me to tell you, “Don’t worry! It’ll all work out fine!”

Are you enabling others? Can you instead love people, while also having higher standards than they do?

You can support others without condoning behavior that is self-damanging or that damages others. For instance, your friend is going through a breakup; it’s sort of part of the girl-code to say, “He’s such a loser.” Even if you know it’s your friend who really has the problem. Instead, try, “I’m so sorry, you must feel terrible.” That’s a good non-enabling response in any situation: “I’m sorry you are feeling so bad.”

Are you being enabled?

Do you ask for advice or reassurance from people you know have lower standards than you do? My buoyant friend who loved everything I did — pretty soon I realized that if I was asking for her advice about something in the first place, I actually already knew it was a terrible idea, and I just wanted a mood-booster before I did something stupid. Similarly, being enabled might mean asking for career advice from your very kind and well-meaning grandmother — who you know is from another era, when career ambitions weren’t really important for women. (Conversely, if you ask me for advice, I’m assuming you expect to be told to do difficult and awesome things.)

Sometimes supportive friends are too supportive. Are the people cheering on your every move living the kind of lives you want to live? Almost certainly not, right? If not, maybe you should seek out more formidable and challenging people from whom to receive advice (see Bullish: How to Woo a Mentor or Forge Your Way Without One). Or just politely stop listening to empty, unearned kudos.

I was thinking about my friend, who genuinely wants children and was wondering when to think about having them. If the cheering gallery has their way, maybe she misses her chance, or maybe she just doesn’t plan. I’m in the having-all-the-information gallery. Maybe with all the information, she decides she doesn’t want kids after all. But well-made decisions do not begin with an “everything you do is awesome even when you act unthinkingly.” Maturity doesn’t just “happen” to you and then you go make responsible, adult decisions; rather, you make responsible, adult decisions and become more mature.

It takes a courageous gentlewoman to politely ignore supportive remarks that are meaningless, and to offer compassionate truth rather than cheerful platitudes to those who are suffering. But that’s exactly what all of us, and those we care for, need more of.

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    • Well Maybe…

      I’m not trying to detract from your nice article but in reference to the fb status used at the beginning: I really think some of that type of shit is for attention. If s/he is writing something like that – and it’s clearly not safe/healthy/happy – then they might be trying to garner attention or even sympathy. “Like omg, look how reckless I am, come save me!”
      So if your friends are enabling as opposed to supportive, it could indicate more of a problem with yourself than with them.
      Boy Who Cried Wolf, anyone?

    • Gloria

      Wow, Jen, this week’s post was awesome. Thank you for being honest – I read more things about myself here than what I hear from my friends.

    • Eve

      Jen, I love you and I refuse to enable you in your destructive behavior. No breaking Godwin’s Law. Bad Jen.

      … Then again, I don’t think you actually compared anyone to a Nazi. Good article. :)

      Oh, now I feel all weird about saying “good article.”

      • Jennifer Wright

        Do you think that the whole “Nazi argument” thing is specific to our generation? I’d quite like to think that in Renaissance Italy a group of scholars sat around and were like “Can you believe Michaelangelo dragged Nero into this? You automatically lose this argument, Michaelangelo!” And Michaelangelo would huff a little bit and respond “you can’t behave as though Nero DIDN’T turn Christians into human torches” and then everyone would sigh and say “it’s an extreme example, okay? Godwin Legge!”

        I’d like to think that’s true because sometimes I like to think of the past as being like the present in fancy dress. And the nature of argument hasn’t really changed hugely – Socrates still holds up pretty well (though for a long time his butt-sex jokes wouldn’t have gone over well, I imagine). Though if this business of one vile figure being constantly invoked in argument so much so that everyone has grown exhausted by it, if this is legitimately something specific just to us, that’s… kind of fascinating, right?

        Can’t be! It’s impossible! Someone find an old book where the old-timey equivalent of Godwin’s law happens! TO THE SHELVES!

    • Lindsey

      This is absolutely fantastic. I’m a firm believer that the best of friends give you the advice you probably don’t want to hear. I’m sending this to all my bad-advice giving friends.

