Retire from Rescuing (Part I of III)
Sharon Demarte"One of the hardest things we may ever be called to do in life is watch a loved one fall."
--From Lessons in Truth by Emilie Cady as quoted by Iyanla Vanzant in One Day My Soul Just Opened Up?
To retire from rescuing does not mean that you withdraw from helping others. On the contrary, it means that you still help, but in a different, more healthy way, as a supporter rather than as a rescuer. A simple way that I've learned to look at the difference between supporting and rescuing is:
When we rescue, we do it for the other.
When we support, we do it with the other.
It's hard to see anyone in pain, especially our loved ones. We have a tendency to want to swoop in and save them, fix it or fix them. We may think they can't do it for themselves. We may react rather than respond to their situation.
There are times when rescuing is needed. There are life situations that require rescue such as medical emergencies, natural disasters, and victims of crime. For the most part, though, the only time that rescuing behavior is appropriate is when the other person is unable, for whatever reason, to take care of himself. Other than in that type of situation, rescuing is not good for you and not, in the long run, helpful for the other. (One caveat to this, of course, is our children. We absolutely rescue them until they are old enough to begin making their own choices. At that point, we may want to guide rather than rescue them.)
Before I tell you my story, I want you to know that I now know that my parents did the best they could do with what they knew at the time. I no longer hold any negative feelings toward them or the circumstances of my childhood. How I lived and grew threw those circumstances makes up who I am today, a stronger, wiser, woman than I may have been without those experiences. In that way, the circumstances were a gift. Now onto my story:
I learned to rescue at a young age. As the eldest of three children, in an alcoholic family, I became what is called, in counseling literature, a "parentified child". That's when a child takes on the responsibilities that should lie with the parents.
I became super responsible for everyone in my family. I rescued my brothers from abusive babysitters and parents, as best I could, though I wasn't always successful. I rescued my mother when she was too drunk to take care of herself. I rescued my father by taking responsibility for my mother's funeral arrangements after drunk driving killed her. My father was the driver. She was drunk too, so I don't want it to sound like it was entirely his fault.
I learned to get my self-worth from rescuing. When a person grows up in an alcoholic family, self-worth, self- esteem and self-confidence don't come about in a healthy way.
I had low self-esteem, little self-worth and even less self- confidence. I was painfully shy and introverted. Rescuing made me feel important; it gave me a sense of being 'in control'. Feeling 'out of control' is prevalent in alcoholic homes. I could be the strong one, the hero of the family. I developed a 'need to be needed'.
As we so often do with behaviors we learn in childhood, I carried rescuing behavior into my adult years. I became a consummate rescuer. In that role, I attracted lots of people into my life that wanted to be rescued. I put rescuing others above taking care of myself. It was not until my body nearly shut down from stress exhaustion that I began the process of shifting from being a rescuer to being a supporter of others.
Some say that we each have unique things to learn in this lifetime and that the lessons keep getting harder until we 'get it'. Learning how to be a loving supporter instead of a fearful rescuer has been my major life lesson and I believe I've finally 'got it'.
Are You a Rescuer?
If you answer "no' to three or more of the following questions, consider yourself a rescuer. (These questions are from the Facilitator's Workshop, by J.I. Clarke}
1. Did the other person ask for help or support?
2. Is there an end point to my help or intervention?
3. Do/did I feel good ("okay") about my participation?
4. Did he/she do 50% or more of the work?
5. Did he/she thank me for my help or support?
I will address each of these questions in turn:
1. Did the other person ask for help or support? As rescuers we tend to think we know what is best for the other person. In a way, we are arrogant, because we think we know what they need. Consider the possibility that you don't know. Perhaps that person just wants someone to listen. Instead of reacting and swooping in to rescue, ask, "What do you need?" Ask, "How can I support you?"
2. Is there an end point to my help or intervention? We all have challenging life situations at one time or another. They usually do have an end point though. Sooner or later, the crisis ends. If it was caused by something we did or didn't do, we learn from our mistakes and move on.
There are, however, some people who seem to create one crisis after another and often the situations are similar in nature. Frequently these crises are a result of poor choices. Perhaps those individuals have not yet learned that they are totally responsible for their own lives. Consider the possibility that they haven't learned this most valuable life lesson because they've always been rescued. Consider that perhaps rescuing is not really helping them; rather it is enabling them to continue to create pain in their lives.
