Are You a Rescuer
What’s Your Role in the Family System
Today I am going to talk more about family systems and the role of the rescuer. We had a great response and a lot of feedback on a recent video I did regarding family dynamics, family systems, different roles people play in their family. The title of that one was, “Who is the Black Sheep in Your Family?”
It was really interesting. A lot of people can identify with the role of the Black Sheep. They also identified the different roles of a lot of different members of their family. So I thought it would be important to talk about another family role that we see a lot, The Rescuer. We hear a lot of emotional pain coming from people that are the black sheep of their family. They’re typically the identified patient. But we also hear a lot of emotional pain from the rescuers.
I’m going to do my best to describe who the rescuer is. What that role looks like and how you can identify if that is your role. There are pretty much three different things that would kind of give an indication that you might need things to change.
So just to remind you guys, I’m Dr. Jerry Grosso, the Clinical Director at Nsight Psychology & Addiction in Newport Beach, California. My intention is to help you understand things that impact emotional health. We have physical health and we have physical illness. We have mental health or emotional health and we have mental illness. I really want to bring down the stigma of mental illness. So many people don’t want to talk about mental health or mental illness. It’s as if the subject is taboo or bad. Or, somehow, because you can’t see it, it must not be real.
There’s always transitions in life that people go through. Depression is common, anxiety is common and we get into conflict with others. But we are social as beings. So acknowledging instead of avoiding, accepting and looking at ways to resolve these issues. That’s what the goal here is.
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One of the interesting things, and then I’m going to get into the rest of what I’m talking about today. Somebody had made a comment about, in treatment, if we get an identified patient, they’re in a specific role, but when we look at the sickness of the family, wouldn’t it be best to do family therapy? And the answer is, absolutely yes. I will tell you one of the things that I think makes Nsight, as a treatment center very unique, is when we have individuals come in, we do provide family therapy. So we’ll invite, and even if it’s people that are out of state or out of the area, we’ll do this over the phone, but we’re inviting as many family members as possible to participate in that individual’s treatment.
We want to remove the stigma about this person being the identified patient or the problem or the black sheep. We want to restructure the whole family system so that it is much more functional, and it promotes an overall healthy functioning instead of the dysfunction, which typically is happening before someone gets here. I will say where that’s different than a lot of treatment providers. A lot of treatment providers will do a family week where they invite families in, and this is helpful. They’ll provide education about someone’s illness and they will provide support between each other, so you don’t feel isolated and alone like, oh, it’s not just our family that struggles with this individual and so forth, and this is how we can better understand the individual. That’s fine. But as, one of the comments that we received points out, treating the entire family is an ongoing process. Adjusting how they interact with each other, getting rid of the dysfunction, making it functional and much healthier.
Understanding the Role of the Rescuer
So I’m going to start this out with Greek mythology. I am no expert in Greek mythology at all, but there’s a story about a guy named Sisyphus. Sisyphus’ plight was for the rest of eternity, every day he would have to roll a huge boulder up this hill. When he would finally get it to the top of the hill at the end of the day, it would roll all the way back down. The next day it would look exactly the same. I’ve spent all my time and effort rolling up this boulder all the way up the hill, only to have it come back down. This is a good example of what it’s like to be the rescuer in the family.
The role of the rescuer is typically trying to help out typically the black sheep. But it could be any individual. What my days look like is, how do I meet the needs of other people? How am I taking care of other people? There’s a healthy part of it. I’m taking care of my kids. I’m taking care of my spouse. I take care of my responsibilities at my office and so forth. That all can be healthy. But there’s a part where it can become extremely dysfunctional.
So I want you to think about this in context. Rescuer is associated with a popular term in psychology, which is codependency. There are a lot of different meanings with that term. I’m going to kind of identify it like this. Specifically when it gets dysfunctional, codependency can be defined as the need to be needed. If I’m the rescuer, I’m needed by the people that aren’t functioning well. That having others need me is what actually helps me. It meets a need of mine. It feels good to be needed. I’m going to say that’s true pretty much with all of us. But, we’re talking about the point where it becomes unhealthy and dysfunctional.
So I want you to think about couples. You’ll see a couple that are constantly arguing. You may wonder, why are these people even together? That could give us a good example to look at. Maybe there’s a lot of imbalance in the relationship. Where the arguments are surrounding one person criticizing someone. It may be the black sheep or whoever it is for not fulfilling their role within a relationship. The conflict goes back and forth. But the question is, why do they stay in it?
Now, look at it. Compare it to Sisyphus. Every day, I roll that boulder all the way to the top of the hill only to have it comeback down on me. I’ve got to start this all over again. There’s no reward. There’s nothing really in it for me, but just effort and frustration. But somehow I get stuck in this role and I continue to do this.
