7 Signs of a “Rescuer” and What to do About it

7 Signs of a “Rescuer” and What to do About it

Relationships are tough, whether in the home or in the work place. But if you want to be successful, you need to learn how to be both insightful and generous. Your insightfulness should cut both ways, not just toward others, but toward yourself. As you read through these points, you will definitely see others in it. The real exercise is can see yourself in them, and begin to adjust becoming a better spouse, parent, coworker, boss, or leader.

1. The Rescuer is an Overfunctioner — What is overfuntioning you ask? Well in the psychiatric sciences, overfunctioning is when one person usurps another person’s responsibilities especially responsibility for themselves. A simple example is a parent who always cleans up after or bails out their child never making them take responsibility. In cases like this it usually flies under the banner of “compassion” but it is anything but. The child fails to learn responsibility for self and develop the emotional fortitude to be an adult.

In more serious forms, overfunctioning causes the “loss of basic self” in the underfunctioner. Some studies have shown that a great deal of substance abuse, eating disorders, and more sometimes have their roots in the loss of self. The symptoms become one of the small ways the underfunctioner can still feel somewhat in control and a whole person in life.

2. The Rescuer is a Triangler — What is triangling? Well first, a triangle is considered the most basic and stable human relationship. The basic family of two parents and one child forms the most basic archetype of the triangle. But we form triangles in all our relationships. When our relationships and social groups are without stress, there is harmony. When there is conflict, this often leads to triangling.

For example in an office of ten people, there are multiple triangles. When two people begin to have a disagreement, one or both of them will begin to “process” that conflict with other people. This is looking for an “advocate” — someone to hear their side and affirm his or her “rightness.” The subliminal goal is to gain an advocate and then the two together push the other person out, (by alienation, “the cold-shoulder”, ostracizing, and even bullying or slander). Triangling is generally conducted through gossip.

The rescuer sees the person who is confiding in them as a victim. The rescuer then tears open his shirt revealing the big “S” on his chest and begins to “advocate” for the other. Basically the rescuer takes on the same emotion as the person who is gossiping to them. (See my series on differentiation of self for more: — Building Emotional Integrity I. | Differentiation of Self  and  Building Emotional Integrity II. | What Differentiation Of Self Is NOT) In so doing the rescuer “takes up offense” and begins to over function. He or she then inserts self into the situation as an “advocate” with the intent to help. This will usually end in a melt-down or the alienation of the other party. Wrangling is extremely destructive to organizations, churches, social groups, and so on. It destroys morale.

3. The Rescuer is Overly Concerned with What is Not His/Her Concern — In more popular parlance, we might call this person a “busybody”; he or she is overly concerned with what is not his or her business.

How does one identify the busybody? One simple question often suffices: “Are you part of the problem or solution?” Generally, if you are not part of the problem you are not part of the solution. Sometimes we may bring in another unbiased third party for help. This may be a parent, boss, therapist, clergy, life coach or appropriate leader for a particular social grouping. The rescuer typically loves to be at the center of emotional energy.

4. The Rescuer has a Savior Complex (“advocate”) — The rescuer typically thinks of themselves as the solution to everyone’s problems, or at least those at hand. The rescuer often has a savior complex. She or he likes using the rhetoric of “advocate.” When called to account for their meddling, he or she will typically answer, “I was advocating for XYZ person.”

What the rescuer is actually doing is triangling and overfunctioning (see points 1 & 2 above). All relationships thrive on one-on-one open communication. The only way to maintain this is by dealing with that person directly with open and receptive communication. A large part of relationship failure is when parties stop maintaining a mutually facing posture. When they do this, assumptions start rising, and they tend to vilify each other.

The savior complex is also why rescuers (overfunctioners) are so hard to reason with. You can speak to them gently, consistently, and openly, with honest challenge. They will typically not receive it. The overfunctioner sees his or her actions as heroic. In todays world the overfunctioners will typically decry “abuse” when they are disagreed with or not given their way.

5. The Rescuer is a Fixer — Whenever there is a problem, the rescuer wants to jump right in, often without giving much thought to the problem or what the true cause is. The rescuer is all about the “quick fix.” The goal is not really to get to the bottom of the problem, but rather to quench the relationship anxiety as quickly as possible and get back to equilibrium.

