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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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A "Rescuer"

Q. I work with someone who is a "rescuer". It appears to many that she really only likes someone if she can find something wrong with them so that she can then be considered their rescuer. This has caused problems in her personal relationships if someone does not need to be rescued. She appears to decide that something is wrong with someone, based upon even the slightest little bits of personal information and then everything that she sees evidently supports her view...a self-fulfilling prophecy. What causes this and what can we do?

A. There is no official psychiatric diagnosis called "Chronic Rescuer Disorder", but that doesn't mean these individuals are easy to live with! There seems to be very little systematic research on people like your colleague, and I suspect that there is no single cause for this kind of behavior.

Some of the patients I have seen with this personality trait seem to be chronically anxious individuals. They deal with their own fear of losing control by seeking to control others-usually, by finding some fault or personal failing to correct in others. Some of these "rescuers" may be repressing or denying deep-seated problems in their own lives, and projecting these difficulties onto others. These folks seem to have the attitude, "Everybody is entitled to my opinion!"--but, in fact, they are often very insecure and neurotic personalities.

Some may fall under the rubric of narcissistic personality types, whose need to manipulate others reflects fears of powerlessness and vulnerability. There may also be a subgroup of rescuers who have been abused or neglected as children. They may suffer from chronically low self-esteem, and find some sense of comfort in putting things right by rescuing others. There is no magic wand one can wave over these individuals, turning them into normal folks.

As far as what you can do: it may first be important to ask what your stake in this person is. You describe her as essentially a work-mate. If you don't need to interact with her on a social basis, and do not feel especially close to her, your approach may be more professional in nature. For example, if she causes you major problems in the office, you might need to speak with her supervisor. The problem might then be referred to your company's employee counseling office.

On the other hand, if you or someone else in your office has a close, personal relationship with this individual, it might be possible to sit down with her in a private setting, and respectfully confront her about her behavior. It would be important to do this in a way that avoids attacking her. For example, you might say, "Mary, I really appreciate your listening to me about this. I know you are someone who cares a lot about other people, and that you often go out of your way to be of help. But sometimes, it feels like you are trying to 'rescue' me when I don't really feel the need to be rescued. I would like to be comfortable with you in the office, but I feel like this habit is getting in the way and leaving me anxious around you. I'd like to change that. What are your feelings about all this?"

Depending on how your colleague reacts, you may or may not feel that she is willing to change. (If she becomes very angry, defensive, and huffy, that's not a good sign!). In the mean time, you may need to avoid feeding her neurosis by unwittingly providing her with personal information. You may also need to rebuff her attempts to rescue you, in a polite, respectful, but firm manner. One useful technique is called, "Broken Record". It involves repeating the same message over and over, politely but firmly; e.g., "I appreciate your offer, Mary, but it's really not necessary."

Do not attempt to argue or explain--just repeat the exact words until the behavior stops. This really works--sometimes! Finally, you and your colleagues may want to get hold of the book, "How to Live with A Neurotic, At Home and at Work", by Dr. Albert Ellis. This is hard to get hold of, but well worth your time. Good luck!

November 2002

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