The Cruelty of a Rescue

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It is crucial to distinguish between helping and rescuing. Parents, relationship partners, and therapists are often drawn into misguided attempts to rescue. This can prevent a dysfunctional character from recovering.

One of the most important things I learned early on in my clinical work was the difference between genuine “help” and a “rescue.” Help is what caring, principled people want to provide to those who have fallen victim to tragic circumstances not of their own doing, and from which they cannot reasonably recover on their own. Rescue is an unwarranted, undeserved, and often uninvited attempt to save someone from themselves. And in my experience, despite how well-intended a rescuer might be, there’s almost nothing more cruel than a rescue. That’s because, inevitably, a rescuer is also an “enabler.” And enabling someone to continue self-destructive patterns of behavior is in itself an act (albeit an inadvertent act) of cruelty.

Sometimes, folks attracted to the helping professions have a bit too much of the natural “rescuer” in them. And if they don’t reckon honestly with this aspect of their personality, they’re likely to have to learn some very hard lessons when they begin practicing therapy. In my book Character Disturbance, I share a joke I’ve actually heard several times at various professional conferences. The way one of my social worker friends tells it, two social workers are walking down a street in New York City on their way to a social workers’ convention when a purse-snatcher on a bicycle breezes past, grabbing their pocket books. They give chase on foot, all the while shouting: “Stop that man! Stop him!!…. He’s clearly in need of our help!”

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Of course, mental health professionals aren’t the only ones who can be rescuers/enablers. Parents are notorious for doing this with their children. The reasons are many, but mostly they center around the deep fear a parent has that something even more dreadful will happen to their wayward children if they don’t do something to save them. Fear can be a very powerful motivator. But it can also prevent a parent from standing ground and enforcing limits when doing so is exactly what’s needed to really help turn things around.

Partners in relationships can be rescuers/enablers, too. There are even times when a person enters a relationship knowing the risks they face because of the obvious character impairments in their partners. Still, they entertain the notion that if they love their partner enough, and nursemaid the wounds they suspect are at the root of their partner’s dysfunction, they can save the day. But, as I mention in In Sheep’s Clothing, if the dysfunctional partner is skilled in the art of manipulation, the rescuing partner can be easily maneuvered into neglecting their own self-care on a repeated basis, even when it becomes evident that the character-impaired partner has only taken advantage of their tenderhearted nature.

Perhaps the cruelest part of a rescue has to do with giving the dysfunctional character just one more reason not to do the work they so sorely need to do to get better. Every valuable enterprise in life comes with a price tag of some sort. And the price tag for developing one’s character is a lot of human sweat. But the benefits of that sweat are most often twofold: a better life, and a better sense of self-efficacy and self-respect for triumphing over one’s shortcomings.

Now, I’m not saying all of this from a purely intellectual or philosophical perspective, nor just out of sound clinical experience, even though I can recount countless examples from my years of practice that would support what I’m saying here. I can also speak from personal experience. I won’t bore you with the details, but there was a time in my own life when things were quite a shipwreck. And unfortunately for me, those dysfunctional days persisted for a good while because down deep I was confident my family and friends would come to my rescue. Then one day it happened. Those who loved me clearly saw the state of things, but for the first time, they let me be. I remember the exact moment when I sensed their emotional letting-go. I was shocked. And it was scary. It was sink or swim time. There was no one to prop me up or bail me out. It was also the moment my life changed forever. No, it didn’t change miraculously or overnight. In fact, the ordeal I faced after the rescue rug was pulled out from under me was the most painful time I can remember. But it was worth every drop of sweat it took to turn things around. And, I know full well that things could have gone very differently. It’s possible I couldn’t have summoned the resources or the courage. I could have sunk, possibly even died. But I didn’t. And I know that I wouldn’t have had a chance at all at the life I enjoy today if I’d continued to be rescued. When I look back on it all, and on all the pain I caused myself and others — on all the pain it took to right things — nothing compares to the pain that most likely would have been invited into my life by another rescue. Chasing after someone who’s not asking for, emotionally ready for, or truly appreciative of genuine assistance in their bid to make things better for themselves and others is about the cruelest thing a person can do.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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