Why the Rescuer is So Dangerous

My husband is a fire fighter. He can tell you in detail about all the training required before you can even go on your first call. Being trained as a firefighter is not enough to perform a rescue. You need to be paged out, have the proper equipment, and follow proper protocol. Above all else, the fire-fighter must ensure his or her own safety before helping others. If he doesn’t, it could cost not only his own life, but that of his teammates, and people in need of rescue.

Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash

There is a different type of rescuer in psychology, one of the three roles established by Stephen Karpman that allow for dysfunctional drama to continue. The other two roles are persecutor and victim. Working in social services and being a licensed foster parent, I see the rescuer and the harm that he or she does a lot.

Sometimes it is a local teacher, neighbor, friend who takes a youth into their home, not realizing that the youth’s declaration of victimhood fit perfectly into Karpman’s victim role, and was not a legitimate claim of abuse, danger, etc. but rather a reaction to parent’s request to get along with family members, avoid drugs and alcohol, follow curfew, do chores, etc. This type of rescuer does the same act again and again, and can often have a saintly status in the community, using their title as teacher, mentor, etc. while the youth’s parents suffer the stigma and shame of having the lies told about them spread around by the rescuer, the victim (youth), and other community members. Instead of taking the time to communicate with all parties involved (the truth comes out eventually), and get to the root of what is happening, the rescuer enjoys the thrill of “saving” their “victim.” What really happens is that the “victim” finds another way to avoid accountability, using the community as a group weapon against their parents, who are now cast in the unenviable role of perpetrators. The rescuer enables the victimhood, keeping them trapped in a “helpless” loop, rather than finding a sustainable, positive solution for all parties involved.

In foster care, the rescuer can be one of the foster parents, social workers, relatives that appear out of the blue, etc. They take temporary, but dramatic measures that appear to be for the good of the foster child, but often end up making their lives worse when a better solution would have involved moderation, patience, and foresight. The rescuers use the foster children as leverage to get their own needs met and often devalue anyone who gets in the way of their destructive rescuing efforts.

I want to add a caveat here. Sometimes when a child is suffering from abuse or major neglect, someone brave will step in and help the child while authorities are called and a plan is made for the child’s well-being. This is not the type of rescuer Karpman was talking about. It is someone who is doing the right thing while being responsible and communicating with the authorities who can then apply their knowledge and skill to help a child that is in danger. When a child is truly in danger, one has to take their word for it and contact the proper authorities who can then sort out what is really going on. If you live in Washington State and suspect child abuse or neglect, call 1-866-END-HARM, or the local child abuse hotline for your state.

Signs of a destructive rescuer

The following are a list of red flags to watch out for and help you identify if someone is a professional “rescuer” a la Karpman:

  • Long-term results for victim do not result in an improved situation.
  • The rescuer does the same type of rescuing on a regular basis.
  • The victim’s behavior and helplessness deteriorate after being “helped” by rescuer.
  • The spotlight is on the rescuer.
  • There is a dangerous lack of communication on the part of the rescuer.
  • The rescuer is very selective about what they say and who they say it to.
  • Watch out for bulldozing in the rescue attempts and afterward by the rescuer. This can come in the form of excuses, casting shame on anyone who attempts to resolve the situation, or the supposed perpetrators who have now been silenced.
  • Look out for group bullying from the rescuer and his or her “flying monkeys” after the rescue.
  • Rescues are generally short-term and ineffective, leaving everyone else to pick up the pieces afterwards.
  • If a rescue feels like a distraction, rather than a resolution, it probably is.
  • Inappropriate boundaries between the rescuer and victim exist.
  • Rescuers make decisions for the victim, rather than believing that the victim can make his or her own choices to solve their own problems.
  • The rescuer tends to overlook important facts and focuses on purely emotions instead.
  • The rescuer has a lot of pretty large problems in his or her own life which can be easily neglected while assuming the rescuer role.
  • Rescuers forego their own needs and self-care, resulting in continuous stress and burnout.

The roles of rescuer, victim, and perpetrator are learned in their family-of-origin. If you think you might fall into one of the roles, don’t be too harsh on yourself. Instead find a good counselor to talk to and find healthier ways of relating with other people. If you are affected by the negative consequences of a professional “rescuer” seek help for yourself in setting boundaries, taking care of yourself, and finding healthy resolution. Even though rescuing can seem admirable, when it’s not done the right way, it can result in a lot of negative, long-term damage to everyone involved.