Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

The Rescue Compulsion

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on December 9, 2013

People rescue dogs, cats, birds,  and children. Therapists often feel they are rescuing their patients. Sure, if someone is drowning, as in the picture above, most people would throw a life-preserver, but my question is, why do some people seek out professions or hobbies that involve rescuing? Is there a clear indication that the rescuer is hoping to restore his self-esteem by saving another? Is there some sort of reductionistic equation that dictates that saving a life compensates for previous bad deeds? Is this a positive reaction formation to feeling troubled and so using that pain for constructive purposes? Or, maybe there is no pain at all, and merely pleasure in a sense of importance and meaning?

Margy, sixty-four, comes to mind. She has rescued fifteen cats, most of which live with her, a few she has given to friends. She is single, divorced twice, and no children-“the classic cat lady,” she tells me.  Each rescue makes her feel good in a way that “nothing else does,” she explains. “The world suddenly feels like they need me, and I never feel that any other way in my life,” Margy says, not with sadness, but in a matter-of-fact manner. “Do you feel you matter to yourself?” I ask, wondering whether her sense of herself is fragile and that with each cat rescue, she feels more “whole”. Maybe, if she can rescue a cat, she can also rescue herself. I begin to wonder. The cat rescue, I think, is a vehicle of hope: evidence that love is possible, that relationships can happen, with no expectation of material reward or security. The cat, I ponder, symbolizes the baby Margy, who needed rescuing, perhaps, but could not ask for it directly.

“Do you think you relate to the cats on some deep level, as helpless creatures, which remind you of the time in your life when you were a helpless child?” I ask, swirling these ideas around in my mind, deciding to give them fresh air. “Yes, in a way,” Margy replies in a tender manner. “These cats are my babies, so yes, maybe they remind me of my baby life, and the love I needed, I give to them, and that feels healing,” she says with a tentative sense to her words. “So the cats get a home, and you feel better. It sounds like a win/win.” I say, trying to determine whether how much the cats enhance her life versus how much the cats serve as protection from human relationships. “Maybe one day I won’t need to rescue any more cats, but I am not there yet,” she says, with the anxiety that I am going to suggest to her to change her behavior, as so many of her friends have told her. “You rescue cats. You feel good about it. It is hard to argue,” I say, not hearing a negative aspect to her cat passion. “It is just very interesting to think about the motivation,” I say, ending our session with the notion  that understanding does not need to lead to a behavioral change.

See also..https://shirahvollmermd.wordpress.com/2012/09/20/the-rescuer-needs-to-be-rescued/

10 Responses to “The Rescue Compulsion”

  1. Ellen said

    I’m thinking though, if she has kept ‘most’ of fifteen cats, that’s maybe ten cats. Pretty hard to keep a home in good order with so many. Unless she lives on a farm. And if that’s her way of feeling good, she’ll keep adding when she needs a boost.

    When friends are concerned enough to say something, there’s often cause for concern. Just sayin.

  2. Jon said

    There is another, perhaps inadvertent, rescue that should be discussed. That is the rescue of a country. This is brought to mind by the graphic that you use for this post. My understanding is not that it is a person that is drowning, it is Italy. Look at the colors, Green, White and Red. Look at the “boot.”

    The reasons for rescuing countries are simultaneously more straightforward in motive and more complicated in execution than rescuing dogs, cats, birds and children. However, not to the intended point of this posting, but to my mental perambulations, the two can be somewhat tied together in the immortal words of the poet John Donne:

    No man is an island,
    Entire of itself,
    Every man is a piece of the continent,
    A part of the main.
    If a clod be washed away by the sea,
    Europe is the less.
    As well as if a promontory were.
    As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
    Or of thine own were:
    Any man’s death diminishes me,
    Because I am involved in mankind,
    And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
    It tolls for thee.

  3. Shelly said

    I agree with Ellen. I know a cat-lady and her life is taken up with taking care of her cats. She cannot leave them overnight because there will no-one to feed them. Most of her errands are to buy cat supplies or taking them to the vet. In short, Margy’s life is not a simple one. But I wanted to take issue with something you started with in this blog: “why do some people seek out professions or hobbies that involve rescuing? Is there a clear indication that the rescuer is hoping to restore his self-esteem by saving another? Is there some sort of reductionistic equation that dictates that saving a life compensates for previous bad deeds? Is this a positive reaction formation to feeling troubled and so using that pain for constructive purposes?” I believe that the world is based on empathy and that this is ingrained in most of us from a very early age. Empathy for one another ensures survival of the species. In Margy’s case, it may be transferred to animals because she may not relate well to others. However, I’m wondering why people donate kidneys to total strangers, or jump down on train tracks to rescue people who have fallen on them? Why do they do it? To feel better about themselves? To give meaning to their lives?

    • I agree that the world, by and large, is based on empathy, but the point of this post is sometimes, like everything else in life, empathy is taken to an extreme, warranting a psychological investigation as to its’ underpinnings. In Margy’s case, one wonders about a repetition compulsion, the need to care for cats at the expense of her own well-being. It is the incessant rescuer that I am curious about, not the person standing on the dock, throwing a life-saver, which Jon, correctly points out, is about saving Italy from itself.

  4. Ashana M said

    We help others as a result of natural selection. Altruism has benefited our species for several hundred thousand years.

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