Are You a Rescuer

Today I am going to talk more about family systems and the role of the rescuer.  So 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. I think 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 that. They also identified, which was really nice in the comments, they wrote, I can see the different roles of a lot of different members of my family. So I thought it would be important to talk about another one that we see a lot. We hear a lot of emotional pain with people that are the black sheep of their family. They’re typically the identified patient and so forth. But we also hear a lot from the rescuers.

So 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. And my intention here is to really help you guys understand things that impact emotional health. So we have physical health and we have physical illness. We have mental health or emotional health and we have mental illness. So I really want to bring down this stigma. So many people don’t want to talk about mental health or mental illness as if it’s this taboo subject or it’s bad or somehow, because you can’t see it, it must not be real.

And I’m saying that like, well, you can’t see what’s going on in someone’s head, so therefore they just need to get over stuff. And stuff is so often dismissed. If you really look at it, if we stopped avoiding it and we would address issues, people would be much happier, much healthier. 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. I do want to comment because a lot of this information came out of previous videos that, we always want you guys to comment. So if you like the video, share it, let us know you like it. If you don’t like it, you can give us a thumbs down, but leave a comment. Let us know what you don’t like about it. I’m not saying I’m always right. I’m not saying everything here is going to fit perfectly with you and your situation.

What I’m trying to do is create an environment where we can actually have open conversation. I can answer questions that you guys have. You can always send your questions or comments to, you can leave them on whatever social media place you’re seeing this at or you could send it to

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.

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. I think I’m pronouncing that right. You Greek mythology people can tell me whether or not that’s true. But anyways, Sisyphus’ plight was for the rest of eternity, every day he would have to roll a huge boulder up this hill and then 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. And 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. And the reason why I’m using this, this is a good metaphor or an example of what it’s like to be the rescuer in the family.

So as a rescuer, what I’m there doing is I’m trying to help out typically the black ship, but it could be any individual and my whole role, what my days look like is how do I meet the needs of other people? How am I taking care of other people? And I’m going to say to a certain extent, there’s a healthy part of it that if 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 with a very popular term in psychology, which is codependency. A lot of different meanings with that, but I’m going to kind of identify it like, 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, and that having others need me is what actually helps me. It meets a need of mine. It feels good to be needed.

And 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, let’s say couples, you’ll see a couple that, they are constantly arguing or a relationship where they fight so much. You wonder like, why are these people even together? And that could give us a good example of looking at where, maybe there’s a lot of imbalance in the relationship. Where the arguments are surrounding one person criticizing someone, let’s say a black sheep or whoever it is for not fulfilling their role, let’s say within a relationship. And the conflict goes back and forth. But the question is, why do they stay in it? Now, if you look at it and Sisyphus every day, I roll that boulder all the way to the top of the hill only to have it comeback down on me and that 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 just 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. And it’s like I’m constantly having to fix things for them and so forth. So I may get mad and agitated and I’ll sit there and I’ll argue with them and 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. And 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.”

But it creates this constant dysfunction. And this is one of the things how people get set in patterns and we look at, okay, 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? If I can’t function independently and I struggle and I’ve taken on this role, 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 and they’re going to do for me and I don’t do anything for myself, but I’m going to resent them because I don’t feel good about myself and I’m going say it’s because of them.

So I’m hoping that kind of makes sense. Again, I’m not saying that this is correct across the board and I will, 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 or maybe if you’re not in therapy, and I’m not recommending therapy to everybody. What I’m saying is, if you notice emotional pain in your life, I could be happier and there’s things that are holding me back, now I start to notice, hey, these are the things that are holding me back and I can start to address it. So let’s kind of think about some of these things. One, if I find myself feeling this way, like unfulfilled in a relationship, first thing I want to know is, I got to recognize myself. What does this relationship feel like? And I don’t mean think, I don’t want to say, well, 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, and I’m going to get to this more in a second, 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 and so forth? Do I feel like it’s 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 again, do I feel like it’s draining? The reason why it’s important for me to pay attention to what I’m feeling is that’s going to kind of tell me if there’s some dysfunction going on in here, and I’ve got to figure some things out. Okay?

