NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, August 15, 2015

How to Stop Being the "Rescuer" in Your Family of Origin

As a psychotherapist in New York City, I see many clients who come to therapy because they feel overburdened by their loved one's problems.  Often, they're the ones who everyone relies on, and they come to  therapy when they feel exhausted from other people's problems.

How to Stop Being the "Rescuer" in Your Family

But often what they don't realize is that they're participating in this codependent dynamic with their loved ones because they're invested in being the "rescuer" and they're unable to set boundaries with their loved ones (see my article: Assertiveness: Learning to Say No).

It's not unusual for this pattern to start early in life.  It doesn't seem to matter if this person is the oldest, the youngest or the middle child.  Early on, they become the ones that everyone turns to when they're in trouble, and they become accustomed to this role--until it becomes overwhelming.

The following vignette is a fictionalized example, which represents many different cases where the client is the "rescuer" in her family of origin until she feels feels overburdened by this role:

Nina was the middle child of five children in a chaotic family.  Since Nina's father was often away as an interstate trucker, her mother was left to take care of the children and manage the household.

Of all the children, Nina was closest child to her mother.  At the end of the day, when the younger children were put to bed and the older children were watching TV, Nina would sit with her mother and at the kitchen table and listen to her mother's complaints:  She was tired. She was worried about her elderly mother's health.  She didn't know how she was going to manage the bills.  And so on.

Nina would listen quietly.  Then, she would try to come up with solutions to her mother's problems.  Afterwards, her mother would praise her for being "mother's little helper," which made Nina feel good (see my article: Role Reversal in Mother-Daughter Relationships and Ambivalence and Codependency in Mother-Daughter Relationships).

How to Stop Being the "Rescuer" in Your Family of Origin

Whenever Nina was upset about anything, she mostly kept it to herself because she knew that her mother was already overwhelmed and she didn't want to bother her.  Sometimes, she talked to her older sister, but this was rare.  More often than not, Nina's siblings, both younger and older, turned to her for help.

This dynamic continued into adulthood with Nina being the one who attempted to rescue her mother and her siblings.  She would listen to their complaints for hours and try to come up with solutions for them.  Sometimes, she also bailed them out financially, even when it meant sacrificing things that she needed for herself.

By the time Nina was in her early 30s, she was exhausted from trying to rescue her mother and siblings over and over again.  Their problems seemed endless.  No sooner would she help them to overcome one problem than they developed another problem.

She loved her family very much, and she wanted only the best for them, but she didn't know how to deal with her increasing exhaustion.

During a rare time when Nina confided in a friend, her friend told her that she thought Nina was part of the problem because she didn't know how to set boundaries with her family.  She suggested that Nina get help in therapy.

Nina was shocked to hear her friend say this.  She never thought of getting help for herself.  She always thought it was her family members who needed help--not her.

But not knowing what else to do, she decided to give therapy a try.

Initially, Nina had a hard time focusing on herself in therapy.  She felt more comfortable talking about her family member's problems.  So, it took a while for her to be able focus on herself and to get in touch with what she was feeling.

She knew that she felt overwhelmed in a general sense.  But she was so unaccustomed to think about what was going on with her that, at first, she felt selfish for thinking about herself.  She also felt guilty for complaining about her family members (see my article:  Overcoming the Guilt You Feel For Not Being Able to Solve Your Parent's Problems).

Gradually, Nina came to see that she was caught in a dynamic with her family that she was actively participating in.  She saw that it wasn't something that was happening to her--she was an active participant.

How to Stop Being the "Rescuer" in Your Family of Origin

She also began to see another underlying dynamic about herself that she hadn't seen before:  Aside from wanting to be helpful, whenever she helped her family members with their problems, she felt like she was in control and, to a certain extent, omnipotent.

Looking back on her chaotic childhood, Nina was able to see why, as a young child, she would want to feel in control and powerful in a household that often felt out of control.

But as an adult, her life was no longer out of control, and she was ready to give up whatever feelings of  omnipotence she still felt in order to gain peace of mind.

Over time, Nina learned in therapy how to set limits with her mother and siblings.  It wasn't easy and, initially, her family resented this change.

But, gradually, Nina felt how much healthier it was for her to focus on herself first instead of being in the role of a "rescuer."  She also saw that her mother and siblings were able to solve their own problems if she didn't jump in to rescue them, and they felt better about themselves because of this (see my article:  Overcoming the Confusion Between Compassion and Responsibility).

Nina also worked in therapy to deal with her own unmet childhood emotional needs that she suppressed in order to be the parentified child to her mother and her siblings (see my article:  What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?).

Whenever there's an ongoing dynamic between "rescuer" and "rescuee," both people are participating in this dynamic.

How to Stop Being the "Rescuer" in Your Family of Origin

On the surface, it might look like the "rescuee" is the only one who perpetuates this dynamic.  But, on closer inspection, it becomes clearer that this codependent dynamic wouldn't continue without both people actively participating.

Since the role of "rescuer" often begins at a young age, it's often difficult to change.  The "rescuer" often feels guilty and selfish, and the "rescuee" often feels letdown and betrayed by any attempts to change the situation.

During the early stages of trying to change this dynamic, the "rescuer" is often tempted to revert back to what is familiar because attempts at changing the dynamic can feel like swimming against the tide.

Some people never get out of the role of being the "rescuer,"even though they're exhausted from it and feel increasingly resentful.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you recognize yourself as being in the "rescuer" role for loved ones and you've been unable to change this dynamic on your own, you could benefit from seeking help from a licensed mental health professional who has experience helping clients to overcome this dynamic.

Not only will you be helping yourself, you'll also be helping your loved ones to see that they can solve their problems without being dependent upon you.

You might be surprised to discover a sense of well-being when you're not continually trying to fix other people's problems.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients who are caught up in codependent dynamics to overcome this role so they can lead more fulfilling lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.