After more than four decades in the business of creating improved behavior and relationship and performance effectiveness, it has been routinely and abundantly clear that RESCUING AND FIXING OTHERS FAILS MOST OF THE TIME, in particular, when it is YOUR IDEA TO DO THE RESCUING!
I am continually exposed to situations in families, marriages, working relationships, employment, company cultures, public organizations, charities, etc., where there is a person or group, self-appointed, trying to fix another.
Most of the time, the rescuer’s need to rescue and (fix) the other person(s) is MUCH BIGGER than the targeted person’s interest and willingness to be rescued or fixed. Further, the rescuer often will justify their initiative to rescue with the remark, “They/he/she need(s) help. My intention is good, and I am confident that they will change and appreciate what I did. Besides, it will only be for a short time.”
Here are some situations I have encountered with my clients over many years:
- I MUST FIX MY MOTHER. I want to get my mother to stop being such a miserable, critical person because she keeps feeling sorry for herself and playing the victim. She is always making me feel guilty– as if it is my fault that she is so miserable. I continually try to encourage her to get out, make friends, and get involved in something in the community but all she does is complain, criticize, and blame everybody and every thing that prevents her from getting better.
- I KNOW WE MUST SUPPORT WOMEN IN THE WORKPLACE, BUT we have a woman executive at the company and she is punitive, negative, over-controlling, defensive, childish, and ineffective as a leader. I keep giving her new assignments and opportunities to become an effective leader but she keeps blaming, being defensive, and acting like a helpless victim. I want to promote and empower women in the workplace; however, she remains an ongoing expense rather than an investment in this company. What do I do?
- MY SON-IN-LAW IS A BUM. My daughter and son-in-law live at home with us. He has no ambition and plays video games all the time. He is close to 30, treats us like we are his servants, and has no intention of paying his way, getting a job, finishing his education, or growing up. I don’t know what to do. I talk to him all the time and he simply remains deaf to me and unappreciative of whatever I do to help him. I know that I can’t throw him out because my wife will go nuts. What am I supposed to do?
- I MUST FIX MY BUSINESS PARTNER. My business partner is only too happy to sit around and complain while I carry the business success on my back. I can’t get her to get off her backside and step up to her responsibilities. I keep making excuses for her and I am getting sick of it. She keeps saying that it is because of her effort in the beginning that the business is successful now. In reality, she simply wants to take advantage of what I do to keep this business successful and returning a profit to which she feels entitled. She just doesn’t get it.
- THE PARTNERS IN THE FIRM WON’T BRING IN NEW BUSINESS. We have partners in the firm who must bring in more clients, but these partners remain “busy” and keep relying on others to give them things to do. They are completely disinterested in generating new business for the firm. Further, they keep saying that generating business was not part of the original deal when they became partners. Maybe so, but times have changed and so have the circumstances. I just keep tolerating this while I try to get them to start making rain. I even invested in some expensive training to improve their abilities to bring in business. What a waste of money!
It is entirely possible that these examples above sound familiar. You may also notice that you have participated in some of these situations. I know that I have. Several decades ago, I spent years trying to rescue certain people, only to be miserable later with the ongoing failures that I experienced during my well-intended and noble initiatives.
So, what is the deal? How is it that we feel it necessary to rescue people, particularly when it will likely fail, or at best it will be uphill?
COMMON SENSE VS. INSANITY
As a species, we are a very curious bunch of characters. So often, rather than practice common sense, we prefer to routinely practice insanity. What is insanity? Insanity is continuing the same counter-productive habit, experiencing the same bad outcome, yet having the illusion that if we keep practicing that habit, we will receive a different outcome.
Deciding to RESCUE AND FIX others is a chronic habit that many people have. Perhaps you are good at it, or certainly you know people who are. You might even know someone who has attempted to rescue and fix you. If so, did it work? Did you get fixed? UNLIKELY!
If you are a self-appointed RESCUER and you are tired of pedaling uphill with your mission to fix others, it is VERY IMPORTANT that you adjust your perspectives now and put on a different set of glasses in order to get a giant dose of reality.
To start, here are some remarkably universal truths:
UNIVERSAL TRUTH #1 – When offered help, most people will likely answer “No.” Imagine yourself offering someone help.
- You offer help to your teenager in doing homework thoroughly.
- You offer help to your spouse to get in shape and lose weight.
- You offer help to a co-worker who is lazy and unmotivated.
- You offer help to a family member to solve a personal problem.
- You offer financial help, advice, suggestions, criticism, etc.
What happens? Almost always their response is a resounding “No.” At this point, you often are quite perplexed. You think:
- My intentions are good.
- I can really help here and they clearly need the help.
- I can solve it right away.
- I really care about this person.
- My advice is quite good.
- They are simply pushing back and rejecting my advice!
WHAT IS THE CONCLUSION? Un-invited help is considered abuse by others. (It makes them feel weak, stupid, needy, and defective.)
UNIVERSAL TRUTH #2 – When asked for help, people will generally answer “Yes.”
Think about it. While generally we know Truth #1 is true, most of us rarely think about Truth #2.
- If I ask you for help, are you likely to say yes? Yes. Why? Because if I ask you for help, it makes you feel important, and the single biggest need that people have to be met is to feel important.
