If the pandemic was anything, it was a time when people needed help. A sudden vulnerability and helplessness blanketed the world, laying bare systemic inadequacies and prompting individuals to come together, and support each other where institutions had failed. But while lending others a helping hand is typically a good thing, for some it becomes an unhealthy means of coping or seeking validation.
Have you ever felt like you were responsible for the success and well-being of another grown adult? Like this other person really needed your help, and if it weren’t for you, they would be in a lot of trouble, unable to take care of themselves? Have you felt like you had to save them? And if none of your efforts worked and the person continued down the path of self-destruction, have you felt in denial about it? There are a few terms associated with this persistent feeling which some individuals have where they feel this almost compulsive urge to help or ‘rescue’ others, even at times without considering whether the other person even wants to be rescued. Before we move on to looking at the various syndromes associated with the urge to rescue others and the implications it can have, it is beneficial to understand that the rescuers at times don’t realise their behaviour is compulsive and dysfunctional as they believe that given all the efforts they make, their efforts are helpful. However, given that the ultimate aim of helping should be to make the other person feel empowered and to make the continued intervention by the helper unnecessary, this is not something which rescuers can accept. This idea of inevitable redundancy often leads them into engineering their relationship with the other individual into one of co-dependency to the detriment of both parties.
The Rescuer Syndrome is the belief that the individual who is helping out (the ‘helper’ or ‘rescuer’) knows better than the individual in distress about how to resolve their conflict, or is somehow better equipped to do so, which leads the rescuer to intervene or try to rescue the individual in distress in a way which disempowers them and inhibits their ability to resolve it themselves - something which they are actually quite capable of doing and perhaps the only ones who actually can. While the Rescuer Syndrome is not a recognised disorder, it is a widely acknowledged condition. It manifests itself when helping turns into a compulsion and it is probably fair to say people suffering from the syndrome are suffering from an addiction in the same way as smoking, drugs or binge eating can be addictive. The White Knight Syndrome on the other hand is a term used to describe an individual who feels compelled to “rescue” people in intimate relationships, often at the expense of their own needs. This is also known as the Saviour Complex and it essentially occurs when individuals feel good about themselves only when helping someone, believe their job or purpose is to help those around them, and sacrifice their own interests and well-being in the effort to aid another. While this ‘knight in shining armour, straight-out-of-a-fairy-tale behaviour might sound too good to be true, it’s in fact an unhealthy coping mechanism that can do more harm than good. Lastly, the Messiah Complex is a condition where an individual holds a belief that they are destined to become a saviour today or in the near future and may thus believe that they are responsible for saving or assisting others.
It helps to keep in mind that some people fall into the role of rescuer by circumstance or there may be paternal or maternal feelings involved. In these cases, the situation usually reaches a crisis point, followed by a period of recovery. Serial rescuers, however, are the kinds of people continually on the lookout for someone who needs rescuing and fail to reach the point of awakening, as they do not acquire insight into what they are doing and never confront it. Most serial rescuers feel uncomfortable in equal relationships as they prefer to feed off a vulnerable and dependent person and feel satisfied when able to elicit gratitude and appreciation. In addition to this being harmful to both the parties involved, it also stands the risk of leading to burnout. The emotional labour associated with helping drains energy and for some people this can later lead to apathy, a loss of idealism and purpose and feelings of cynicism and fatigue. Serial rescuers may also lose a sense of boundaries owing to which they may find themselves in other kinds of trouble, sexual transgression may be one of the hazards. They may also face hardships in getting in touch with their own emotions and in event of experiencing intense stress, feelings of inadequacy and low self-regard, they may try to seek “redemption” from these emotions by helping others, not realising that continually trying to meet other people’s expectations only exacerbates self-destruction.
There are some tell-tale signs the rescuing behaviour has become problematic and damaging and knowing them can help an individual to be more aware of the motives behind their helping behaviour and know when its becoming a problem. The first sign is to recognise if ones self-esteem is based on rescuing and they find themselves beginning to question their purpose in life and existence when they aren’t saving someone, it is likely that their rescuing tendencies have gone too far. Additionally, individuals might feel abandoned or fear abandonment and thus might begin to make them idealise the neediest people in their life. Men are more likely to be drawn to individuals who come across as helpless so they can become the provider and the caretaker to the point where their partner is unable to provide for or take care of themselves anymore. Females on the other hand tend to take on the role of a nurturer and are likely to thus 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. A need to always be the one finding a solution or micromanaging everything is another warning sign. Owing to this, rescuers tend to overly focus on the decisions and choices that others are making, and will try to deter others from making what they feel is the ‘wrong’ choice. This can often leave the other person feeling unable to make decisions for themselves. Often in this quest of finding solutions to everything, rescuers forget that not every problem has an immediate solution, especially complex issues like illness, trauma, or grief and in being caught up in this web, they often care more about fixing the problem than the person actually dealing with the problem does. Another problematic behavioural red flag is that 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 thinking that they are the only person who can help, tying back to their fantasies of omnipotence and a sense of superiority. Lastly, when it comes to helping, one may not help when they have the time and resources, but may also bend backwards to help, regardless of their own needs and struggles.
All that being said, know that there are ways to help and address rescuer tendencies. Identifying the problem is a good place to begin. One can look at building their active listening skills which can help them resist the urge to jump the guns and help, because very often someone might share their problems for more insight and to vent out their feelings and not necessarily for help and advice. Listening empathetically can be more helpful. It is always best to hold back from stepping in until someone asks for help - while there is nothing wrong in wanting to help a loved one or wanting them to know you’re there for them, but instead of pressuring them to accept help to trying to take control of the situation, let them make their own decisions. Know that everyone faces hard times and distress from time to time, but it helps to remember that sometimes we need to let other people’s problems be just that, their problems. One cannot be responsible for the choices of others so it is best to focus on oneself, because that is what is one’s control. Lastly self-exploration and seeking help from a Mental Health professional can be helpful in getting a better insight on what drives one’s behaviour and how to control the negative impacts it can have.
As human beings, we may find ourselves feeling moved by someone else’s struggles, especially when it comes to our loved ones and might want to drop everything and run in to help them, but it is important to reflect upon our motives to help them and how that might impact us, both in the short and long term, especially in terms of our own boundaries.
Written by: Yash Mehrotra
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