Stepping Up by Stepping Back: How Loved Ones Can Stop Enabling Social Anxiety Disorder

If your loved one suffers from social anxiety, it’s all too easy to help shelter them. But when love turns to enabling, it hurts more than helps. Seeking help and therapy is the best way to tackle their anxiety disorder, and lead towards a fuller life. While they’re in treatment, it’s important for you to seek your own help, to prepare for life after treatment, and equip yourself with a plan to keep from falling back into enabling behavior.

 

When a spouse is sick, you pamper them, tuck them in with warm compresses, make them soup, and attend to their every need. When a child falls off the swing, you kiss their bruised knees and sing to their snuffling heart until they are ready to swing again. When a parent feels the aches of aging you help them walk, and care for them as they cared for you. That’s part of being a human: when we see someone we love who is hurt or frightened or alone, we comfort them. We do everything we can to make them feel better. We make it right.

But sometimes, our help doesn’t make it right. If someone you love suffers from social anxiety, your desire to help shield them from the pain can actually make things worse. Instead of helping them, you are hurting them. Enabling social anxiety is a common mistake, and one that is easy to fall into. But to really help the person you care about—to set them on the path to a healthy and full life—you have to tamp down your loving instincts and make sure they get the help they need. You want to clear the sky, not just provide shelter from the storm.

When Love Turns To Enabling

Jackie couldn’t handle crowds. Being in a crowd would induce intense social anxiety, and she couldn’t breathe, would get dizzy, and would just start panicking. For Claire, her fiance, this wasn’t a problem at first. She was okay not going to amusement parks (long lines and funnel cakes weren’t her ideas of a great date, really) or anything like that. There were movies, and quiet places in the Golden Gate Park near the Bunny Meadow, and bike rides. Life was pretty normal.

But then it seemed like Jackie’s condition got worse, and the definition of a “crowd” narrowed to those half-empty movie theaters and open-aired parks. Claire, remembering her mom’s soothing whispers when dispelling ghosts, did the same. She comforted Jackie, and accommodated her, and increasingly, they stayed in. Since they both worked remotely, there was little need to ever leave. Jackie seemed happy, even though by this point the mere act of going to the corner store left her a palpitating wreck.

What Claire was doing was accommodating avoidance. By allowing Jackie to avoid any situation that might potentially trigger a social anxiety attack, she made sure that more and more situations would do so. She helped Jackie shrink her world, not to a manageable size, but to a point where anything outside that world suddenly seemed huge and terrifying. By being loving, she enabled Jackie to avoid dealing with her debilitating and life-stealing condition.

Because that’s what enabling really does: it allows a person to avoid facing their condition. If Claire’s mom had turned the lights on every time Claire thought she saw a ghost, saying it would dispel them, she’d never have learned to not be afraid. But that was what she was doing with Jackie, and that’s what people who enable social anxiety are doing to their loved ones, whether it is a parent, spouse, child, or friend. With nearly 7% of the population suffering from social anxiety to a degree, enabling is a course that many of us unwittingly and lovingly fall into. That’s a course that has to be reversed, for everyone involved.

The Benefits of True Help and Therapy

“Not enabling” is different than forcing someone to do something they hate. Claire wasn’t about to bring Jackie to a packed club on a sweaty Saturday night, just as you wouldn’t push someone with a fear of public speaking onstage at a Ted Talk. But you could have them talk to strangers with shared interests at a party, and not let them avoid normal social interactions. Claire could encourage and help Jackie go to the movies, go to safer places, and not let her be afraid of what was once normal for her.

Remember, it is better for everyone involved that they try to live their life. Having social anxiety is bad for a relationship: any relationship. Claire might, despite her love, become bitter at the restrictions placed on her social life, even if Jackie isn’t explicitly demanding them. A parent could get frustrated with their child for not wanting to go out, even though the parent is enabling it. Friends could unconsciously decide to stop seeing their socially anxious friend because it is too much work to find something they want to do. And at that point, the person is more alone than ever, and further away from help.

That’s where therapy can do great work. A specialized residential treatment center can help a person like Jackie, or your loved one, get to the roots of their social anxiety, and learn ways to control it and live with it, rather than let it control them. Being part of a small group of people who have similar struggles, led by compassionate and trained professionals, can help a person with social anxiety not just find the limits of what is comfortable for them, but to stretch and challenge those limits.

Preparing Yourself for Life After Treatment

Residential treatment can involve a variety of individual, holistic, and clinical therapies which will help your loved one, but you need help at the same time. While enabling isn’t a disorder, it walks hand in hand with them. You have to make sure you don’t unwittingly steer them back into unhealthy patterns.

One way to do this is to work with the same therapists in a designated family program. In these programs, you work both with and without your loved one, establishing understanding, boundaries, and behaviors that will allow you both to be healthy. The therapy will give you a lot of information and insight, including help on how to:  

  • Not assume total responsibility for someone else’s life. It isn’t all your burden, and when you accept that it isn’t—accept that you are there to help—you have a different perspective on what you can and can’t do.
  • Go out by yourself. A person with severe social anxiety will always have situations they need to avoid, and won’t suddenly become an extrovert after treatment. And that’s fine. They might not be able to go to every office party, for example. They can stay home and be fine, and you can go out and not feel guilty. Clear expectations around social engagements can build your relationship, and it’s healthy to have some degree of separate lives. This also helps prevent resentment.
  • Have the right conversations. Understanding these boundaries means having open and honest talks about what you both want and need, and what you can and can’t do. Every relationship requires these, no matter what. When one person has social anxiety, it doesn’t make it better to avoid that conversation. It just makes it even more important.
  • Take care of yourself. It isn’t “selfish” to make sure that you are living a happy and full life, even if a loved one is having problems. That’s how you are there for them. Devoting all the time you have to making sure that they are comfortable doesn’t just enable them, it hurts you, and that means you will ultimately be able to do less good.

By definition, you love your loved one, but that shouldn’t be an excuse for keeping them in thrall to their disorder. It should be a reason to look inward on yourself. Why do you enable? Because you love them, of course. But it is important to understand that enabling social anxiety isn’t preventing it; it is helping it grow, to envelop your loved one, and to take over their life. With therapy, with clear expectations, and with personal strength, you can help beat back the beast, and give the person you love the power to live fully.

Bridges to Recovery is a comprehensive mental health treatment program, treating small groups of six or fewer clients at a time. Combining evidence-based and holistic therapies creates the most effective, individualized treatment plan for each client’s needs, starting them on the path to sustained recovery. Reach out to us today to find out more.

 

Lead Image Source: Unsplash user Taylor Nicole