honest support > rescue/shame/enable

Have you ever been in that position with a friend where you are witnessing yet another train wreck in your midst, the patterns of behaviour and practice that have historically got your friend in hot water have once again taken their toll? When that happens what is your approach?

I have noticed three types of responses, none of which yield very satisfying results. 1) The Rescuer. Rescuing is hard work and we tend to feel good about ourselves as we seek to pull our friend out of the fire and onto safe ground. We intervene just enough to remove our friend from the current mess, keep the results of the problematic behaviour at bay, and perhaps move them to safer ground, maybe even ground that can lead to new life. 2) Shame is a powerful tool we use when we are feeling particularly self-righteous. When we feel strong, powerful, in charge of our life, affirmed by those around us, we climb to the pedestal where we can look down at others in difficulty and remind them that they are the authors of their own misfortune. “There you go again…” we say and then we itemize the behaviour and patterns that once again have yielded the same results. This also feels very good, it makes us say to ourselves, “thank God I am not like them…” 3) We listen, we care, we offer support, whatever narrative the friend has adopted to assist her/his through this challenge. Our friend has been fired for repeatedly missing work, for unsatisfactory work, for rude behaviour at work. But our friend’s interpretation of the events are that co-workers are jealous and mean. So we say, “Oh how terrible of them, thank goodness you are away from that toxic environment.” This approach also yields lots of praise from friends, not surprisingly people LOVE friends like these, enablers, who support by agreeing to whatever narrative the aggrieved friend has adopted.

But step back from these interactions with the other and ask yourself, when you were in the place where the friend now stands, what kind of support really helped you? I am NOT talking here about the times when you were ill and needed empathy and compassion. Further, I am not talking about the times when you were bullied at work or home and needed the support of friends who offered unconditional love. No, I am talking about the times when the problematic thought patterns and behaviours we all live with have come to a tipping point where there are consequences in our personal and work lives. When we are honest with ourselves and see these patterns and know that occasionally, at work and in our personal lives, they cause us grief and pain, what kind of support was helpful to us?

Chances are we might say that the rescuer and enabler were helpful and the shaming “not so much”! But a deeper reflection might tell us otherwise, that going through these cycles, these perpetual ups and downs, did not improve with the interventions of rescuers and enablers. We can all agree that shaming does not work. Period. But it takes some maturity to realize that being rescued and enabled from our problematic patterns of behaviour has done us no real good.

The support that has really helped me came from people who really care about me, wanted the best from and for me, they spoke to my better angels and helped me see a future where my better-self flourished and thrived. These friends also were able to remind me how the circumstances of my latest crisis were a lot like my former crisis and asked me what needed to change to make my next venture more life-giving. That is not as easy conversation to begin or maintain. But it is the kind of support that potentially can lead to real transformation, not a “different me” but a “better me” that is more self-aware and motivated to change. As I look back at the arc of my life I see that real change in my life was assisted not by rescuing, shaming or enabling but rather by honest support. It has made all the difference.