Caregiver or Martyr? Beware the Rescuer Trap

Justin_MartyrAre you addicted to helping others or are your customer relationships creating unhealthy responses? Perhaps you’ve fallen victim to the Rescuer Syndrome.

One of the common threads I am discovering as I get deeper into the study of culture within the funeral profession is the belief that one must be a “suffering servant” doing what we are told and working long hard hours for low pay. This belief often becomes a badge of honor for some.

Funeral Directors are supposed to be caregivers. But too many take it too far. They hate confrontation, preferring encounters that result in gratitude if not downright worship. They begin to define themselves by their ability to generate effusive gratitude on the part of those they serve.

This is not necessarily a bad thing as we are supposed to serve in ways that would normally generate appreciation. But when it becomes an obsession that impacts the quality of life and the quality of leadership in your organization the byproducts are less than healthy.

What I am finding is that the desire to help is not always driven by purely altruistic motives. Some people are motivated less by the desire to benefit others and contribute to the common good and more by a deeper emotional need within themselves. These people are “rescuers” for whom the need to help becomes like an addiction. Excessive helping, the compulsive need to save people, can lead to co-dependency and emotional and career burnout.

It is, indeed, a challenge to differentiate between your own needs and those of the people you are purporting to help. If you can no longer make this differentiation it becomes costly to you and the people who work with you.

When does helping change to rescuing? How do you spot somebody who goes over the line? How do you know if you’re a rescuer yourself? And how can the problem of rescuer syndrome be resolved?

Are you a rescuer?

Rescuers are seldom aware of their underlying motivations and genuinely believe their intentions are good. Anyone who is struggling with work – life issues should remain vigilant when their role includes helping people and look out for warning signs of rescuer behavior.

Following is a checklist of danger signs:

  • Do you find it difficult to make time for yourself?
  • Do you feel guilt when you are not at work even when you don’t need to be?
  • Do you work hard long hours because “someone has to be there.”
  • Do you feel you have to keep on top of everything?
  • Do you often feel you must just persevere?
  • Do you feel uncomfortable receiving help from other people?
  • Do you regularly feel exhausted with the effort of helping people?
  • Do you worry incessantly about making a mistake?
  • Do you overreact when a mistake is made?
  • Do you cancel vacations or time off when a friend or prominent person uses your firm?
  • Do you routinely encourage staff to make their problems your problems?
  • Do you feel you have to have an answer for everything?

I can hear it now: “But Alan, this is funeral service. This is the way it is.”  Is it? Or are there better ways? Ways that are more effective, healthy and supportive of a work – life balance. The more often the response to the questions above is yes, the more likely the person is prone to the rescuer syndrome.

The Rescuer Syndrome

The “rescuer syndrome” while not an officially recognized disorder is a widely acknowledged phenomenon. It manifests itself when helping turns into a compulsion. Rescuers don’t realize their behavior is compulsive and dysfunctional – they believe that given all the efforts they make, their efforts are helpful.

The Serial Rescuer

Some people fall into the role of rescuer by circumstance, there may be paternal or maternal feelings involved.  In these cases the situation usually reaches a crisis point, followed by a period of recovery. Serial rescuers, however, (the kinds of people continually on the lookout for someone who needs rescuing) usually fail to reach this point, as they do not acquire insight into what they are doing and never confront it. I see this often as I encounter owners or managers who fail (or refuse) to develop staff to free them of the burden of making EVERY decision. I call them pyromaniac firemen. They love swooping in to put out fires which are actually of their own creation.

Most serial rescuers feel uncomfortable in equal relationships; they feed off a vulnerable and dependent person and feel satisfied when able to elicit gratitude and appreciation.

The actions of a compulsive rescuer can harm the interests of those supposedly being helped. And in many cases the rescuer is at risk of being harmed.


The emotional labor associated with helping drains energy. For some funeral directors this behavior results in a loss of idealism and purpose, they can become cynical, tired and apathetic. Their positive outlook and work effort are compromised.

Serial rescuers may also lose a sense of boundaries. Many have difficulty getting in touch with their own emotions, they may experience intense stress, feelings of inadequacy and low self-regard and seek “redemption” from these emotions by helping others, not realizing that continually trying to meet other people’s expectations only exacerbates self destruction.

Managing the rescuer syndrome

The only way to address the rescuer syndrome is to face up to it.

The challenge is to help people recognize the signs that they may have fallen victim to the syndrome. Rescuers can only change their behavior if they recognize the flaws in their reasoning of why they are obliged to help.

During the journey towards change, a number of issues need to be addressed. Paradoxically, helpers need to become more selfish; they need to be nicer to themselves. They need to actualize their own dreams and aspirations rather than constantly focusing on others. They also need to learn how to enjoy themselves and take stock of the kind of people they are attracted to.

They need to realize that having a life actually empowers them to be more constructively helpful. Thus dealing with the rescue syndrome doesn’t mean having to give up helping people. Constructive helpers can be catalysts in the process of assisting people to solve their problems, but rescuers need to realize that their role is to encourage others to make difficult decisions for themselves. This is, perhaps, our greatest challenge. To help people (customers and employees) requires challenging them openly. There is risk in a constructive relationship. Not every one wants our help. But most do and when we actually help them help themselves instead of “doing” for them, they appreciate us more.

To be a constructive helper, a person needs to think rationally, objectively and dispassionately and to have sufficient self-knowledge to know how to prevent their own emotional health affecting those they aim to help. The capacity to take distance—and not to be emotionally sucked into whatever the problem is—is going to be critical.

Through self-understanding, funeral directors can raise the quality of their relationships by becoming aware of their own unique attachments and biases. By knowing their own limitations they can ensure that they don’t fall victim to the Rescuer Syndrome.

One thought on “Caregiver or Martyr? Beware the Rescuer Trap”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *