Even the most talented, charismatic, and self-sufficient people need the help and cooperation of other people if they are to realize their true potential. For this reason, mentoring others in the organization to achieve ever-higher levels of performance is something we should all subscribe to. It is to our mutual benefit to help each other and this urge to do so is both natural and laudable.
But some of us are motivated less by a desire to benefit others and contribute to the common good, and more by a deeper emotional need within ourselves. If you fall into this category, you may be a “rescuer,” a person whose need to help is a self-serving addiction and who is unable to differentiate between their own needs and those of the people they are purporting to help.
The problem with rescuers is that they tend to build unnecessary, unhealthy, and sometimes inappropriate dependency relationships with the people they want to help. At best you make for a very ineffective helper; at worst, you harm others by attempting to co-opt the people you should be helping, in an attempt to fulfill your own compulsions.
I remember working with a leadership coach who would regularly call the office of one of her clients to tell them that he was sick and would be unable. In fact, her client was a chronic alcoholic who was prone to frequent bouts of heavy drinking that rendered him incapable for days at a stretch. Her “help” was entirely counter-productive. By protecting her client’s self-destructive lifestyle she only perpetuated his alcoholism.
When I asked the coach why she did this she explained that her client had repeatedly told her that he couldn’t manage without her, and that he always felt much better after she took control for him. The coach also said that this man was one of her best clients—and it’s not difficult to understand why: his dependency on her made her feel empowered and created for her the illusion that she was actually helping him. The reality, of course, is that the coach was simply satisfying her need to be needed while the client sank deeper into his cycle of binge drinking.
In this kind of co-dependent relationship, both parties inevitably suffer. The person being helped receives no real beneficial help, while the rescuer becomes overburdened with the dependency of the other. Instead of generating the positive results they both aspire to, the co-dependent relationship between the two becomes a debilitating energy-drain for all concerned.
Sometimes, when ‘‘helping’’ becomes ‘‘rescuing,’’ the person being helped will react to the rescuer’s ministrations by backing away and making a pro-active attempt to resolve the issues they were struggling with on their own. Although this is potentially a good outcome for the person being rescued, the rescuer will try to reassert her control in order to remain as instrumental in achieving success.
As the relationship between the two deteriorates, the subject of the rescue attempt becomes dispirited and confused at the rescuer’s persistent interference while the rescuer becomes increasingly frustrated with the standoffish behavior of the other. Eventually, the rescuer simply abandons the rescue attempt in search of another “victim.” Although this is ultimately good news for the victim, the journey may be painful and his attempts to recover can be severely compromised.
But the rescuer is a victim too. People become rescuers because they have a need to be liked. Saying ‘‘no’’ to someone who has asked a favor is to let that person down and to court dislike. So when a rescuer sees a person in need, he or she will feel obliged to fulfill that person’s request however inconvenient, inappropriate or burdensome the task.
The result, of course, is that rescuers get overloaded with other people’s emotional baggage, which takes up time and drains energy. They become cynical, tired, and apathetic. They lose their idealism and sense of purpose. Worse, they may even unconsciously contaminate the people they try to rescue with their own sense of failure and burnout.
How do you break this co-dependency? Essentially, what’s needed on both sides is a dose of healthy selfishness. The rescuer needs to stop thinking about the needs of others and focus more on their own dreams and aspirations. So if you find yourself being emotionally and physically drained by a professional colleague you feel responsible for perhaps you should take a serious look at why you feel compelled to help that person.
By the same token, if you are a mentee or coachee and you find yourself turning more and more to a mentor or coach whose help seems to be increasingly essential then you might want to ask yourself if the mentor or coach isn’t part of your problem. You should need less mentoring over time, not more.
Tackling the rescuer syndrome does not mean having to give up helping or mentoring other people. The urge to help others is a force for good, so long as it does not involve destructive co-dependency. Constructive mentors and coaches solve their own problems first and recognize that their role is to encourage others to make difficult decisions for themselves.