- If I ask you for help and you say yes, you give me the help; do I then have more resources at this point or less resources? More.
- If I ask you for help and you say yes, you give me the help. I now have more resources; then am I less powerful or more powerful? More.
- If I ask you for help and you say yes, you give me the help. I now have more resources and I become more powerful. That is a GOOD thing; yes? That is common sense; yes? Yes!!!
But wait, what is it that would make so many people refuse to ask for help and reject the above logical common sense? What is the deal with so many people having difficulty asking for help? It’s because of the ASSOCIATION that most of us have in our minds with the idea of asking for help. Remember, whatever you associate with something, you will likely be bound by that association, regardless of how true or ridiculous that association is. And, what is the most common association that people connect with asking for help? It’s that asking for help means that you will be considered WEAK! And, because it is unthinkable to be weak, you must avoid asking for help. Pride is very expensive!
When you try to rescue and fix people, your need to fix them is likely bigger than their interest in being fixed.
WHAT IS YOUR MOTIVATION TO RESCUE / FIX THEM? Think about your need to be needed. As I mentioned earlier, most of the time your need to fix others is bigger than their need to be fixed.
If you are willing to really examine this position, then ask yourself this question: How big is your need to be needed? Many of us have a huge need to be needed by others. When people need us, we feel valuable, relevant, necessary, and often loved, admired, and/or respected.
Sometimes, our need to be needed is so powerful, we can get concerned about how much we might be unlikely to be appreciated/respected/relevant/admired, if people failed to need us. When this happens, we sometimes become hostage to our need to be needed. This makes us addicted to solving problems for others to feed our need. If this sounds familiar, consider how much you might really have a distorted fear that unless people need you, then you are essentially sub-standard or worthless.
If the need to be needed controls you, it is entirely possible that you continually must find someone or some group to fix/rescue/improve, or you will feel unfed. Your rescuing others is actually in response to your need to be fed! Therefore, your need to rescue is largely for YOUR benefit. Regardless of how you justify how much “those people need to be fixed and you have to fix them,” you feel compelled to fix/rescue them and they refuse to change.
When you think of alcoholism, you may have heard the term “hitting bottom.” Most alcoholics have to get so miserable with the consequences of drinking that they finally decide to get sober and ask for help. (Hence, replacing a dependency on alcohol with a dependency on going to AA meetings.) While there is a very small population of people who can quit drinking “cold turkey,” the vast majority of alcoholics have to “hit bottom” to change their behavior.
Remember Universal Truth #1. When you offer help, people will say NO most of the time. Also remember that most grown-ups will decide to change their insane behavior only when it becomes so miserable and painful to stay the way they are.
Are you an enabler? Most rescuers are enablers. When you try to fix others, regardless of your good intentions, your “helping” is likely relieving the other person from taking responsibility for themselves. When you pay for them, cut them slack, bellyache at them, clean up their mess, feel sorry for them, lie for them, over-accommodate them, get mad at them, criticize them, or keep helping them, all they have to do is let you do this and remain the way they are, which is their preference.
Further, they simply get to sit back, whine, feel bad, become a victim, and blame you. Remember, SOME PEOPLE ACTUALLY WANT TO REMAIN UNHAPPY AND MISERABLE. There is something curiously attractive to many people in being a victim, a martyr, and/or a masochist. There often seems to be something quite compelling to participate in the “delicious agony of life.” Often you have to wait for them get miserable and unhappy enough to take responsibility for themselves.
Some people want to remain the way they are even if that is a dumb thing to do. The more you enable them, the more you are stuck in this uphill mission and you relieve them of ever dealing with their own insane habits. If you let them be, there is a small chance that they might ASK FOR HELP. Then you can help, and the prognosis is good. Often you have to let them be. Most people will get going only when they have to. Your rescuing and enabling insures them against taking responsibility for themselves.
In the 19th century, William J. H. Boetcker was an ex-clergyman and labor relations adviser from Erie, Pa. In 1916 Boetcker produced a booklet under the title, “Inside Maxims, Gold Nuggets Taken from the Boetcker Lectures.” (Curiously, over many decades, many of the Maxims that he wrote in this booklet were often promoted by U.S. Presidents as something said by Abraham Lincoln.) One such axiom promoted by Boetcker is appropriate as you think about rescuing and fixing people. “You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.“
- Your need to rescue/fix others is likely bigger than their interest in being fixed.
- Your need to be needed might be the biggest reason you keep trying to rescue and fix others.
- Truth #1 – When you offer people help, they will probably say No.
- Truth #2 – When you ask for help, they will likely answer Yes.
- You must let people be miserable until they get unhappy enough to ask for help.
- Some people are attracted to being victims, martyrs and masochists, and staying in the “delicious agony of life.” You may have to let them be.
- Un-invited rescuing is considered abuse.
- If you care about these people, concentrate on loving what you can love about them, and let the rest go.
- If you really want to be more effective in helping people change, I suggest you contact our office to get materials to help you learn some effective skills in persuasion. There is a huge difference between what is supposed to work and what does.
At your service,
Dr. J. Mitchell Perry