Let us start off by saying that helping others is by no means a bad thing to do. In fact, meeting the needs of others instead of ignoring them, is what helps to define humanity. However, when a person’s need to be a rescuer dominates their existence, it becomes an issue.
What Is A Rescuer?
A rescuer is someone who loves to help. They take on the responsibilities, burdens, and problems of other people, and they concern themselves with other people’s lives, problems, and decisions, more than their own.
However, a typical ‘rescuer’ doesn’t offer authentic and altruistic help. It isn’t the type of help the supports the other to grow or develop. It is the type of help that encourages the other to depend on the helper.
A rescuer helps and saves others in order to be needed. This is a role that the rescuer has carved out as a means to have a sense of themselves and a means of connection to others. When the rescuer hasn’t had the chance or means to help or rescue someone else for a while, their self-esteem is likely to take a big hit, and she might start to wonder what she is doing with her life, what is her purpose. Without really thinking about it, she will launch into finding her next project or person to help.
Where Does It Stem From?
Rescuers can start developing these tendencies as early as their teenage years, and some begin even earlier than this. Mostly it stems from a child or teenager beginning to understand that there is a general sense of “I can’t” from her family and she takes on the burden of being the one that “can”.
It might be that her parents are going through a messy divorce and she props up her parent. It might be that her parent is an addict or an alcoholic or has crippling anxiety or depression. It might be as simple as her parent or sibling handing over the decision making to her at an early age.
Over time, along with building the skills of rescuing others, the child subconsciously learns that rescuing others is a means of feeling connected to her otherwise self-absorbed or self-involved parent. As the child grows up, she learns that the only way to connect with others is to rescue them.
How Does It Impact Relationships?
We mentioned earlier that rescuers take a self-esteem hit when they haven’t saved someone for a while. One of the ways that many rescuers tend to avoid this low is to enter committed relationships with those who constantly need rescuing. They enter relationships with addicts, alcoholics, those with eating disorders, those with mental health conditions, and so on. They become the primary enable for their partner.
By ‘enabler’ we mean that they unconsciously encourage the other persons dis-ability. This is not to be confused with ‘disability’. Enabling someone’s ‘dis-ability’ means to enable someone to continue not to do the things that they don’t want to do.
If the other ever attempts a level of independence from the rescuer, it is not uncommon for the rescuer to use some emotional manipulation to the extent where the other feels totally helpless without the rescuer’s support.
Signs That Rescuing Has Become Damaging
1. Your self-esteem is based on your rescuing
This has been touched on before but, when you start to question your purpose in life, your existence, when you aren’t saving someone, it is likely that your rescuing tendencies have gone too far. It makes sense that you would feel like this, as you would likely feel completed disconnected and untethered from those around you, and maybe this is a sign that you have been living your life too vicariously through others.
2. You feel abandoned
Rescuing tends to start or intensify after someone has felt or been abandoned. As rescuing is a means of feeling connected to others, a sense of abandonment is likely to leave you scrambling for someone to rescue in order to feel needed and important again.
3. You idealise the neediest people in your life
This can present differently in males and females. Male rescuers are likely to be drawn toward partners who come across as helpless – the damsel in distress. The male will become the provider and the caretaker to the point where their partner is unable to provide for or take care of themselves anymore.
Female rescuers tend to take on the role of the nurturer. As mentioned, rescuers will enter into relationships with those that need constant rescuing such as addicts and abusers – people whom they can nurture and take care of, creating an environment in which their partner’s destructive behaviours can continue for a long time.
4. You feel like everything must be micromanaged
Rescuers tend to overly focus on the decisions and choices that others are making, and will try to deter others from making the ‘wrong’ choice. This can often leave the other unable to make decisions for themselves.
5. You manipulate others when they feel distant from you
When the other person tries to exert their independence, it will feel to the rescuer like being abandoned, and they will do everything in their power to pull the other person back, including emotional manipulation.
How To Pull Yourself Out Of The Role
As the adage goes, “give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” Pulling yourself out of the rescuer role does not mean watching people struggle and doing nothing about it. It means offering genuine support to help others help themselves.
One of the most common responses that rescuers offer when asked “what would happen if you didn’t help?” is “they will fail”. But in almost every case, this is an assumption that the rescuer has never tested. The other person might surprise you and succeed, and the risk here for the rescuer is that they will then have to figure out what to do with themself.
Sometimes when the rescuer stops saving the other, the other will become needier and might even throw a tantrum. If the other is playing the role of the victim, they will likely even bully the rescuer into saving them again. This can become a vicious cycle that the pair will need support to break.
As with most things, increasing your self-awareness is the key to change. Understand that acceptance is healthier than judgement, and learn to take pleasure in watching others succeed in their own right. Understand that manipulating others when they try to exert their independence is likely to drive a bigger wedge between you then their independence in the first place.
Begin to develop your sense of self, separate from your role as the rescuer and saviour of others. Who are you when others aren’t around? Who are you when you are not rescuing others? How can you support others without encouraging dependence?
Often, when the rescuer sits down in the therapy office for the first time, it is because their authentic voice is shouting to be heard, and the rescuer needs help to be able to listen to and understand it. If you would like some professional support to understand the role of the rescuer or to increase your self-awareness, call our Front of House team on 020 8673 4545 or email [email protected]. We have sessions available seven days a week, by phone and online – and some of our therapists are also returning to offer face-to-face sessions at our centres in Clapham and Tooting.