“I’m sorry you feel that way.”
The dreaded sentence that has taught me so many hard lessons.
My mom was a master at pointing me back to myself and reminding me that I had a choice in how I viewed a situation or how I felt about something or someone.
As a teenager that sentence infuriated me. I wanted her engage in my tantrum or pity party. I couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t and sometimes I felt frustrated and alone.
As an adult, I recognize that I wanted her to take responsibility for my feelings or to fix the situation for me. I wanted to stay stuck in blame or victim hood because that was easier than taking responsibility for something. She wanted me to learn that I got to choose. She wanted me to be empowered, not enabled.
Today I see people giving away their power daily. With family, friends, employers and even complete strangers. Blaming others for the way they feel. Abdicating responsibility for the situation they are in. Getting stuck in the pity party and missing the opportunity to change for the better. Heck, I still do it myself sometimes.
Many of us have been taught and believe the lie that other people can make us feel a certain way. Or even worse, that others have a responsibility to make us feel a certain way. We get whipped around by the circumstances of our day or the ideas, opinions and feelings of others.
In any relationship there is a fine line between enablement and empowerment. One takes power away and one gives power back.
If we are used to getting wrapped up in the situations and emotions of others, moving from enablement to empowerment can feel cold and selfish. As someone who has been rescuing and protecting people since I was young, I feel this deeply and it’s been hard to find ways to empower vs. enable in a way that leaves the person feeling cared for. It’s important for me to figure this out so I can have the healthiest and most effective relationships in life and work.
Here are a couple tips that are helping me find my way in supporting others to find their way and move from enabling others to empowering them:
When someone comes to me with an issue and before I respond, I pause to ask myself, “Are they asking me to do, say or fix something or simply to listen?” and “What is my responsibility and what is theirs?” If I don’t know, I can ask them “What support do you need from me?” Doing this keeps me from taking on their stress or stepping in to rescue or protect when that’s not what they want or need.
When someone is upset by something I did or said, first I check my heart. Was that my intention or was I misunderstood? If I was acting out of fear and did make a mistake then I listen and apologize specifically for what I did or said and ask for forgiveness. Then I let it go and move on.
Too many of us stay stuck punishing ourselves after a mistake. That is not healthy. Too many people who say they forgive us stay stuck in resentment wanting us to continue to pay the price for our mistakes. This is also unhealthy. Don’t get caught in those traps. We all make mistakes. Be genuine in admitting your mistakes and sincere in your apology and then move on.
When we are misunderstood, we still want to be respectful of how the other person sees a situation, but we want to be careful not apologize or take responsibility for the misunderstanding. That causes confusion and moves us from empowering to enabling. What I have found to be helpful is to validate their feelings and then share my truth. For example, “I understand why you are upset and how you could see it that way. That was not my intention. In fact I was trying to…”
Now the trick is not to get caught in an argument. If there is an unwillingness to see the situation objectively or to consider a perspective other than their own, then if you can, you simply need to move on with kindness, compassion and respect. In any situation it is important for us all to remember that there is a situation, our perspective of the situation and the other person’s perspective of the situation. All three could be different.
Another area we have to focus on empowering vs. enabling that shows up in both life and at work is in situations where expectations are not met. So much misunderstanding and misperception happens because of unsaid assumptions and expectations.
We forget that the way we see the world is different than the way others do. When we assume they value the same things we do, we set ourselves up for frustration. When we expect things from others that we don’t say out loud, we set everyone up for failure. Building frameworks and setting ground rules for communication can be an important part of creating safety, trust, respect, and navigating life and work effectively. This is so important!
Even when we do this well, there can be misunderstanding. We need to keep an open mind and open heart. I recently navigated a difficult situation with a friend. We had talked openly for months about expectations of partnering together to do something. Once we got into the situation, things changed.
The reality of what it would take to make good on her commitment was more than she expected. The dynamics of the situation were different than she had expected. She had misunderstood some of the things I said. She was upset with me and even more upset when I wouldn’t take responsibility for the misunderstanding. The danger in me taking responsibility and making it better for her was that we would continue to have these issues down the road. I would pay the consequences, she wouldn’t, and we’d kick the can down the road.
In the end, she realized that for a myriad of reasons the partnership wasn’t going to work and it wasn’t about me at all. What a blessing…it doesn’t always turn out that way but she had been very self-reflective and turned her focus from me back to herself and challenged herself to see things from another perspective.
Had that not happened, she would have remained upset with me. It could have come between us for a period of time. This is where it gets really tough. Only you can decide what consequences you are willing to deal with when you set these boundaries. People will blame you and be upset with you. You may lose friendships or be perceived in a negative light. Remember that it’s your life and you have to live with yourself and look yourself in the mirror everyday.
Finding our way and learning our lessons, and at the same time, helping others find their own way and learn their own lessons is difficult work. So often we are compelled to enable vs. empower because it’s easier for everyone, but in doing that, we miss the opportunity to reach our full potential and help others to reach theirs. You have a choice and it’s only yours to make.