How much better would it be to support them in making wiser choices? A good question to ask is "What are you going to do about it?" said in a kindly manner. You might ask, "What solutions have you come up with?" A little thought that I keep in mind to keep me on track in this type of situation is "Your lack of planning does not, for me, constitute an emergency".
3. Do/did I feel good ("okay") about my participation? Rescuers tend to end up feeling used and abused. They go too far in their efforts to help. They give what they can't afford to give and end up feeling drained, unappreciated, and resentful. Not a pretty picture.
A wise woman once told me, "Sharon, you need to fill your own cup first so that you can give from the overflow". It took me years after being given this prudent piece of advice to fully integrate it into my life. When we give from an overflowing cup, it doesn't drain us in any way and we feel great about our giving.
4. Did he/she do 50% or more of the work? In rescuing situations, where we do it for the other, (the operative word is 'for'), we usually end up doing the majority, if not all, of the work. If you are working harder than the person you are trying to help, you are over-functioning. The standard I have set for myself in helping situations is "I do not work harder on someone else's life than they are willing to work on their own." Reminding my self of this keeps me from falling into the old trap of over-functioning and rescuing.
5. Did he/she thank me for my help or support? If you answered "no" to this question, you need to ask yourself why not? Consider that perhaps the other person didn't see what you tried to do, to rescue her, as being helpful or supportive. This can happen when we assume that we know what's best for another; when we assume we know what the other needs. Another reason for not getting appreciation could be that you have rescued that person so many times that she takes you for granted.
Tips For Transitioning From a Rescuer to a Supporter
1. If you have a 'need to be needed', do whatever it takes to get the wounds healed that led to that need.
2. Take an honest inventory of what you get out of rescuing. We don't do anything that we don't get something out of. When you are tempted to rescue, ask yourself what your intentions in doing so are. Then ask yourself if those intentions are worthy of you.
3. Set clear boundaries and standards. Boundaries are the limits you put on other's behavior when they are around you. Standards are the limits you put on your own behavior. A boundary might be something like: I do not allow people to continue to complain to me when it's obvious that they are not willing to do anything to solve their problem. A standard might be: I do not work harder on someone else's life than they are willing to work on their own.
4. When someone comes to you with a problem, take a deep breath and count to five. Then ask the two most important questions, "What do you need?" and "How can I support you?" This will give you time to respond mindfully rather than react emotionally.
5. Respect the others right to make their own choices. Along with that right comes the right to experience the consequences, the right to learn from experience. You may not agree with their choices and think that you know what's best for them, but in reality there's only one who truly knows what's best for any of us and that one is God or whatever you call your Higher Power.
6. Know that the same God that dwells within you dwells within the other. As such, inner guidance is available to that person just like it is to you.
7. Ask yourself, "What would love do here?" And, sometimes love means saying "no".
8. "Under" promise, or better yet, don't promise at all. When we are caught off guard, in a moment of emotionality, we may promise things that we later regret having promised. How much better to promise nothing and deliver a lot. An example might be promising nothing in the moment and then, keeping that person and their situation in mind, send encouraging notes, call on a regular basis to lend support, cook up food they love and deliver it, send a live plant, treat them to dinner and a movie out; there are so many ways to let a person know that we care.
9. Offer to brainstorm solutions with them. The tricky part here is to stay away from focusing on the problem.
10. Don't give advice unless it's asked for. I still slip on this one. If it sounds like the person is asking for advice, ask them, "Are you asking for my opinion?" If the answer is "yes", try to give them two or three possible options that you can think of. Sharing several possible solutions can help them open up to possibilities they may not have considered and help you stay open to outcome. When we give only one opinion, we can get attached to that opinion like it's the only way to go.
The Pros and Cons of Transitioning to Being a Supporter
If you have been a rescuer up until now and you've decided to change your ways and become a supporter instead, you need to know that the people who you have been rescuing will not like that change. And, it's even possible that they won't like you anymore. You need to ask yourself if you can handle that if it happens. In order to change from a rescuer to a supporter, you'll Have to be willing to take the risk of losing friends.
On the other side of the coin, however, if you do make this change, you will attract more healthy, self-sufficient, happy people into your life. You will make new, more energy enhancing friendships.
And, you will have much more energy yourself when you are no longer participating in rescuing behavior. You will be able to fill your own cup and give from the overflow.
From the author's series, "Ten things to Retire from Before Retiring". Publishing permission granted to Transitions, Inc. by the author.