Were you the kid who knew just what to say or do to help mommie to stop crying when the car broke down, to not become enraged when it rained on the 4th of July picnic, or to not melt down when she misplaced her keys and was going to be late for work? Could you prevent your alcoholic step-dad from fighting with your mother by covering for him when he was out drinking all day instead of mowing the lawn? Did you know how to be upbeat, funny, serious, supportive, soothing, cajoling, etc -on command- in order to distract your parent from making a scene in public?
If so, I’m terribly sorry. It was never supposed to be your job as a kid to be the emotional lightening rod for your self-absorbed, troubled parent(s). You should not have had to learn how to read the emotional temperature of any room in a split second upon entering (by the age of 6), so that you could go to work at making it okay for the adults who lurked there (so that you could feel safe). You certainly should not have had to swallow the displaced, messy, intense feelings of the adults in your world, so that they didn’t break down or fall apart, leaving you helpless and alone.
Unfortunately, the adults were probably too self-involved to notice that as a tiny amateur psychologist you were constantly making verbal lemons into lemonade at the expense of your own precious emotional well-being. They were too preoccupied to realize that they were being rescued by a child; one who had needs and dreams and fears and thoughts, independent of those haphazardly foisted upon him/her in a swirling chaos of dysfunction. If this sounds like your childhood, you may have become an expert at rescuing.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Now that you’re an adult, do you have a number of people in your life who are continually making the same mistakes, despite your attempts to guide them and help them get better?
- Are you finding that a certain someone is not appreciative of all you’ve done to improve his or her world?
- Do you start to feel guilty, lost or unwanted if you stop trying to help for a while?
- Are you neglecting your own needs to tend to those of someone else, perhaps knowing that you’re doomed to fail?
- Are you extremely frustrated, or straight up resentful of the person you’re trying to elevate?
If you said yes to most of these questions, it’s possible that you may still be stuck in the role of the rescuer. The thing is; I don’t think you can ever truly rescue another person, and I’m a therapist. Furthermore, your actions may well be preventing the other person from helping him/herself. If you are preventing someone from experiencing the pain, negative consequences, fallout or loss associated with their poor personal choices, how will she ever find reasons to do things differently? Rescuing someone from dealing with her own weaknesses or shortcomings will only serve to maintain her problems and keep her dependent on you. Melody Beattie’s book Codependent No More may be a valuable resource to add to your library.
Ideally, we are all moving towards wellness. We are capable of refining our choices and reevaluating our courses of action, if given the time and space to do so. As children, some of us learned that our parents who were supposed to nurture and protect us were the ones who really needed our nurturing and protection. The roles were reversed. When this happens, a parentified child loses out on developing a sense of self other than that of rescuer or caregiver. He or she misses out on learning how to attach to others with a sense of mutuality and emotional reciprocity, subverting personal needs and desires in order to gain some small semblance of order and normalcy. It is a poor bargain for a child to be forced to make.
It takes an experienced therapist to help a rescuer learn to let go of the need to fix others and to embrace the opportunity to once for all rescue the only person who ever needed rescuing…herself or himself. If you are feeling trapped in the role of rescuer, I am here for you. Please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services in Orlando today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment.