Most of us want to help others when we can. Whether that be giving change to the homeless, listening to a heartbroken friend or helping a family member with some DIY. For many, helping gives us reward and purpose. In the 1980s, this feeling was termed a ‘helper’s high’ – a buzz one gets from helping equating to the rush that comes with vigorous physical exercise.
There is no doubt that helping others is a good thing. The world is a much better place for it. The problem is, some people do more than help. They rescue. And when rescuing becomes a pattern, it can have detrimental effects not only to the rescuer, but to the person being rescued. Let’s explore this more now…
Helping vs rescuing
Helping somebody is a form of empowerment. Giving change to a homeless person gives them choices. They can spend it on anything they want, and your involvement stops there. Rescuing is different. Rescuing is doing all the work for that person. When you get into the habit of rescuing, it can become all consuming. You end up in a constant drama triangle, unable to escape or resolve any conflict. In some cases, this can be termed ‘co-dependent’.
Rescuing can take many forms and isn’t always obvious:
- Financial: You might spend more than you earn on other people in order to rescue them from bad financial situations.
- Sexual: You might do things you don’t want to do to please the other partner, even if you are uncomfortable.
- Time and energy: You might spend too much time helping friends and family with tasks, but neglect your own duties and right to free time.
- Emotional: You might be more concerned and consumed by the wellness of others than your own wellness. Or, you might only feel well when you rescue someone – your self esteem is built on this behaviour.
The drama triangle
The drama triangle is something we like to look at in therapy. It has been used in psychotherapy since it was founded in 1968 and is the theory that, in any relationship dynamic, one of three roles is adopted – the persecutor, the victim and the rescuer. You can move between roles, and change roles in response to the actions and perceived motivations of others. Staying within these roles means never truly resolving a conflict. To gain a more comprehensive understanding of the drama triangle, click here.
In this article we want to focus primary on the rescuer role.
The rescuer role
As already explained, a person stuck in rescuer role is rarely helping to resolve the situation. What does this look like in real life?
An example of destructive rescuing behaviour is demonstrated here.
Emily is a smart and successful 25 year old. She has started dating David, a somewhat troubled but interesting 35 year old with a history of drug addiction. David is in recovery, and Emily decides to make it her personal mission to ensure David remains sober and ok. When David relapses, Emily makes it her sole focus to get David back on track. He quits work and Emily works twice as hard to support them. She researches rehabs, makes enquiries with professionals, speaks to David’s family, and spends day and night coaching and berating David about his situation. In this situation, Emily thinks she is helping. She is the rescuer within the drama triangle with David being the victim. But she isn’t. She is being co-dependent (which we will explore momentarily). She is enabling David’s relapse by removing the responsibility from him and assigning it to herself. It becomes all consuming for Emily, to the point where she becomes psychologically and physically unwell and blames David for this. When David fails to get better, Emily blames herself and works even harder.
Emily isn’t helping. She’s rescuing. And simultaneously worsening David’s situation. If Emily were to step back and allow David to hit rock bottom, he would be forced to take responsibility for his addiction and have a much better chance of recovery. Emily would also be free to spend time on herself and keep her own strength up during this difficult time.
When rescuing is co-dependency
Co-dependency is a term that has been around for some thirty years. It refers to a person who rescues to the point of self-detriment, sacrificing their own needs and idealising needy people. Originally, co-dependency theories emerged in substance abuse circles, referring to the non-addict partner who enables or rescues the addict (as is the case with Emily). But we now know that co-dependency can occur in non-addict dynamics too, including between parent and child, spouses, co-workers, siblings and friends.
Some psychologists hypothesize that co-dependency is a natural response to chaos. In Emily’s case, David and his addiction are the chaos, and it’s only natural that Emily wants to control that chaos by assigning herself the job of fixing it. Others hypothesize that co-dependency is learned in childhood as a survival skill, where a child experiences excessive shame and emotional neglect. Therefore, co-dependent people deliberately seek out needy counterparts to rescue. This hypothesis suggests co-dependency is an addiction, which explains why we have ‘Co-Dependents Anonymous’ as part of the 12 step fellowship.
Moving Beyond The Rescuer Role
As already mentioned, rescuing can be destructive and unhealthy, for ourselves and for those around us. The most effective way of moving beyond this position is to enter therapy and look at the root cause of why you are rescuing.
One study showed three interlinked experiences in self-identified co-dependents / rescuers. These were, a lack of clear sense of self, an enduring pattern of extreme, emotional, relational, and occupational imbalance, and an attribution of current problems in terms of parental abandonment and control in childhood.
If you believe yourself to be a ‘rescuer’, I might suggest that in fact, you are co-dependent – a highly destructive way of being, not just for you but for those around you. In therapy, we would explore this further, getting to the root cause of your rescuing behaviours and helping to move past them.
Getting the support you need
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