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When Kindness is Misguided

by By Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, M.D.


Library » Philosophy » Consequences | Subscribe | What is RSS?


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 Rabbah 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...


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Philosophy » Character

Usually referring to the Babylonian edition, it is a compilation of Rabbinic law, commentary and analysis compiled over a 600 year period (200 BCE - 427 CE). Talmudic verse serves as the bedrock of all classic and modern-day Torah-Jewish literature.