This may seem like one and the same, but it is not. For instance, couples are notorious for “truces”—Ways of compromising to get along, rather than working toward maximum relational health. If the goal is long-term growth, it requires different course of action often temporarily increasing difficulty or pain. A cancer victim needs invasive chemo, not comfort drugs; a struggling marriage needs serious issues addressed—and those things will be really difficult to face; a health problem may require invasive surgery.

Men are notorious for rescuing when their wife comes to them with an issue. In order to dispel the anxiety the man kicks into “fixer” mode and the woman does not feel listened to. This does not mean he is the primary over-functioner in the relationship. But it can be a coping mechanism. When there is anxiety or contention in a relationship, the default reaction is to get back to a state of peace as quickly as possible. But this peace is often just an agreed on truce, not true intimacy and mutual respect. More on that another time!

6. The Rescuer is Anxiety Driven — This follows closely on the last. The overfunctioner is reactive. She or he acts primarily out of fear or discomfort. the Rescuer is reactionary.

As humans we spend a lot of energy trying to minimize pain and maximize comfort. When life centers on minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure, it comes at the expense of growth, maturity, and success. Another way to say it is, When life is centered on dodging bullets, it is not focused on a proactive and creative life posture.

The rescuer (over-functioner) will kick into action at the first signs of anxiety. She or he cannot press through or tolerate discomfort for growth. The goal is to return the relationship to to peace (equilibrium) as quick as possible. But for the under-functioner, the equilibrium is a bad deal, because he or she has usually lost significant decision making power in the relationship to the over-functioner.

Often when the underfunctioner hits a personal critical mass and begins to make better decisions for self, this causes a “chargeback-reaction.” (a technical term.) The overfunctioner does not usually give thought to this; it is mostly an instinctive response to the individuality of the underfunctioner becoming a stronger self. The intention (at least instinctively) is to return the relationship to its stasis. Unfortunately in most cases, the underfunctioner is overwhelmed and intimidated into backing back down into his or her rut of lost-self again.

7. The Rescuer Needs to Be in Control to Feel Safe — This is inseparable from the overfunctioner being anxiety driven. It is the elevation of emotion that propels the overfunctioner into action. When the equilibrium of life is upset for this person, they have to kick into gear to begin controlling the situation. It is the only way she or he knows how to return things to status quo.

This of course has a major longterm negative impact. A rescuer (busybody) who leaps into action to address the situation is often hailed as a leader and hero of sorts, but falsely so. Remember she or he is not focused on solutions, but rather quick fixes. Their goal is not health, but peace, not growth, but comfort. Unlike physical illness in a body system, illness in an emotional system is much harder to pin down. So we often mistake peace, calm, or equilibrium for heath. Longterm growth and health is traded for quick return to the sense of peace and safety. Like in medicine, deep physical dysfunction may require medicine (poison) or surgery (intervention), that is a temporary worsening, in order to move toward a better place of health.

What to Do?

That is the big question isn’t it. Here area couple suggestions. First recognize the problem. Not publicly. Just observe the escalating behavior of the person. The chances are when the really “go off” it will be over something so small or such a broad generalization that is impossible to nail down. But that won’t change the fact that when they go loud, it will send tremors through your organization. Second, don’t react. Reacting only increases heat and escalation. Take a friendly posture, and begin with a friendly conversation with a posture of “how can I serve you.” Often just keeping your mouth shut and listening until they have proverbially “dumped the truck” can go a long way. IN sales they say, the first one to speak loses. Listen! Often they will talk until their are spent, and then feel as though they got a load off their chest. I can think of several situations where I wish I did just this, at least better.

Third, remember in relational conflict “the issue” is usually not the issue, but rather collective anxiety that is poorly managed. In other words, what they are angry and agitated about is usually the sum total of their life and current stresses. And like most people, when we do not know why we are so upset, we look for a single thing to put the blame on. This is why logic, force, or reasoning will not usually calm such situations. You need to take a posture of being a resource and source of safety for them. Fourth, above all stay calm. Remember that reactive escalates and calming dissipates. Bruce Lee said become like water that absorbs and dissipates negative energy. Jesus said “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies.”

Thanks for reading and please share with your friends and family!

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