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Blog Short #20: Helping versus Rescuing

Welcome to Monday Blog Shorts – ideas to make even Monday a good day! Every Monday I share a short article with you about a strategy you can use, or new facts or info that informs you, or a new idea that inspires you . My wish is to give you something to think about in the week ahead. Let’s dig in!

This is a subject that’s near and dear to me because I’m a “Helper” on the Enneagram, which means I can easily fall into rescuing when I should just let someone solve their own problems. That said, sometimes rescuing is a good thing, and I’ll tell you when that is as we get into the discussion.

Let’s start with differentiating between the two activities.

Helping is assisting or aiding someone to do something for herself. You provide the tools or resources to overcome a problem or get something done, and she uses what’s given to do the work.

Rescuing is saving someone from a distressing set of circumstances she find’s herself in, or from harm (either psychological or physical). You remove her from a difficult or dangerous situation. In this case, you do the work.

There’s nothing wrong with either option if the situation truly calls for it, but chronic rescuing is a problem when it evolves into enabling, and that’s where things get sticky.

So how do you determine when enough is enough?

It’s not always clear, but here are some guidelines you can use to help you decide. Let’s start with helping.

Guidelines for Helping

  1. Always ask first. Helping should be something the recipient actually wants, not something you impose.
  2. Examine whether what you have to offer will be in the other person’s best interest. Is what you can do actually helpful? When you don’t know, ask: “Would this be helpful to you?” If the answer is no, you might followup with: “What do you think would be helpful?” Let the other person be your guide.
  3. Make sure your help won’t be harmful or hurtful to you. Sacrificing can get very tricky, because you can fall into a martyr mindset which doesn’t help anyone. Helping should not feel like a sacrifice, unless it’s a sacrifice you wish to make. You should be able to give without needing something back, and without resentment later on. It should be free and clear. I might give up watching a TV show I like to give my child an hour of time to chat about a problem she’s having. That’s a choice that feels good.
  4. Provide help that will allow the recipient to go forward, or overcome an obstacle, or figure out a way to resolve a problem. Your help gets him moving, but allows him to work on the issue himself.

The caveat here is that sometimes helping is doing something with someone. You might help your friend move into a new apartment, or work on a project together. That’s still helping. You both do the work.

Now for rescuing.

Guidelines for Rescuing

Sometimes circumstances require a rescue. For example:

You might offer to pay for your son’s unexpected car repair because you know he doesn’t have the money.

A friend becomes ill and can’t fend for herself, so you stay with her a few days until she’s better enough to navigate alone.

Your neighbor’s babysitter cancelled on her last minute, and you offer to watch her daughter for a couple of hours.

These are all rescue situations that are isolated events. You offer your help on a one-time basis, and it greatly relieves the person on the receiving end.

The difficulty with rescuing occurs when you get into a chronic situation of repeatedly pulling someone out of the ditch, only for him to fall back in and need rescuing again, and again, and again. In cases like these, you’re enabling and there’s nothing good about that!

Here’s some questions you can ask yourself to avoid doing that.

  1. Is this a one-time situation? And will what I do help this person get back on the horse and keep going?​
  2. Have I made clear the boundaries around what I’m offering and for how much or how long?
  3. Is the person I’m rescuing someone who values solving his own problems, or does he chronically allow others to take care of him? If the answer is the latter, you need to consider carefully what you offer and make sure the boundaries are stated up front. You may also decide to just simply refrain from rescuing.​
  4. What’s in it for me?

This last question is important, because rescuing is sometimes driven by the wrong motives. Here’s some examples.

  • You rescue someone to relieve your anxiety. This happens all the time with parents. We rescue our kids because our anxiety about their distress or safety is so great, we’ll do anything to get rid of that feeling. The problem is, that’s not always the best decision for their growth. We don’t allow them to work on the problem themselves and learn how to cope with adversity.
  • You use “rescuing” and “helping” to ward off feelings of depression. It’s not always a bad thing to help someone when you’re feeling down, because it can lift you out of a negative mood. But if it’s a pattern, you’re likely using it to avoid dealing with your own issues.
  • You need to be needed, and when you’re not needed, your self-esteem plummets. You feel alone. Again, rescuing is a means of avoidance.
  • You don’t have faith or trust in the other person to solve his own problems. There’s two possibilities here: (1) You don’t allow space for him to struggle with the problem because you know you can solve it faster and better, or (2) he’s not willing to tackle it. Either way, you’ll rob him of an opportunity to learn something if you step in and take over. Sometimes the best decision is to step back and let someone wrangle with their own distress.
  • You can’t stand to see anyone else suffer. It makes you suffer. It’s hard to see someone you love in pain, and it’s natural to try and take that feeling away. However, sometimes we need to suffer in order to learn. We’re all ultimately responsible for the consequences of our actions, or our inaction. Are you fostering that responsibility, or helping someone avoid it?
  • You’re a caretaker and always have been. You might be the oldest child in your family, or the one everyone comes to for help. Being a caretaker is part of your identity, and you feel guilty when you say no. If this is you and you can’t get around it, now’s a good time to learn how to set boundaries without the guilt. Click here.

If you’re not sure what to do when someone needs help, ask yourself this one question:

Will what I have to offer benefit the other person, and will we both feel good about the outcome?

If you truly feel good about it, you won’t feel taken advantage of. If the recipient feels good about it, he will feel both helped and respected, and will want to continue to do his own work.

That’s all for this Monday. As always, I hope you have a great week!

All my best,


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