So some people may get defensive at this point and say, “Hey, I may feel uncomfortable in a relationship, but I truly love this individual,” and 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, just this incredible amount of love, but the relationship could still be totally dysfunctional. So I just, I got to put that out there. Now talking about love. I’m talking about how do you feel in a relationship. So the next thing we want to look at, so one is how do I feel? The second thing I want to know is, are my needs being met? And so what I’m meaning about this, we all have certain emotional and physical needs within a relationship, I know 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.

But this is a very important thing. And I think which you’ll see a lot when you have rescuers, when you have that role and it’s a very well defined role and you’re kind of really entrenched in that role, you’re going to find that a lot of the times or most of the time 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. It’s just, I continue to give and give and give. So it’s important for me to, one, are my needs being met? Before I do that, I got to start identifying my needs. And the reason why is because how was a partner, significant other, kid, yeah, kids can meet parents needs. There’s a lot of validation that children give their parents.

So it does take effort and I’m going a little bit on attention, yes, it does take effort to be a parent and I want to raise my child and have them understand things about the world, but I do get to feel good when they come back and share it with me and say, “Hey, I’m doing really well with this.” Or, “Look at my successes,” or, “I’m struggling with this,” I helped him out and 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, a lot of emotional needs, like again, do I feel loved? Do I feel cherished? Do I feel respected? Do I feel admired? I want to know if, that they really care about me, that I can trust them and so forth. So how do I feel in this relationship? Are my needs being met? And in the event that I find out, hey, 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? Okay?

So I’m going to repeat that one because you guys got to really know that one. What is it about me that keeps me in this relationship? If I’m looking at it, that I’m the person that continues to push this boulder up the hill and it just comes down on me everyday 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 look at my needs aren’t being met. What is it about me? And remember, I’m not talking about the other individual. What is it about me that keeps me in this relationship? So, and I will share with you, a lot of times people again 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 start by saying you’re exactly right. And it may not be all bad.

So in the event that I stopped doing what it is that I’m doing, will it end the relationship? The answer is probably yes. And it’s going to end maybe, and I’ll just make it, I’ll make it simple. It’ll end maybe in two ways. It’ll either end altogether, or it’ll end the dysfunction. And I’m going to tell you, 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 a rescuer all the time and somebody was a black sheep and so forth, but that’s a lot of times the way the presentation came in. But what happened was, is the relationship would end in its current state. So as needs were identified, feelings were expressed when people started looking at their own issues. And 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. So I don’t like the role I’m in. I don’t like the role that you’re in. And why don’t we just agree to disagree about a lot of stuff and the one thing maybe we agree on that what we’ve been doing is dysfunctional and we may be better served in a different relationship. So again, I’m going to put this qualifier in. I’m not talking about, hey, 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 and how do I set the specific limits and expectations? How do I get my partner or whoever else is 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?

And so again, I see a lot of people get stuck and 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 or it’s going to end and really blossom into something that’s much more healthy. So as we’re having this discussion again, think about your role in the relationship. We’ve talked about black sheep. A difficult part is the rescuer. And people don’t always just pick that. A lot of times it’s just by default, I become that person that … And I’ve seen this and I’ll share with you in families where kids become the rescuer of the parents. So the parents are kind of the black sheep, that they struggle with different things emotionally or physically and so forth and the kid starts to intervene or the child intervenes and they take on that role and then they grow up and they find a spouse that’s very similar. Or a significant other, or it’ll happen and it’ll come down to the next generation within their family.

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 more healthy? So I’m going to wrap this one up. Again, I’m Dr. Jerry Grosso from Nsight Psychology & Addiction in Newport Beach, California. Think about us, so when individual therapy is not enough, okay? If you start in individual therapy, things are just not working, and you find it’s, whether you are or a family member is having a lot of emotional distress, it’s impairing their ability to function and so forth. That’s the type of work we do is to help people overcome that stuff so they can transition, get the impairments out of their life and start functioning again and so forth. We can always answer more information about that, you can give us a call. But really the goal here is, 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, because remember, there’s things in life that are going to cause me to be depressed, 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. Again, give us a like, share the video if you like it. If you don’t, you can give it a thumbs down. Just give 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. Thanks.

Dr. Jerry Grosso

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 and trauma. He 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.  Dr. Grosso 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).