It’s hard to not be a rescuer. Very few parents, therapists or generally empathetic people I know can stand idly by and watch someone they love drowning in emotional pain, getting choked by waves of sadness, anxiety or shame. It’s not to say that rescuing is a bad thing- saving someone from a painful struggle is absolutely necessary sometimes.
Unfortunately, however, it’s easy to get trapped in a rescuer role that eventually puts both of you at risk. I see parents getting caught in this trap all the time in my work with youth dealing with complex mental health issues. Parents witness their child’s emotional turmoil and bend over backwards to find a way to dive in and save them from suffering. Who can blame them? No one wants to see their child in pain and every parent wants to protect their child.
The problem with rescuing is that while it provides immediate relief, it doesn’t yield long-term results. It dis-empowers the person being rescued and they never learn how to swim. Instead, you get caught in an infinite loop, as they become reliant on you to rescue them over and over again. Even the healthiest lifesaver, the strongest swimmer, can only pull someone safely to shore so many times before they too become exhausted and are unable to keep their head above water. Not only can this lead the person rescuing to struggle to stay afloat themselves, it can breed resentment. How many times can you rescue someone before you get frustrated with them for always jumping in? It can also stir up negative feelings for the person being rescued. They may begin to see themselves as a helpless victim and feel ashamed or angry that they always need someone to help them get to shore.
Instead of rescuing someone with mental health issues, be a lifeguard. Lifeguards are trained to jump in and rescue people as a last resort. Instead, they are taught to use various other steps first in order to avoid putting themselves at unnecessary risk. When possible, they toss a life preserver out, encouraging the person in the water to grab on and kick. In these moments they provide essential tools for survival, offering a sense of safety and guidance to help the person get to safety.
Once you learn to lifeguard, you can work your way towards also being the swim coach that helps build their confidence and capability so that eventually they know how to save themselves. While it can be more difficult in the short-term, in the long-term it’s better for everyone. For therapists, it can prevent burnout. For families, it can strengthen relationships and reduce breakdowns. For the person being rescued, it can be empowering and energizing. They can stop seeing themselves as victims and start recognizing their own inner strength.
So the next time you find yourself ready to dive in: stop, take a breath, and throw a life preserver out instead. I promise, you’ll thank me later.
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA