Rescuing – Helping that Harms

January 15, 2021


Can helping actually cause harm? Transactional Analysis offers an understanding of helping that harms through the concept of Rescuing, which is one of the three roles of the Karpman Drama Triangle, the other two roles being Persecuting and Being Victim.

While the roles of Persecutor and Victim are easier to understand and recognise, the role of Rescuer is somewhat more difficult to recognise, especially because we are encouraged to be selfless, generous and co-operative,

Rescuers are compulsive helpers. The stance of the Rescuer is “Let me help you!” Rescuers work hard to help and caretake other people, or sort them out in some way. This is the classic Martyr role. Rescuers are so inclined to rescue that if they see a person in need and don’t rush to their aid they feel guilty.  

The problem here is that they are meeting their own need to be needed rather than the needs of the person being helped. For example, a Rescuer would escort the blind man across the road without actually checking if the blind man actually wanted to cross the road. They may leave the blind man confused and angry, while feeling smug and superior at their good deed.

Rescuers use their perceived superiority (a “one-up” position) to ostensibly benefit the others, but simultaneously keep them powerless. In Cinderella, the fairy godmother does help her, but keeps her dependent by imposing conditions of secrecy and time deadlines. She discounts Cinderella’s ability to take part in helping herself. Cinderella is instructed on what she must do and how she must act and has no agency in her own decisions.

Typical ways in which Rescuers behave Examples
Bolster their own self importance Aid is offered to developing countries without involving them. It is not uncommon to see aid being wasted, sitting idly on dockyards, or sold on the black market.

People make a career of Rescuing by choosing coaching / counselling for the wrong reason , “I have a lot of experience. Let me share it with you because you will gain from it.”

When coaches and therapists “Just love people having breakthroughs,” they often take ownership of their clients getting there.

The over-helpful manager insists on reviewing everything and becomes a bottleneck to organizational performance.

The coach or leader finds the superlative expressions of gratitude privately satiating (“I can’t thank you enough — you really saved me!”)

Help people without asking Leader takes away some responsibility from a new parent without checking with him, because “He needs time to manage his new priorities.”

Managers and coaches sometimes get obsessed with giving advice. People just have to mention a problem and they are inundated with advice even though they never asked for it.

Parents who don’t expect a seven year old to make own bed or do own homework or carry own bag or choose own clothes are training the child to expect others to make decisions for them.

Doing more than their fair share The team goes home on time. The leader stays late doing their work saying, “I am responsible for the team’s morale.”

The coach keeps offering helpful suggestions while the client keeps rejecting them.

The leader routinely reminds people of commitments, accepts excuses when those commitments are missed, and even steps in to do some of the work for them.

Doing things they don’t want to do, but they think they ought to Manager does not even consider or mention an overseas assignment, because it will upset people in the family.

A guest eats sweets offered to her even though she hates it because she shouldn’t be rude.

A team member always does the report compilation and minutes of the meetings, because nobody in the team finds it engaging.

Give to others what they need themselves Leader says, “Nobody listened to me when I was a fresher. I will be there for people.”

A team member wants to have a juice, so he buys juice for everyone in the team, because otherwise he would feel guilty drinking juice by himself.

What harm does Rescuing do?

Rescuing creates dependency and stress.

Rather than enabling through their helping, Rescuers create powerlessness and dependency. The attitude of “I’ll-Take-Care-of-That-for-You” or “I make the wrongs right” can make a leader feel like a superhero, but it allows people to not take accountability for solving their problems themselves.

Because they take on all the problems Rescuers are frequently harried, overworked, tired, caught in a martyr style while resentment festers underneath. They are unable to say no to people. They often do not confront Persecution, because they are taking care of the Persecutor’s feelings. As an example, the exploitation of workers by industrial owners is made easy by the Rescue tendencies in people which encourage them to be “co-operative,” helpful, hardworking and therefore easily exploitable. Another example, endless toleration of abuse, followed by forgiveness, is harmful rather than helpful to the alcoholic.

Why do Rescuers act the way they do?

At the core, rescuers believe that they are not OK. They need to help other people to feel good about themselves. So they often search for victims to help and don’t allow their victims to grow to a level where they can stop needing them.

In the HBR article, “How to Overcome Your Obsession with Helping Others”, Ron Carucci invites leaders to ask themselves these questions and ask them honestly:

  • When I’m not helping others, do I feel anxious or aimless?
  • Do I offer others unsolicited advice, even in casual social settings, under the guise of “just trying to be helpful?”
  • Do I feel defensive or dismissive when I learn that the people I helped have found another’s advice helpful, or that they didn’t consult me on a problem?
  • Do I imagine helping others with life-changing advice, visualizing how my help could be vital to their success?
  • Do I feel insecure when someone I help questions or doesn’t take my advice?
  • Do I fish for praise after giving advice, or need the other person to acknowledge that I was helpful?
  • Do I feel taken advantage of, like I’ve made a sacrifice, after a stressful period of helping?

Answering yes to many of these questions may indicate that you may need to introspect on your own needs for validation and develop healthier ways to meet them.

How could one stay away from Rescuing?

#1. When someone asks for help, ask questions to understand what specifically they need. Make an informed choice of whether you want to help. Consider your and the other person’s needs and capacities. Ask, “What would be the best thing for the other person now? And how can I REALLY help them?”  Sometimes not “helping” is actually helping because this may be what the other person needs – some space to come up with a solution on their own.

#2. When you offer help without being asked, see how it is received. If the help is not valued, it is a signal that it may be meeting your need more than theirs. You could then back off.

#3. Set clear expectations about what you can offer. Commit to being a contributor, not a saviour. Adhering to clear, mutual accountabilities makes success a shared outcome. Hold people accountable. Share feedback when necessary.

#4. Balance challenge and support. Overprotecting people does them more harm that good. Trust that people can take risks and cope with any disappointments that may face. Tolerate people’s upsets and trust that they will emerge from it.

#5. Say no to unreasonable asks. Stay stop to unreasonable acts. Don’t “co-operate” with persecutors. They don’t need your help.

#6. Don’t ever believe that another person is helpless.

#7. Don’t do anything you really don’t want to do. Trust that other people will find options or deal with the disappointment of your refusal.

Thus, trusting other people to think for themselves is at the heart of giving up Rescuing. Healthy helping promotes other people’s growth, independence, and the development of their positive potential. Use your helping energies and resources to help people and causes that will truly benefit from your help.


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