Reflections of a recovering rescuer

I have been a Rescuer my whole life, as long as I can remember. I’ve needed to protect, nurture and save others. It all sounds very kind and loving, doesn’t it? But there’s a darker side to being a Rescuer…like offering unsolicited advice; doing things for others (thereby not allowing them to do it for themselves and learn); enabling unhealthy behaviour through making excuses and always finding the positive in others’ actions. These are the traps I can fall into and they’re especially important for me to manage as a coach.

Drama, drama, drama

The term Rescuer, in the context above, comes from the work done in the 1960s by Dr Karpman on the drama triangle. Also known as the Karpman triangle.

There are three elements, as you’d expect in a triangle! Persecutor, Victim and Rescuer. This model explains that the Persecutor pressures/harasses the Victim in some way and then the Rescuer rides in to resolve the situation – a knight in shining armour if you will. As you delve into this model you see that each of the people in the triangle enjoy their roles and so don’t want to change them.

The dangers of being the rescuer

When we discuss the Karpman drama triangle at supervision sessions or coaching events you see that many coaches have rescuing tendencies! The risk is that we become dependent on them due to the sense of worth we get along with the boosts to self-esteem and power. Coaches are classic people-pleasers….often why we can recognise it in others! When I learnt this on my coaching course it was an eye-opener and it definitely explained a few things ha!

We all want to be liked, we want to belong and being liked and accepted often means we remain part of our tribe and thus have security. The thing is that the things we do in order to be liked are great for building relationships, progressing our careers and developing others. I don’t think that anyone would argue that kind deeds, random acts of kindness and giving others a helping hand is a bad thing. The danger comes when we define our self-worth around our ability to rescue others.

Luckily for my clients, once I knew this about coaches I found it easier to keep it in check. I set my boundaries, aim to listen and openly ask if I might offer advice on the odd occasion I think I genuinely might be able to help.

Switching persona

In my personal life however I:

  • Offer unsolicited advice
  • Move my boundaries to ‘help’ others, even at the detriment to myself
  • Step in and do the thing myself
  • People please
  • Say yes when I should say no

The problem with doing these things is that often I step out of my Rescuer persona and into Victim mode where I might complain that no-one helps me at home or that I’m too busy and am overwhelmed. In this case, I might feel powerless, defensive, out of control. I might feel sorry for myself or guilty that I can’t do more or that I’ve upset someone.

Alternatively, some of these acts intrude on other people’s boundaries and in those cases, I can act as the Persecutor. Here I might come across as intimidating, rude, questioning and blaming.

As the Rescuer (my favoured persona) my (good) intention might be to make someone feel better, or at least not make them feel worse. I want to solve their problems.

The exchange of power

We might play each persona, sometimes with different people. Can you see how this drama triangle might unfold?! The risk is that we lose or gain power/energy in these exchanges. For example, I might give someone some unsolicited advice, which makes me feel like I have helped. What if they resent that advice though? Then they might play the Victim and store it up to ‘get me back’ later. It usually creates a dysfunctional relationship because someone always loses power and the other person wins it.

The biggest problem with being a people pleaser/Rescuer is that you compromise your integrity because you are not acting in line with how you are feeling/thinking. This leads to feelings of resentment, frustration and unfulfillment. If the people we as rescuers are trying to rescue are unappreciative then we may try harder or again, we might resent them. Also, in the long term, people-pleasing doesn’t work; others might think you are inauthentic, false or they might try and manipulate you.

Why do we play these personas?

In the case of being a Rescuer, it often comes from a childhood where we may have been conditioned for people-pleasing or taken on responsibility too young. There are other reasons though – a fear of being alone or the hope of receiving the same treatment in return if we struggle with low self-esteem.

How can we manage these tendencies?

The alternative in terms of our relationships is where we are not trying to control each other. If we are not trying to control each other then we are collaborating and cooperating to find ways to solutions to problems. This reflection is not about playing these roles as being good/bad but to raise or own awareness. If you feel that your behaviour falls into the Rescuer persona, there are things you can do to help yourself. Consider :

  • What motivates you to do things for others? Is it guilt, duty, fear or positive choice?
  • How would you want others to be motivated to help you?
  • How can you support people healthily i.e. within everyone’s boundaries where no one gains/loses energy?
  • Doing a relationship audit – looking at how the people you surround yourself with affect your behaviour. Who plays the following roles: Supporter, Vampire, Role Model, Consultant, Enemy or an honest friend who’ll tell it like it is? How is it balanced across your relationships and how might you change it to ensure that the relationships you have are based on respect and value.
  • Stepping into each persona, tell your story. Which one feels most familiar? Then retell the story from an observer role and own your part in the relationship

The positives of being a rescuer

I wanted to end on a positive. The skills we learn from any Rescuer tendencies will prove useful across all areas of our lives, as long as we do not use them manipulatively. The issue is not the skill (problem-solving, sharing your knowledge or making someone feel better) or feeling (empathy), the issue is the manipulation. So the challenge to you is to use your Rescuer tendencies in a positive and non-controlling way.

Now some of these are quite in-depth exercises and if you need someone to help you work through it collaboratively and impartially with no unsolicited advice (promise!) then please do feel free to get in touch.

2 thoughts on “Reflections of a recovering rescuer”

  1. I think rescuers are unintentional parasites. They need a victim to feel powerful and sometimes their “helping” is toxic. ie “I’m encouraging you” “I suggest”, “I recommend” “why don’t you” is trying to impose advice or get their person to move at the rescuers pace rather than the persons “I hold space for you”. “I am here to support you when u can”.

    • This is a really interesting perspective. I think this could be true for some people. I came across the idea of altruistic narcissism the other day and this would fit into that


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