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  Home  > Personal Wellness  > Rescuers--Compulsive Helpers

Rescuers--Compulsive Helpers

Rescuing is a subtle form of manipulative communication, and it's one of the most energy-draining interactions imaginable. A rescuer is a compulsive helper, someone who cannot keep from stepping in to give aid, even when it is not wanted. Many professions are attractive to rescuers - medicine, nursing, teaching, and all the other helping professions. Parents are also notorious for being rescuers, as they do and do and do more things for their kids, trying to save them from the natural consequences of their actions.

It may seem unfair to criticize rescuers or rescuing, but a closer look at the dynamics of the interaction reveals the inequities in the situation. Rescuers will always be left unsatisfied because, in attending to others, they neglect their own needs and eventually become burned out. This is a double blow because a prime reason behind rescuing is to get attention - and, more often than not, rescuers are rejected by the same ones they are trying to help. The rescuer is then left feeling like a victim of the other's refusal, and unappreciated. This is a key contributing factor in burnout among helping professionals. The person being rescued is also left dissatisfied, because the rescuer's unconscious message is I'm OK, you're not OK - you're so inadequate I have to do it for you." From this vantage point, the "rescuee" typically turns on the rescuer, thus becoming a persecutor, saying "Leave me alone" or "See what you've done." Such role reversals are the basic strategy at work in all games.

This is not to say that you can never help someone. But you first need to find out if help is wanted, and then you need to find out if what you're doing is actually beneficial.

If you are a chronic rescuer, you would do well to undertake some self-examination. You are probably projecting your inadequacies or needs onto others. Here is a comparison of characteristics of both helpers and rescuers.*

The Helper:

  • Listens for a request
  • Presents an offer
  • Gives only what is needed
  • Checks periodically with the other person
  • Checks results:
    • functioning better?
    • meeting goals?
    • solving problems independently?
    • using suggestions successfully?

The Rescuer:

  • Gives when not asked
  • Neglects to find out whether offer is welcome
  • Gives help more and longer than needed
  • Omits asking for feedback
  • Doesn't check results and feels good when accepted, bad when turned down
  • Does the greater share of the talking

As you can see, rescuing is a weak foundation on which to build a relationship with anyone. It disempowers everyone involved.

*Adapted with permission from Valerie Lankford (

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