Confessions of a Serial Rescuernature9
On The Road To A Functional Relationship
By Steve B. Reed, L.P.C., L.M.F.T.

Alicia said, “I’m a serial rescuer. I’ve rescued before, I feel like I will do it again.” This was the first time in all my years in the mental health field that one of my clients put it quite that way. Alicia was dramatically owning her therapeutic issue. With clarity and insight she articulates a pattern that plagues her relationships today, as it did from an early age. She could pick them out of a crowd. Whether friends, boyfriends, employers or employees they were all victims ripe for the rescue. They were needy and all easy to connect with. “If you take care of them, they will just follow you home,” she said.

What is Rescuing?

There is a distinction between helping and rescuing. In helping, someone asks for a specific type of help. You think about it and upon consideration you agree to help. In rescuing however, you notice someone with a need and rush in with your prescription to solve their woes. This discounts the other persons ability to find their own solutions, implies that you know more about what’s in their best interest than they do and it invites dependency.

Wounded Bird Metaphor

Alicia would occasionally find wounded birds. She would take them home and nurse them back to health. When they were strong enough, they would fly away. Alicia employed the same strategy with men. She found Bill, wounded and heartbroken after a painful divorce. She took him home and nurtured him back to health. When he started to feel more self-confidence, he had an affair with another woman. Eventually, he also left Alicia.

The Positive Intentions Behind Rescuing

Alicia’s compulsion was rewarded in several ways:

1) he bond created by care-taking yields a sense of instant intimacy;

2) the rescuer gets to feel the familiar comfort of the giver role without any of the discomfort associated with the unfamiliar role of receiver;

3) the rescuer feels a sense of safety by being more in control of the relationship initially;

4) and for a while, the rescuer gets to feel important, useful and valued.

The Dysfunctional Outcomes

The unilateral contract: Alicia enters the relationship with an unspoken contract. She will care for Bill and when he feels better, then Bill can nurture her own underlying emotional wounds. Bill however has a different contract. His agreement is to enjoy the free gift.

The rescuer becomes a victim: At the end of this psychological game pattern, Alicia will switch to the victim role as it becomes clear that Bill has no intention of reciprocating the real nurturance she wants. She collects a payoff of disappointment, frustration and heartbreak.

Abandonment revisited: These feelings along with anger, sadness and fear mark Bills departure and betrayal of her love. Alicia feels lost and alone as she probably did many times in her past. This event knocks the scab off her old abandonment wound.

Paradise and self-esteem lost: When Alicia’s fantasy of happy-ever-after collapses, so does her self-esteem. She may blame some flaw in herself such as not being good enough rather than realizing that she’s following the wrong map.

Recovering From Rescuing

For Alicia and other serial rescuers, the reoccurring story with the unhappy ending is beginning to change. Now in therapy she is developing a new awareness and understanding of her patterns. Through the use of powerful new therapeutic tools, Alicia is starting to heal the emotional wounds that fuel her rescuing missions. As Alicia continues to grow and change, she will have more choices and pick more fulfilling relationships.   

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