I know you’ve heard this before – you teach people how to treat you. Whether you watch Dr. Phil or not, it’s become one of those phrases that has moved from the television set into the everyday vernacular. There is a reason for that! When you find yourself in a situation – good or bad – where you are appreciating or loathing the way that someone has been treating you, think about what role you are playing in that dynamic. Have they always acted like this or has their behavior stemmed from your allowing it? Are you not able to get as close to people as you would like because you constantly push people away? Figuring out what you are doing to contribute to a situation is the only way you’re going to be able to change it.
One of the most common themes that falls under this category is that of enabling. Whether it be with someone who is an addict, an adult child who continues to live at home or someone who is constantly in your business, enabling plays a huge factor in whether that behavior continues as it is, changes, or just continues without you supporting it. I think it’s safe to say that we all have people that we love – some more than life itself. We would never want any harm to come to those people and many of us would put ourselves in front of a bullet for them. Which is what leads to the cycle of love – guilt – enabling. Fortunately and unfortunately, the three go hand in hand and the cycle is a very difficult process to navigate at times.
Love is something that is often unconditional. Our children, our parents, our friends – there are people who you would do anything to help – whether or not it’s in anyone’s best interest. And that’s the rub. Sometimes we do things that we feel is the right thing for someone because they can’t seem to do it themselves – or WON’T do it themselves – and the cycle begins. The old saying “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime” states the same thing. If you continue to do for the people you love PAST the point of their truly needing you to, you are feeding them for only a day at a time. And often, you are depleting yourself a day at a time – whether that be of money, energy or time. You teach people how to treat you, so maybe it’s time to teach them (and you!!) a different lesson.
Another of Dr. Phil’s famous sayings is that we are raising adults, not children. That’s something that I’ve tried to keep in the forefront of my mind since my children were born. It’s not always easy (believe me!) and I sometimes have to check myself (“it’s easier if I do it,” “it’s faster,” “we have to get out the door,” etc.), but it is my job to get my children ready to be adults, not children. As adults, I want them to want to be with me, not need to be with me. And that is something that I think goes for so many relationships. This is a way to empower the next generation so that they have a better chance of not falling into the same mistakes that we may have made.
So let’s talk a little bit about the cycle of love – guilt – enabling. When we love people, we naturally want to take care of them. And depending on the recipient, they will either love, appreciate, balk at and/or cling to those gestures. If they choose to cling over and over and over to the point where your 20-something college graduate is still living at home, looking for the “right” job, AND you resent it, you need to think about what you’ve done to put yourself there – what you’ve taught them and how they are treating you. I know you love them and THEY know you love them, but is what you are currently doing for them (at your own expense and out of guilt) really teaching them to fish? Are you teaching them how to be responsible, pay bills and be a contributing member of society? Are they going to go out with friends in a few years and say “Well, my mom never LET me…” when they are trying to defend their decisions to the world? And at the same time, do you find yourself defending your child because they just need a little more time or support or money or sleep, while you are secretly stewing and resenting it? Really think about what you’ve taught your child about their relationship with you. Enabling doesn’t stop until one of you stops it. And if it’s injuring your relationship with that person (child, spouse, friend, etc.), maybe it’s time to try making a different choice.
Teaching people how to treat us can be unbelievably difficult when we’ve lived the same pattern for so many years, so it’s really about the little things. If an adult in your family asks for $20 each and every week, doesn’t have a job and you don’t want to continue the pattern, choose a monthly amount for a set amount of time (“I can give you $40 per month between now and September, but after that I will no longer be able to give you money.”) If someone is living in your home and you aren’t pleased with the progress or contributions that they are making, give them a move date (in a few months, if you’re being generous) and have them sign something stating so. If a boyfriend is constantly cheating on you and you wait for him to come back every time (because he now knows he can) – know that if you don’t change your behavior and what you’re allowing, he certainly won’t change his. But here’s the thing – when you make a decision like any of the above, you MUST hold to it. You MUST make them move, you MUST stop giving them money. If you extend the date or give a little more here or there, you’ve just taught them that they can manipulate you into doing not what’s best for you or for them, but what’s easiest and has the quickest reward. And you’re back to square one.
Teaching people how to treat you is really a combination of knowing what’s right (we all have those gut feelings!), trusting yourself and holding your ground. Having a support system is also something that can be crucial, even if it’s just a spouse/partner, family member, friend or a therapist. You cannot do it by yourself and if you have a sounding board along with continued validation, you’re more likely to trust the decisions and boundaries that you know are the right ones.