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How and Why to Allow Natural Consequences to Unfold to Break the Cycle of Enabling

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So many of us try to step in and prevent or buffer those we love from experiencing the negative effects of their negative behaviors. If you do this once in a while, that’s fine. But if it’s a pattern, it’s unhealthy. Not only does it make it much more difficult for you, but it prevents the other person from reaping the actual effects of their own negative behavior. They are highly unlikely to change their negative patterns if you keep jumping in and blocking them from the negative effects of their negative patterns. You’re blocking them from the natural consequences of their behavior.

Natural consequences are the inevitable result of a person's actions. That person created the result because of the actions they took. Natural consequences can be positive or negative. Most of us only leap in to prevent the negative ones though. Here are a couple of examples of both positive and negative natural consequences.

Positive: study for the exam, get a better grade

Negative: do not study for the exam, get a lower grade

Positive: arrive on time to work daily, get a good evaluation

Negative: arrive late for work regularly, get a poor evaluation

It’s often the loved ones of addicts who step in to prevent the addict from reaping the natural consequences of their negative behavior. If someone gets drunk and can’t get out of bed in the morning, their loved one might call their work to say they’re sick and clean up the mess they made the night before. The natural consequences of not getting out of bed or cleaning up after oneself would be that they get in trouble at work (or possibly fired) and they have to clean up their own mess. Those are their consequences, not yours. When we don’t allow them to feel the negative effects of their negative behavior, it’s less likely that they’ll change.

This behavior doesn’t just relate to addiction though. If a child waits until the last possible moment to work on a school project, a parent might leap in to rescue them by staying up all night helping them. The natural consequence of waiting until the last minute is that the child either doesn’t finish their project in time or does a really poor job. Those are the child’s consequences, not the parent’s. If the child knows their parent will always rescue them at the last minute, they have no impetus to work on their projects earlier.

Allowing natural consequences to occur does not mean we shame people for their negative behavior. It does mean letting them feel the discomfort of their own choices. Shaming people is never good. It’s not only cruel, it’s ineffective. Shame is one of the most difficult emotions for humans, so when you shame someone, they’re more likely to be defensive about their choice. It’s hard to learn when you’re feeling defensive and shameful. We want people to learn from the consequences of their behavior, and we’re not “ripe” for learning when defensive and shameful. 

When you don’t intervene between the negative behavior and the (natural) negative consequence, you help the person make the connection between their behavior, choices, and consequences. When no one intervenes, they reap the natural consequences of their own behavior. This gives them the opportunity to take control of their own lives. Just because you give somebody an opportunity, it doesn't mean they're going to take it! But if you never give them an opportunity, they won’t learn from their own mistakes.

It could be that they’ll blame you or someone else rather than take control over their life. But they’re definitely NOT going to take control when they’re living on an easy street without consequences for their behavior.

When you step out of the situation, you’re establishing healthy boundaries for yourself and you step out of enabling behavior. Enabling someone’s behavior is when we fix, solve, or make the consequences of their behavior go away. We enable them to continue in their dysfunction by making their lives easier for them because they don’t have to deal with any of the wreckage they’re creating. It takes away the teaching power of life experience. There's no downside to the person’s negative behavior when we enable them.

When we don’t enable people, their negative consequences are felt. These could be failing grades, missed social events, cold suppers, or puke-stained clothes. These can be powerful motivators for change.

When you buffer or protect people, you soften the outcomes or filter the results of their actions. You become the problem in their mind because they don't see or feel the results of their behavior. They see you nagging, bargaining, complaining, etc. They come to see your rescuing and fixing behaviors as something you owe them, not something you’ve gifted them. So YOU and your complaining become the negative consequences, and they think you’re the problem.

When they don't face consequences, there's no reason to change – and - you don't get peace. When you enable people, your interference can lead to the behavior you’re trying to reduce. So ask yourself if you’re supporting healthy or unhealthy behavior.

Natural consequences are doubly powerful when combined with positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement means things like praise for something well done. When we use both positive reinforcement and allow natural consequences, the person sees the connection between their behavior and the result. In other words, they get that they have an impact on their life and the world and that they matter. They learn from their mistakes.

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