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.