Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

The Rescuer Needs To Be Rescued

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on September 20, 2012

Name:patrick rescuer Sponge bob coloring pictures.jpg

Unconscious agendas, the need to rescue, found in so many therapists, so many relationships, and so many seemingly altruistic acts, like saving a dog from the pound, results in anger when the object of the rescue does not comply with the hopes and dreams of the rescuer. So says, one of my students, Frank (not his real name) in today’s ‘Play Class’ where we discussed the dynamics in the story of a fictional seven-year old child, Sam, both parents unable to take care of him, leading a very distant relative, Gerard,  to step in and provide parenting, but over time, Gerard has shown an edge of anger and disappointment that this child is not showing the world the benefits of his deeply devoted caretaking.  Frank nailed it. The unconscious need to rescue, often results in anger and disappointment because there is an unspoken agenda, in which the dependent soul is vulnerable to not fulfilling, causing despair and agitation in the rescuer. The rescuer, in this case Gerard, seems to be hoping that taking care of Sam is going to make Gerard feel good about his core self. If Gerard’s core self is poorly formed, then Sam will  feel the pressure to take care of Gerard, and thus Sam is not able to grow and develop with the freedom to find his core self. Sam, as a sensitive child, perceives this, and then resents Gerard for putting pressure on him to “show off” Gerard’s altruism. Gerard feels this resentment from Sam and then becomes even more angry, that not only is Sam not grateful for his intervention, he is angry at Gerard. This negative dynamic leads both parties feeling unappreciated. If, on the other hand, Gerard did not need Sam to prove that he was a good person, Sam would be free to express himself, and then in that case, he would more likely grow up to be grateful for Gerard’s intervention. In essence, primitive personalities, like Gerard, in this fictional case, begets more primitive personalities, like Sam, since his development is obstructed by Gerard’s unconscious demands. Relationships do best when people appreciate each other, without being too dependent on one another for a sense of confidence and well-being. This applies not only to friendships, romantic relationships and to parenting relationships, but to therapeutic relationships as well.

4 Responses to “The Rescuer Needs To Be Rescued”

  1. Jon said

    Two phrases come to mind – “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” and “Who will watch the watchers?” The story of Sam and Gerard shows the laying of the foundations to that road to the underworld. While at one level the intentions are “good” and another level, they are divisive. This then sets up the parallel to the second phase –“Who will rescue the rescuer?” That seems to become the job of the psychoanalyst.

    • Shirah said

      Thanks, Jon. The issue of rescuing the rescuer is complicated as the self-image of the rescuer is one who does not need help, but is there to help others. Psychoanalytic work requires humility, which is often painfully lacking in “rescuers”. The hope is for Sam, one day, to see how he was cornered into appreciating Gerard, without room to develop his own sense of himself. At the same time, it is possible for Gerard to wonder about his huge amount of anger towards Sam, and perhaps in this question, he will seek a deeper understanding of himself. Thanks again.

  2. Shelly said

    This is a very interesting and timely as well. It made me think of the dynamics I had with my late mother-in-law and why she and I never could get along. Perhaps she felt that I never appreciated her best intentions and that she had been “good to me,” when all along I had never lived up to her expectations nor behaved in a loving manner to her. All I could ever expect from her was criticism and pain yet perhaps she felt she was guiding me and providing me “mothering.” Perhaps the dynamics made her feel badly about herself and she felt unappreciated. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I need to think about this further.

    • Thank you, Shelly for sharing your thoughts. As you say, it is possible that with your late mother-in-law, she had a hidden agenda, which may have even been hidden to her, to “rescue” you, but if you felt that being “rescued” was an insult to your competency, then it is possible that these internal dynamics clashed in a way which created overt conflict. The rescuer is often patronizing to his/her perceived dependent partner and this patronizing is an assaultive feeling on one’s self-esteem. Healthier relationships involve more mutual respect and admiration. Rescuer/rescuee relationships are often asymmetrical and often doomed to conflict and failure. A common example of this is the person who marries an alcoholic, with the assumption that he can save the other, but when the person stops drinking, the marriage ends, because the dynamics have shifted in a way that makes the rescuer feel not needed. In other words, many rescuers need to always feel needed, in order to maintain their fragile self-esteem, so they get depressed and/or angry when the other person becomes more emotionally independent. Thanks again.

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