A few years ago I was working with a colleague (I’ll call her Susan), who complained to me one day about a client who was creating barriers to progress for himself and for others.
I responded as if this complaint were an assignment. It wasn’t long before I confronted this man and told him he needed to settle down.
Whether or not it was right for me to confront this client, I was not directly motivated by his behavior nor my own assessment of what was needed. Rather, I was motivated to defend my friend. She was the one with a challenge, and I was jumping in to save the day.
Have you ever jumped into action because a friend had a problem, even if they never asked for help?
This is a habit for many of us, and it’s reflected in our love of superheroes. A child falls over a fence at Niagra Falls, and Superman suddenly appears, swoops in, and captures the child mid-decent. He simply heard the cries of the anguished crowd and jumped into action. The child is restored to her anxious parents, and Superman is applauded for saving the day.
The rescue habits of everyday mortals might not be so flashy, but many of us jump into action just as quickly.
- Shawna and Eli enroll in a pottery class that meets once a week. After a couple of weeks, Eli starts complaining that the teacher is going too slow and not allowing space for students to create more complex works of art. So, Shawna goes to the teacher and says, “Some people are saying the class is too elementary. I think they’re ready for more complexity.”
- Larry notices that the copier had run out of black toner and informs Jessie, who breaks off concentration and goes to change the toner.
- Sheila and Otto have been fighting over who has the right to order their preferred supplies for the office, and when they bring the problem to Nita, she divides the budget up between them, 50/50.
- Becky tells Chrissy that her husband Jeff lost $6000 in one night of gambling, so Chrissy confronts Jeff and tells him he’s responsible for Becky’s drinking.
- Beththena falls off her bicycle during a morning ride and dislocates her shoulder. When her partner Andi notices that Beththena isn’t doing her Physical Therapy exercises, Andi starts nagging her every day to do them.
In each of these situations, the decision to intervene is easily justified.
- Eli is shy, so Shawna knows she can help by talking to the teacher for him.
- Larry doesn’t know how to change the toner, and by the time Jessie taught him how to do it, she could have it done herself.
- Nita has a reputation for being a good listener and a fair judge, and she can easily remove the conflict by offering a fair compromise.
- Becky dislikes confrontation and Chrissy doesn’t have a problem with it.
- Andi knows Beththena will likely have early-onset arthritis in her shoulder if she doesn’t do the PT.
Being helpful is not the problem. In each of these situations, however, the helper is accepting responsibility for the problem. In doing so they willingly make their lives a little less easy. The more problems they take responsibility for, the more difficult their lives become.
Many of these examples are small issues. However, given a lifetime habit of jumping in to rescue someone else, the cumulative stress of helping when help was not requested has an impact. We dig ourselves even deeper when we combine our helpfulness with a desire to eliminate conflict or make everybody happy — two impossible tasks.
In my own life, not only was I habitually jumping in to rescue everyone else from their problems, I was trying to prove my own value as a human being.
I’ve learned, however, that my rescuing habit doesn’t work that way. Rather, I was solving problems that didn’t need to be solved, fixing instead of listening, or preventing someone from learning their own way through a situation.
It has taken me nearly 30 years to extract most of the rescuing behavior from my life, and still I’ll admit to keeping my Wonder Woman lasso coiled at my hip and ready to snap into action. Rescuing has an addictive allure for me–it is a quick hit of dopamine to believe I’ve saved the day, that I’ve been the hero.
What keeps me from giving in to that temptation is knowledge:
- My value as a human comes from being human.
- I can come across as a self-important busybody when I rescue.
- I might hinder someone’s development by rescuing them.
- Unsolicited “fixing” can create new problems.
- Fixing the problem instead of listening when someone shares their vulnerability with me can actually mean losing their trust.
I wonder if you can relate to this. Do you try to solve others’ problems? What results do you hope for? What actually happens?
I am learning to be a compassionate listener when learning of someone’s suffering. This involves affirming that their suffering is part of human experience. (It sucks, and it’s what we have in common.). When I am kind–and assure them of my intentions to be kind–but am clear that I am not going to rescue, then my stress decreases, and their trust increases. Rescuing is not my role. If I step into that role I may only make things worse.
What do you think? Have you experienced any of these unintended consequences of springing into heroic action? What do you do instead now?