Helping or Rescuing

To rescue means to save people from injury or harm, to liberate or release them from fear or other restriction, as when you remove a burden from their shoulders, or an obstacle from their path. Helping others is a noble endeavor, but not when it relieves them from the struggle that promotes growth. In that case, rescuing causes further injury. While your intent may be well meaning, you prevent others from experiencing the consequences of their behavior, so no learning takes place. And, since there is no motivation to change, nothing happens when they shirk responsibility and blame others for the outcome of their choices.

Change That Lasts Comes From Within

If you are a compassionate person, others’ wellbeing is important to you. When they are in pain or failing you want to help them. The problem arises when you get so wrapped up in saving others you neglect yourself. Many times you are too close to the person to be objective, so you can’t see that change is a decision that has to come from within, not from prodding and threats. Although these tactics may work for the short term, soon the old battle begins; with you feeling so drained and powerless you can’t concentrate on what you need to do to reach your goals. But feeling drained and powerless has a purpose, as do most distractions: when you are tired and overwhelmed, you can’t do what you are afraid to do.


You might think only positive choices are decisions, and that negative outcomes happen to you. As a child you were not always conscious that you were making decisions, but you were making them nonetheless. Of course, some things are beyond your control – genetics, natural disasters, taxes, and death– but as an adult you always have control over how you react to what happens. No one can make you feel or think anything.

If you look in your dictionary for the word decide you’ll find that one definition is to bring something to an end. As mentioned above, you do not end anything because of pressure from others. You may stop what you’re doing for a time, but when the pressure is off you go back to your old ways.

Change takes place when you choose freely, consciously, and willingly. Until then you fake it, or you arrange to let someone else make the choice for you. Or someone sets you up to choose by using guilt or threats. Then whatever you choose, it is his fault (he made me do it). Now everybody feels powerless.

Think about a habit you used to have, such as smoking, drinking, eating or worrying too much. Did people pressure you to stop? That didn’t work, did it? In fact, you probably got mad at them for trying to control you, and to prove how independent you were you smoked and drank and ate and worried even more (you can’t tell me what to do). Until you decided to stop what you were doing that wasn’t working you kept on doing it, right? You followed the same procedure when you decided to work smarter, not harder, and when you stood up to bullies rather than avoid or give in to them. Then you felt powerful.

Julie’s Story

One of my clients resolved a lifelong problem when she decided to draw good boundaries. Why would that be so difficult for Julie? Because allowing others to take advantage of her was less painful than feeling guilty about being selfish. Ironically, that was the accusation she heard from those who were truly selfish. Illogical, but there you are. Fortunately, Julie was willing to do whatever it took to end an exhausting role she’d accepted as “just the way it is” in the past.

Tolerating the void was a huge challenge for Julie. Without the distraction of worrying about others’ problems, she was face-to-face with her own problems. Some days she doubted her sanity. Dizzy spells and feeling disoriented were just a few of the signs that her mental furniture was being rearranged.

Today, Julie still feels anxious when she takes certain risks, but she accepts discomfort as a sign that she’s making healthy choices, not that she is wrong or selfish. The people who used to take advantage of her left her life and moved on to their next victims. Those who remain take responsibility for their lives. Now that she has time to think about what she needs, Julie is happy at home and work.

Helping That Works

Who in your life is helpful? Who is confident enough to allow you to go through the struggle that change requires without making it easy for you? Do you listen to this person because you know he or she wants the best for you?  Now think of the people who get upset when you are scared, flailing around, and not knowing what to do. Do they rush in with solutions? Do they want you to hurry up and figure it out so they won’t feel so anxious?

Now, ask yourself how you help others. Do you let them know what you think, and, at the same time, tell them you are sure they will figure it out if they think about it long enough?  If so, congratulate yourself: you are a helper, not a rescuer.

Nancy Anderson is a career and life consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area and the author of the best selling career guide, Work with Passion, How to Do What You Love For a Living, and Work with Passion in Midlife and Beyond, Reach Your Full Potential and Make the Money You Need. Her website is