There is a slight problem with most of us that really want to make a difference and help. We’ve got a lot of our own issues! It’s definitely a catch 22. Those that have felt a lot of pain tend to have empathy for others’ pain, and they genuinely want to help. They also are, in an unconscious way, trying to help themselves. A friend of mine did his dissertation on the fact that most of us that pursue a career in Psychology are actually interested in the field because we’re pursuing our own healing. I think that’s true for activists as well. Those that want to fight for justice have often experienced grave injustices. The problem is though, they get so caught up in saving the world, they forget to first save themselves. This can then result in a great deal of drama.
Dr. Stephen Karpman suggests that when we’re involved in drama, there are three positions we can take: Victim, Persecutor or Rescuer. Although we can move around to all positions, the most common spot occupied by the helper is that of Rescuer. Rescuing is not healthy helping. Essentially it is interacting with a Victim that they believe needs their help (i.e. you can’t do this without me) and providing support, whether they do or don’t want to and it creates dependency. There are payoffs for the Rescuer. It helps them to feel better than the Victim or at least more capable, it eases feelings of guilt/anxiety that they feel when they don’t jump in and rescue, it keeps them busy so they don’t have to face other problems in their own life and it also helps them to look like a great person to everyone else! The Victim feels hopeless, helpless and incapable and the Rescuer essentially agrees in their actions by saying “You’re right, you DO need me to fix this for you”. Because of the dependence they’ve created, many Rescuers can become resentful, and can even move over to the Persecutor position after a while.
If you find yourself in this kind of drama, there are both behavioral steps and deeper healing steps that you can take. The behavioral steps are choosing to do nothing for the Victim that they can do for themselves, using empowering language such as “That does sound really tough. What are YOU going to do about that?” with the underlying message of “I believe in you and KNOW that you are capable”, listening/validating without taking the problem on and simply not making oneself so available. These will help to end the unhealthy relationship pattern. However unless deeper healing takes place, you will likely still be a magnet for Victims and find yourself repeating the pattern again and again.
The deeper healing steps involve understanding where the symptoms of rescuing come from so that they can be healed. For example, did you have a key parent that you had to be emotionally responsible for while you were growing up? What would have happened in your earlier life if you didn’t jump in and rescue? How will you manage your guilt and anxiety when you leave that person to work on that for themselves? What do you think has been bothering you in your marriage that has been making work so much more appealing? And so forth. Each of us can do this therapeutic work in a variety of ways such as meeting with a healthy therapist (as opposed to any therapist, remember they have these issues too!), by processing with close friends, and through bibliotherapy, journaling and prayer as examples. But I would say much of the deep pain we need to process can’t happen if we simply try to use the resources on our own. First, because we’re pretty good at lying to ourselves and staying in denial, and second, because we’re just not created to do this kind of stuff in isolation. Additionally when a Rescuer humbles themselves to reach out and accept help, and values themselves enough to invest time and/or money into their own healing, that too can be a healing process in and of itself.
So yes, I do believe in wounded healers, but I also believe in partially healed healers. We tend to care about the pain we’ve felt ourselves, and nobody really finds the girl or guy with the perfect life that helpful BUT you can only take a person as far as you’ve been willing to go yourself.
Jennifer Dawn Watts, MA is a therapist, speaker, blogger and Founder & CEO of Living Well Counselling Services Inc. She is also the Vice President of the Western division of the Professional Association of Canadian Christian Counsellors.