And so I may have a spouse. I may have a child. I may have a significant other. It could be anything. It could be a work relationship where I am constantly bailing someone out. It could be financially, it could be emotionally, it could be, I don’t know. It could be a lot of things. I’m just taking responsibility for them. They’re not meeting their requirements to live independently. It’s like I’m constantly having to fix things for them and so forth.
So I may get mad and agitated. I’ll sit there and argue with them. I’ll complain and criticize, but at the same time, you’ve got to think about how they may be feeling. They may be feeling equally as bad about me. I’m always critical. I’m always stepping in. I never let them do anything. This argument can go back and forth. You don’t do anything. So I have to do it. And they can say, “Well, you don’t let me do anything. And that’s why you have to do it.” It creates this constant dysfunction.
How do I Change My Role of Being the Rescuer
This is only one of the ways people get stuck in patterns. How do you break these patterns? Now it’s kind of interesting when we’re in relationships, my history has been a black sheep. Think about who my ideal mate would be. It’s going to be a rescuer, right? I can’t function independently and I continue to struggle. I’ve taken on this role and I’m comfortable with that role because I know how it feels. So I find myself a rescuer who’s equally comfortable in their role. So they’re going to step into this relationship with me and we’re going to have this constant conflict. It’s just going to be chronic. It’s going to be the majority of the time. They’re going to do for me and I don’t do anything for myself. I’m going to resent them because I don’t feel good about myself and I’m going say it’s because of them.
Again, I’m not saying that this is correct across the board. I do want to remind you guys, when I’m doing these videos, this is not a substitute for therapy. What I’m trying to help you guys understand is things that you can bring up in therapy. I’m not recommending therapy to everybody but it can help.
What I’m saying is, if you notice emotional pain in your life, you could be happier. If you can start to start to notice that these are the things that are holding you back, you can start to address it.
What are Your Feelings as a Rescuer
So let’s kind of think about some of these things.
Do I find myself feeling like I am unfulfilled in a relationship? The first thing I’ve got to recognize myself is; what does this relationship feel like? And I don’t mean I think this relationship is good, or I think we make a good couple, or I really love them. That’s not what we’re talking about. What we’re talking about is, how do I feel? Is this relationship fulfilling? Does it feel supportive? Do I feel like my needs are being met? Rather than it being an energy drain, does it energize me?
So think about the feelings you have when you first get into a relationship with someone. I’m using that a lot as an example, but it could also be kids. How do I feel around a specific child of mine? Do I feel like its energizing? We have a great time. We get along. I feel like we’re constantly growing, not only as individuals, but also as a family. Or, do I feel like its draining?
It is important for me to pay attention to what I’m feeling. My feelings are going to kind of tell me if there’s some dysfunction going on. That I’ve got to figure some things out.
So some people may get defensive at this point. You may think, I may feel uncomfortable in a relationship, but I truly love this individual. I wanted to share with you guys, I’m not saying that love is not involved in this. I could love someone tremendously like a parent could love their child. But the relationship could still be totally dysfunctional. I’m talking about how do YOU feel in a relationship. Number one is; how do I feel?
The second thing I want to know is; are my needs being met? We all have certain emotional and physical needs within a relationship. That would be defined by the context of your relationship. So what I’m looking at is, how do I feel? Are my emotional needs being met? Do I feel loved? Do I feel respected? Do I feel understood? Do I feel safe? The list can go on forever. You guys can identify all of this and you know what fits for you.
This is a very important thing. I think which you’ll see a lot when you have rescuers. When you are in that role, and you’re kind of really entrenched in that role, you’re going to find that your needs aren’t being met. And I’ll tell you why. Think about it. If you’re pushing that boulder up the hill, you’re using all your strength to do something else, right? So I’m putting all my effort into this relationship and I’m not getting a whole lot back. I continue to give and give and give. So it’s important for my needs to be met.
Before I do that, I have to start identifying my needs. How is a partner, significant other, kids, yeah, kids can meet parent’s needs meet my needs if I don’t know what my needs are?
There’s a lot of validation that children give their parents. It takes effort to be a parent. I want to raise my child and have them understand things about the world. I also get to feel good when they come back and share it with me. They may say, “Hey, I’m doing really well with this.” Or, “Look at my successes,” or, “I’m struggling with this.” I get to help them out. Then we watch them overcome difficulties and so forth.
So there’s different ways needs are met within an intimate relationship. It could be physically. There are a lot of emotional needs, like, do I feel loved? Do I feel cherished? Do I feel respected? Do I feel admired? I want to know that they really care about me. That I can trust them. So how do I feel in this relationship? Are my needs being met? In the event that I find out a significant part of my needs are not being met, then I’ve got to really look at myself. What is it about me that keeps me in this relationship?
