I am a chronic helper, so when I gravitated toward becoming a teacher and a support worker upon graduation, it came as no surprise to those around me.
I am the kind of person who offers advice in a casual conversation—like when someone asks me to pass the milk.
I do not do it intentionally. I just don’t know how to show my love or affection without offering some sort of support in addition.
Like most folks in people-oriented professions (and for most empaths), it is easy for us to burn out. We spend hours doing emotional labour at work alongside supporting friends and family on our off hours. And, God forbid if one of them struggles with addictions or chronic depression—this keeps us on a constant 24-hour watch.
Don’t get me wrong—there is nothing wrong with being there for others. But when it starts to overtake our lives, and instead of solving the problem, our help only prolongs it, we must realize our ineffectiveness. At that point, we also tend to become resentful.
At work, I felt like the more students I saw, the more they kept coming back for more support. And the more people I tried to help in my personal life, the more they needed me.
I was stuck in vicious cycle and needed to get out.
“Help people in such a way that they do not need to come back to you again for the same problem.” This was the advice our head professor told us on my first day of training at the college.
“It is important to know the difference between empowering and enabling,” he continued.
“Enabling is editing the essay for the students. Empowering is teaching students how to edit their own essays by helping them to identify their gaps, giving them the tools to fix them, and encouraging their existing strengths.”
I never understood the difference until I realized that the way I was helping people was no longer sustainable. The same principles of empowerment applied to all areas of care in our lives: in relationships, at work, with family, or when providing any kind of care-giving.
Here are some of the ways we can tell the difference between empowering and enabling:
1. Enabling is trying to fix other people’s problems. Empowering is supporting people as they solve their own problems while providing them with the tools and resources they need.
Empowerment does not, however, mean doing sitting and doing nothing while people present their problems to us.
According to resiliency researcher Michal Udgar from Dalhousie University, resilience is defined as not merely survival but “having the tools to navigate the resources around them.”
Our job, as helpers, is to provide the tools.
In my teaching career, it was not about correcting every spelling error, but teaching students to do so themselves with the dictionary or the internet. In my support work, it was not about curing someone’s depression, but creating systems that allowed them to reach out when they were feeling low.
2. Enabling is about creating dependency. Empowering is about creating sustainability.
Enabling gives out the message that the person needs you to know the answer, when in reality, they have all it takes to succeed. Through empowerment, we help people identify their own areas that need improvement.
Our job is to not solve every recurring mistake that will come in the future, but to teach people how to deal with similar problems that might arise.
In my teaching, I now ask questions such as, “Does this sentence sound right to you?” or “Can you tell me if there is a mistake,” and I help students to identify the gaps themselves so that they can self-edit.
In caring for others, I ask people to “trust their bodies” to know if something feels off, and suggest multiple sources of care if one person is not available—like other support systems, pets, and support lines.
In these ways, I know that when I am not around, the person will be able to help themselves.
3. Enabling is allowing someone to constantly rely on us to make all the decisions. Empowering is letting a person believe in their “own power” to make decisions.
Enabling is saying, “I know what is right.” Empowering is saying “I trust you know what is right for you, and I am here to support you.”
Empowering is stepping back and giving the person room to showcase their unique skills, make mistakes, and experiment until they get a feel for what is right for them.
We do a disservice when making decisions for others because we may not always be right. While some of our advice will prove to be useful, not all of it can be right for every person and in every specific circumstance.
With my students, I encourage them to trust their own work and progress. Many famous artists broke the rules, and keeping that in mind, I do not want to be someone who stifles my students based on my own opinion of how things should be. I trust they know their writing best, that they understand what needs to be said and how to say it.
Similarly, when it comes to relationship or career advice, I do not have the firsthand insight into people’s experiences, long-term goals, or even the amount of work they are willing to put into either of them. I can only offer a point of view. Especially when helping people in abusive relationships or addictions, I now give people room to go back or relapse, and instead, celebrate and encourage every time they honour themselves and make healthier decisions.
Learning the difference made me a better teacher. I stopped being impatient when students made mistakes. It lowered my workload, as I watched my students help themselves with the tools that I gave them. And it made me happier. In my relationships, I became less controlling and more compassionate. I also felt safer knowing my family and friends had multiple systems of support.
In knowing the difference between empowering and enabling, I no longer want to rob people of their own power, but instead encourage and honour their own potential and unique talents.
In the meantime, I can learn to do this for myself as well.
Author: Robbie Ahmed
Image: Bill Trammel/Flickr
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy Editor: Nicole Cameron
Social Editor: Waylon Lewis