5 Steps to Transition from Rescuer to Helper

There are some people in the world who are wired to be ‘rescuers’. They see injustice, illness and pain and want to help people who are struggling. Ideally they desire to ‘save’ others and erase all conflict. Rescuers play an important function in society. They are the voices of the silenced and the stigmatised, and they are our friends when we need a helping hand. We can each identify with the need to be helped and supported by someone in such a way throughout our lives.

I have seen rescuers in action many times in my life. Growing up with parents who worked as leaders in the church, it was not unusual to have visitors and borders in our house. I have friends who have housed people with addictions, loved people without family and provided for those without a safe place to sleep. Observing this has radically altered my perception of how I treat people. I understand that it is important we actively care for one another and walk through our struggles in a community environment; but these experiences have also taught me that rescuing people can come at great cost. It has left me to tussle with the tension between helping others in a healthy capacity and rescuing them from a situation I have no control over.

As a rescuer I am familiar with the urge to save others, but I am also well acquainted with the burn out that can follow. Here are 5 steps I have picked up that have helped me transition from the role of ‘Rescuer’ to ‘Helper’.

1. Set your boundaries

This simple step is often the hardest to accomplish. When you see a friend in need, consider your current living situation before providing them with accommodation, money or time. Reflect on social expectations surrounding gender and age appropriate interactions, and think of the people you live with. It is important to help your friend, but it is vital you remember the responsibility you have to yourself and those relying on you before you provide for them in any way.

2. Learn to say no

Saying “yes” to every request seems like a practical means of helping others, but learn to consider your availability before you agree to everything. Sure, you can make sacrifices to help others, but if it infringes on your personal relationships, work life or your health then your rescuing behaviour is coming at too great an expense to yourself and those around you. Learn to say no to the things you cannot and should not deliver on. Doing this doesn’t make you a bad person, it means you are wise.

3. Watch for progress

It is well and good to invite a friend to couch surf until they find a job, but conflict will arise if they do not meet this expectation in a timely manner. If a friend relies on you for something crucial like accommodation or transport, set a date for when they will meet their goals and your service to them will finish. It can also be beneficial to consider a ‘trial period’ where you and they are able to air out any grievances you may have before deciding on a long term arrangement. If your friend is not showing progress as in they are no longer looking for work or accommodation; they are not ‘pulling their weight’ either financially and/or in house work; or they continue to live with the same habits that caused this situation without an effort to change; then you seriously need to consider whether you can support this person in such a capacity anymore. If your effort to rescue is enabling them to become co-dependent on you, you need to draw the line and stop helping them. Sometimes this will mean changing how you interact, and other times it will mean you cut off interaction all together.

4. Refer them to professional help

As a friend, it is not your job to provide someone with complete emotional, medical, financial and physical support. It is virtually impossible to provide this to a person on a whim when you already have responsibilities and a family who may depend on you. It is okay to spend time with your friend, but you should not be their counsellor. Suggest professional services to them and help them research opportunities for assistance; perhaps even drive your friend to an appointment. Let your friend know that you will support them in this proactive behaviour because it will better enable them to live a healthy and fulfilling life. By referring them to a professional, you are relieving yourself of the pressure to save this person when you are not able to do so. You are also equipping them with the skills they need to function independently of you.

5. Realise it is not your responsibility to save someone

You are able to provide your friend with all the support in the world, but if they don’t want to heal or change- they won’t. As a ‘helper’ it is your responsibility to provide your friend with moral support and professional resources so they can work towards change in their own life. It is not your responsibility to have your friend decide to attend a counselling appointment or to enter rehab. Just because a person doesn’t improve or show an ability to change immediately doesn’t mean they won’t in the future; but you are not responsible for their actions and the pain it may cause them. If you believe a friend is in crisis, call 000 or 911 and seek out professional support. You are simply a bridge to the help they need should they choose to take this path to change.