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Are You a Rescuer?

By Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.

A rescuer is a person who does for others what they could learn to do for themselves.

Rescuers feel good about themselves because they believe they are being helpful. Some of those who have been rescued love their rescuers because they do not have to work as hard. So what is wrong with rescuing? In time, the rescuers become overloaded, get tired of doing all the work and take it out on the rescued, who do not understand the sudden change in attitude. When family members, friends and employees are used to being helped instead of taught how to help themselves, they learn to expect this help, become dependent upon it and will feel anger at their former rescuer for not doing it anymore.

This kind of dependence is called “learned helplessness,” because the people involved are in fact not helpless to begin with, but become so when no one expects them to perform on their own. Many of us head committees with individuals assigned to specific tasks. Not confronting the person when realistic objectives are not being met and withholding feedback so as not to hurt the person also withholds the possibility of improvement, growth and development.

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If someone does not complete his or her project on time, do you stay up late and finish it yourself instead of figuring out together what the problem is? Many people who complain they have too much work are doing other people’s work for them.

Every time someone asks you a question, ask what solutions he or she has considered. If someone doesn’t know how to operate something, train him or her. What seems like taking too much time now will save you time one hundred-fold later.

So don’t pat yourself on the back for being such a nice person. Many rescuers create dependence because they want to be loved, appreciated and needed. Some of these may be valid reasons, but the greatest gift anyone can give to another person is the gift of self-help.

The three rules to avoid learned helplessness are:

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  1. Hold people accountable for their assignments.
  2. Set realistic completion dates and stick to them.
  3. Expect people to find solutions to their problems.

A word of caution - if you have been a habitual rescuer, stopping the behavior will make people angry at you for not being there for them. If you change your behavior, you need to explain why you are doing it and what the long-term benefits will be.
Going from rescuer to coach may not be an easy leap, but the rewards are great. Most people prefer to be challenged. When people learn to think for themselves, they will become more independent and productive.

And this goes for your children and grandchildren too. But you must expect balking at first, so you will have to repeat again and again what needs to be learned, tolerate mistakes, and be ready to reward success with praise.

It is the same on the home front. Men can learn to go grocery shopping and return with the correct items. Women can learn to fix things around the house. Even you sister-in-law can be taught to program the VCR.

So instead of a rescuer, become a coach and a teacher, and you will both gain in the process.