A favoured label of therapists and mental health staff is to describe someone who cares about a person with a mental health condition as an “enabler” or “facilitator”. Whilst this label would be an asset in a teacher, trainer or HR professional and would mean they were good at their job, in mental health terms and in conditions where the person “suffering” is in denial of their condition, it means the opposite.
What is an Narcissistic Enabler?
An enabler or facilitator is someone, who is either knowingly or in ignorance, allows a person with a damaging health condition to carry on their negative behavior. Such behavior is frowned upon by the medical community, in particular.
Now whilst it is easy to delineate enabling where there is a clear relationship between the behavior of the enabler and the outcome for the person who is suffering such as feeding a person with heart disease a diet high in saturated fats. It is, however, much harder when one considers the issue of cause and effect when the relationship between behavior and outcome is linked to a whole host of pre-existing vulnerabilities which are not always obvious to all but those with specialist insight or experiences. This is true of NPD, a fragile sense of self combined with overly high expectations placed on one by a parent is enough to do it in some cases, but the “conversion rate” into full-blown NPD is not 100%, probably not even 50%.
Love too is a factor. Earlier this year the BBC PM radio news program published a blog about a woman who had enabled her daughter to buy heroin because of a lack of treatment for her addiction. In extremis, no one who loves someone can live with themselves if they see a person they love in pain without a solution, sometimes even tough love doesn’t hit the mark.
Narcissistic personality disorder, cannot exist in an individual without someone to enable and facilitate it. A narcissist is enabled first by their parents and, like the heroin addict, needs their supply thereafter. I want to examine here how it is possible to be an enabler of NPD without even meaning to and perhaps why the label “enabler” or facilitator should be used with care or never used when applied to those in a relationship with people with NPD.
Denial – the enabling parent and narcissism
A parents, we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. The American writer Mich Albom wrote:
“All parents damage their children. It cannot be helped. Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of its handlers. Some parents smudge, others crack, a few shatter childhoods completely into jagged little pieces, beyond repair.”
The English poet Philip Larkin expressed similar, if more graphic sentiments in his poem
“This Be The Verse” favoured by teens everywhere, because it allows them to swear with impunity:
They f**k you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But in terms of the issue of enabling it is the next verse which is most relevant:
But they were f****d up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
As parents, damaged by our own upbringing, we try to give our children something better. The parent of the potentially narcissistic tot, may have suffered from low self-esteem because of low parental expectations, or neglect. They could be the eldest child in a large family who was overlooked for a prettier or smarter younger sibling. They could have been the child who though smart wasn’t able to go to university or college because of family circumstances. A friend of mine with NPD now in therapy once said to me:
“My dad had very high expectations of me. He had been smart but when his dad left when he was in his teens, he had to leave school and go to work to keep the rest of the family. He was determined that I should make something of myself. Only outstanding performance was accepted. I began to lie to myself and everyone about my successes. He never let me forget it when I failed to get into an Ivy league”
There had been no intent to harm here and whilst the parents of people with NPD have a lot to answer for, they are undoubtedly the enablers in denial and in some ways blameless.
Ignorance – the facilitating friend or lover of the narcissist
When love is new we hero worship the person, be it exciting new friend or a lover. This hero worship is the essence of a refreshing narcissistic supply. A narcissist tends to have friends in two categories. Those who have a degree of emotional literacy, who tend not to stick around for long, and whose ability to deliver the narcissistic supply is limited by their measured response to the boastfulness and lies of the narcissist. And the rest, who have low ability to spot the narcissist for who he or she really is.
They are the loyal lieutenants or the WAGs (wives and girlfriends) of the narcissist. In their ignorance, they are the gift that keeps of giving. They will apologise for the rudeness of the narcissist, be explainers when the narcissist tells lies and most of all fail to ask the most obvious questions about the grandiose statements and grandstanding of their beloved one
Powerless – the enabling employee, elderly or infirm parent, the trapped wife or facilitating child
There are always some enablers who are powerless to control their own lives. Even in the 21st century there are those who are bonded to another, even though they may not want to travel the rollercoaster of the behaviour and emotions of their patron, parent or partner.
Narcissists have no sensitivity or care who gives them their narcissistic supply. In the absence of willing volunteers, the default position will always be those weaker than themselves. Like a drug addict who steals money from an unguarded handbag, or an alcoholic who stashes booze in his grannies annex they are amoral and out of control. The weak and the vulnerable have no power to stop enabling them or facilitating their narcissistic supply.
So, if someone you love has been diagnosed as having NPD and you have been labelled as an enabler or facilitator, be kind to yourself, it isn’t as easy as you think to avoid. And perhaps a few therapists need to walk a mile in your shoes before they judge you!
Mitch Albon: The Five People You Meet in Heaven pp197 Pub: Hyperion Books 2003