    • Miss C

      The problem with Godwin’s law (great article btw!) is that it automatically assumes no-one and nothing will ever be as bad as Hitler and the Nazis, and that therefore to drag them up is akin to fictionalising the potential badness of the actions of the party you’re criticising.

      I’m not so sure about that (Mao and Stalin killed far more people and for a longer period of time for example, and ethnic cleansing has happened since in a number of places)… so yeah, 99% of Hitler-mentions online are just hyperbole, but the premise upon which the law rests is *severely* flawed.

    • James Wilson

      Anybody who goes around saying he’s either a pacifist or a moral relativist had better be ready for the World War II questions. I saw Howard Zinn on Book Notes once; Brian Lamb asked him what he would have done if he had been President when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and Mr. Zinn didn’t have a response, which I thought was just shocking. Apparently none of his students had ever challenged him with that one before.

      On the other hand, if you’re supposed to have friends who disagree with you, why would you rule out a date with a guy because of a disagreement over politics?

      As for Godwin’s Law, it obviously doesn’t mean we can’t discuss World War II. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin's_law


    • Bob V

      I’m with the rest. Godwin’s law is a good rule, but Jen is actually writing about Hitler, not making a terrible analogy to mime a point, which is Hitler’s typical function.

      Regarding pacifism, I am a utilitarian rather than a pacifist, but I think it’s given shorter shrift as a philosophical stand than it probably should be.

      Here are some issues with your arguments (as I see them).

      1. >(It didn’t occur to me to also ask him if he would attempt to defend me if we were attacked while on this proposed date.)

      A defense of the two of you while on a date is not a good analogy for war. A better question would be if he’d demolish a building your attacker was living in without bothering to find out who else might be inside.

      2. >Once you’ve raped and murdered a couple dozen women, I will personally, if given the chance,
      > stab you in your hideous rapist throat.

      Anytime we fight a war, we accept that it is likely that a lot of people unrelated to the bad guy are going to die. It isn’t the same sort of thing as busting a drug dealer. When an innocent person is shot by a police officer, there are investigations and hearings. When Dresden gets firebombed, it is SOP.

      If it were possible to just kill the rapists in another country, we’d live in a much nicer world.

      2. >WWII

      Yes, WWII seems to have worked out nicely. We ended up with a bunch of years of peace-ishness afterwards, which seems to validate its value.

      However, the past always seems inevitable when viewed from the future. It’s possible that, had we not joined, Hitler’s bureaucracy would have been unable to manage an Empire of discontented people on three continents and fewer lives would have been lost in an uprising against the government. (Something of this flavor happened with the Soviets, after all.)

      Similarly, keep in mind that the unpopular Iraq War had similar rationales. Hussain was bent on enlarging his empire and killing his own people too. Also, at the time war was declared UN nuclear inspectors were complaining about not having sufficient access to Iraq. If we hadn’t fought the war and three years later a smuggled bomb went off in a major city, we might have ended up wondering why we didn’t see the “inevitable” consequences.

      (None of this is to say that the Iraq War was a good idea or that WWII was a bad idea, but that we rarely know how things would have happened had we done something differently. More often, wWe make assumptions about what would have happened with moronic confidence.)

      3. One more time: >WWII

      Few philosophies are capable of being defended against extreme cases (which is why I’ve converted to utilitarianism).

      To fully appreciate how exceptional WWII was, take a look at the timeline of US military operations (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_United_States_military_operations) or wars the US has been involved in (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wars_involving_the_United_States).

      One could certainly examine such a list through a pacifist lens without taking exception to each and every line.

    • Nick

      You have a mistaken view on Pacifism in World War 2. Hitler announced he was talking the minorities of Europe hostage. As long as the USA stayed out of the war, he said he would kill no one. Of course he was a liar anyway.

      But as the historical record shows, we were attacked Dec 7th, declared war Dec 8th, and the murders started Dec 9th. So there is a point here, that perhaps pacifists could of negoitiated away through this storm. I’m not saying it’s valid but for 60 years American Consciousness holds that war up like a gold standard.

      We got involved in Viet Nam for more moral reasons that we got involved in WW2.

    • Patti

      Thank you so much for this article. You’ve helped me get some much needed perspective on a bad situation. I look forward to reading more of your articles in the future.