Enabling Problems

Issues this post seeks to address:

  • What does ‘enabling’ mean?
  • How can efforts we make to cause change maintain the status quo?

Posts related to this post:

Enabling Dissention

A few days ago, the New York Times published an anonymous opinion piece, written by an unnamed “senior official” in U.S. president Donald Trump’s administration. The title of the piece is, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.” The author describes a growing contingent of dissatisfied officials within Trump’s own administration, who are ostensibly working from the inside to thwart elements of the president’s agenda. The identity of the author has been kept secret, though theories abound about who the most likely culprits.

The opinion article describes these administrators who are seeking to undermine President Trump’s influence as “unsung heroes.” The author seems to count themselves among these heroes, whose moderating influence on the president’s decisions has purportedly spared the nation from some of his more ill-conceived ideas.

I don’t doubt that there are people who, as described in the article, have “gone to great lengths to keep bad decisions contained.” I suppose that we have to assume that we all agree on what “bad” decisions would refer to, as well as what it means to “contain” these decisions. Regardless, it’s comforting to think that a president who has a penchant for making inflammatory, off-the-cuff comments might have people behind him trying to reign him in.

My problem with the op-ed letter is that, while the referenced heroes are undoubtedly trying to “steer the administration in the right direction,” they are also unwittingly playing a crucial role in maintaining the status quo. They may even be acting as a linchpin for Trump’s presidency. Let me use an example from my field to demonstrate why.

Rock Bottom

Many people who have identified themselves as “addicts” are familiar with the concept of “rock bottom.” It’s a concept that’s both used colloquially and understood within the scientific community. Though it’s not well-defined, and it might mean something a little different for each person, “rock bottom” generally refers to a psychological state of distress and desperation.

“Rock bottom” is usually associated with addiction, because it represents the point at which addicts typically begin their climb into recovery; it’s the lowest point of a person’s mood, interpersonal functioning, or overall quality of life. It’s only after reaching a certain threshold of pain that the motivation for change becomes sufficient to stimulate the kinds of activities and behaviors that promote sustainable, long-term change.

People who are in recovery from addiction often have one or more failed attempts at sobriety before recovery. If the suffering caused by addiction is minor, efforts to tolerate the distress of sobriety are difficult to sustain. When the pain of addiction becomes too much to tolerate, however, the person is forced to confront the relational and coping dynamics that contribute to the maintenance of their addiction. Anything the addict does to reduce their distress and promote positive relationships and functioning, while beneficial in the short-term, may actually be enabling their addiction in the long-term, since it keeps them from hitting rock bottom.

The pain of hitting the bottom can give motivation to climb out of our current problems.

I think the efforts of certain senior officials within the Donald Trump administration to undermine the president’s agenda is having a similar effect on the current status quo. The United States is kept running well enough to keep large segments of the population sufficiently content to keep things the way they are. Indeed, the op-ed author even states, “there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the president. But no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis.” It’s this avoidance of a challenging short-term crisis that ultimately maintains the longer-term problem.

Disabling ‘Enabling’ Toward Real Change

What would happen if all of the dissenters, the “unsung heroes” of the Trump administration, decided to resign their positions? Or speak out openly, in larger numbers, against certain problematic policies or behaviors? Maybe the president would just replace them with administrators who are even more amenable to the president’s personality and agenda. But the efforts the dissenters were making to dilute the president’s actions would no longer happen. The public would experience an “unfiltered” Trump presidency, and, if the dissenters actions are actually making a difference, the public would feel more upset and discontent with the status quo. The door could eventually be opened to more significant, long-term change.

There are things we all do to maintain the status quo. Even when we want things to change, sometimes our efforts to make things change can make the situation just tolerable enough to keep things the way they are.

There may not be a good way to know how much our efforts are enabling the problems we have. It seems likely that the dissenters within the Trump administration are doing so to some extent. But if we find ourselves in a position where we’re feeling “stuck” in spite of efforts to make things different, we might try to take stock of how our actions could be enabling our current problems.





John A. Cunningham, Linda C. Sobell, Mark B. Sobell, Janet Gaskin, Alcohol and drug abusers’ reasons for seeking treatment, Addictive Behaviors, Volume 19, Issue 6, 1994, Pages 691-696.