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Rescuing the Rescuer

Can he be saved?

Horatio Greenough, The Rescue, Public Domain
Rescuing the Rescuer
Source: Horatio Greenough, The Rescue, Public Domain

If the rescuer identity is ever to be given up for something more authentic, it will be for this singular reason: The rescuer comes to understand that he can't really save anyone. All saving is self-saving. All help is self-help. All influence is self-influence and all control is self-control.

We don't "get" people to do things. They either do them or they don't based on their own belief systems, rationales, and the choices they make out of those belief systems and rationales. We may push and prod, we may nag and cajole, we may manipulate and attempt to control, but the bottom line is that people do what they think is going to work for them. Even if what works for them is another financial fiasco, or another drink, or another abusive relationship, even if what works for them is a continuation of a victim identity--they choose it based on their own belief systems, rationales, and the choices that come from the same.

I often say to interested people and clients: I've been counseling people for over 30 years now and I haven't helped a single person yet. The reason? Because if they got help it was because they chose to get the help. I offer a set of tools. People either pick them up and use them, or they don't. And that's their choice.

And because that is true, no one, not a family member, not a spouse or partner, not even a therapist can "get" the rescuer to stop rescuing, unless and until that person comes to the realization that she can't really save or rescue another human being. The problem with coming to terms with this revelation is that this identity, like many others, is based on the stage of grief, or the stage of acceptance, called bargaining.

It is common and easy for us to get stuck in the bargaining stage of acceptance because there's always that carrot hanging up there within sight that says "If I do this or that, then I can have this or that." It's downright seductive. But it's also a siren call. And the only way to get out of the earshot of this siren call is to do exactly what Ulysses did--tie ourselves to the mast.

Most rescuers were given the power to attempt to rescue other family members in some significant ways as a child. They have come to believe in this power, as it seems from time to time that someone is actually saved. So, if and when the rescuer arrives at therapy's door, it is very hard for him to believe that the problem isn't the need to find a better way to rescue. He'll generally spend a good portion of that first hour talking about the person he wishes to rescue, and every time the therapist points the conversation back toward the client, he'll stay there momentarily and then shift the focus back to the person he needs to save.

One question that generally works to stop this reversal and refocus in its tracks is: "How would you feel if you learned that you absolutely could not rescue this person?" I have literally seen people become totally speechless in response to this question. Yet, I will request an answer to the question yet again because the answer to that question is going to tell the rescuer why she needs to be needed. This feeling, if it can be located, can then become the focus of the rest of the therapeutic endeavor.

Generally, the feeling comes down to something like "utterly powerless." And that is the feeling that the rescuer has been running from all of his life. As a child this feeling probably felt like near-death, ergo the rescuer identity. But utter powerlessness is the correct adult response to someone else's problem. The problem belongs to them. And the minute the rescuer dons his cape and tights and picks up the person and the problem to fly them to safety, that's the minute in which the problem has ceased to be solved. The only way for a person to solve his or her problem is first to own it. Owning it means taking complete responsibility for it. That doesn't mean blaming self or others, it means clearly recognizing these two things:

  • The only time I call it a problem is when it's a problem for me.
  • If it's a problem for me, then I have to take responsibility for understanding it and solving it.

If instead, someone else picks up the problem to solve it, then the person who needs to own the problem has stopped owning it, ergo, the problem is not being solved. Therefore, what the rescuer must come to terms with is the simple fact that she is not playing rescuer because she's stronger and more capable of solving another's problem. Rather, she is playing rescuer because that seems to work to eliminate that terrible feeling of utter powerlessness. This feeling was the original feeling from childhood that set the entire rescuer identity in motion. And until it is recognized as valid and true, the knee jerk reaction will be to attempt rescue.

If reading this blog causes you great frustration and consternation, and the need argue that people can be saved, consider the source of your feelings.

Till next time....