So I’m going to repeat that one. Because you really need to pay attention to that one. What is it about me that keeps me in this relationship?
If I’m the person that continues to push this boulder up the hill and it just comes down on me every day, and then I start all over again, I don’t feel happy. I don’t feel enjoyment. I don’t feel energized. I feel drained. I start to recognize that my needs aren’t being met. What is it about me?
What Happens if I Stop Being a Rescuer
Remember, I’m not talking about the other individual. What is it about me that keeps me in this relationship? I will share with you, a lot of times people will say it’s love. They’ll say, and this is a huge fear, is that I feel like, if I don’t continue to do this, that it’ll end the relationship. So I want to say, you’re exactly right. And, it may not be all bad.
In the event that I stopped doing what it is that I’m doing, will it end the relationship? The answer is probably yes. I’ll just make it simple. It will end maybe in two ways. It will either end altogether, or it will end the dysfunction.
I’m going to tell you that in years of doing couples therapy, this is what I would see with married couples. A lot of times the relationship would be unbalanced. It doesn’t mean someone was always the rescuer the other person was always the black sheep. But it is a lot of the time. What happened was, the relationship would end in its current state. So needs were identified and feelings were expressed when people started looking at their own issues. As those things got resolved, the relationship, the way it was ended and actually started to blossom and grow. So there’s a very positive aspect of this.
Now there were other ones too, where they both agreed. You know what? We’re better off just not together. The constant conflict is not beneficial to either one of us. I don’t like the role I’m in. I don’t like the role that you’re in. Why don’t we just agree to disagree about a lot of stuff? The one thing maybe we agree on, was that what we’ve been doing is dysfunctional. We may be better served in a different relationship.
Again, I’m going to put this qualifier in. I’m not talking about ending relationships in divorce or whatever. What I’m talking about is, how do I set healthy limits? How do I identify what I feel and express that? How do I identify what my needs are? How do I set specific limits and expectations? How do I get my partner or the other person in this relationship with me, to understand this is what I can accept and tolerate in order to move forward for us to live and have a very happy and emotionally healthy relationship? Or, I’m just not going to do this anymore?
So again, I see a lot of people get stuck. The fear is the relationship will end. But think about it, it may end because it’s going to be healthier for it to end. Maybe it’s going to end and really blossom into something that’s much healthier.
So as we’re having this discussion, think about your role in the relationship. We’ve talked about black sheep and the part of the rescuer. People don’t always just pick those roles. A lot of times it’s just by default. I become that person.
I’ve seen this in families where kids become the rescuer of the parents. So the parents are kind of the black sheep. They struggle with different things emotionally or physically and so forth. The kid starts to intervene and they take on that role. Then they grow up and they find a spouse that’s very similar.
So we’re not putting labels on anything. We’re not criticizing. What we’re doing is just trying to increase awareness. Does this happen in my relationships? How does it unfold and what do I do to make things healthier? So I’m going to wrap this one up.
I’m Dr. Jerry Grosso from Nsight Psychology & Addiction in Newport Beach, California. Think about us, when individual therapy is not enough. If you start in individual therapy and things are just not working call us. If you or a family member is having a lot of emotional distress, it’s impairing their ability to function…That’s the type of work we do. We help people overcome that stuff so they can transition. Get the impairments out of their life so they can start functioning again.
I want you guys to look at relationships, your roles, how you might alter those. Again, moving away from mental illness and really starting to look on emotional health.
That’s what the goal is. Remember, there’s things in life that are going to cause me to be depressed or cause me to be anxious. Sometimes we have things that are traumatic, and these things can be overcome. We need to start addressing them instead of avoiding them.
So again, I’m Dr. Jerry Grosso, Nsight Psychology & Addiction. Give us a like, share the video if you like it. If you don’t, you can give it a thumbs down. Just leave us a comment. Let us at least know, hey, I would rather see this. I want to talk about that. This is where I think you’re wrong. I think you’re partially right about this. It does make a difference. Let us know. Again, the whole goal here is to continue conversations so we can all really feel better about ourselves, openly communicate about things that are challenging and get them resolved.
So, until I see you next time, you guys have a terrific day.
Dr. Gerald “Jerry” Grosso is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with over 20 years of experience assisting individuals and families struggling with addiction, depression, anxiety, and trauma. He is the Co-Founder and Clinical Director of Nsight Psychology & Addiction in Newport Beach, CA.
Dr. Grosso obtained his Bachelors of Arts degree in Psychology from San Diego State University before enrolling in Chapman University where he acquired a Master of Arts degree in Psychology. He continued his education and received a Doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology with a Specialty in treating Chemical Dependency. He holds a professional membership with the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT).