The Fine Line Between Helping and Rescuing
It may be time to step back if you’re getting burned out or resentful.
Posted March 26, 2023 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- There's often a fine line between helping someone and trying to rescue them.
- Helping centers on giving others what they say they need; rescuing is about trying to relieve your anxiety through control.
- Rescuing often leads to burnout, frustration, and feeling unappreciated.
Your friend is struggling with a breakup, your partner has a work problem, and your parents have an illness. You’re worried and concerned; you step in to help. But if you’re feeling burned out, unappreciated, or feeling like you’re doing the heavy lifting, there’s a problem. There’s a fine line between helping and rescuing, between being sensitive and concerned and being over-responsible and doing too much, and the driver is usually your personality. To help you know the difference, we can break it down into five parts: Goals, behaviors, thoughts, emotions, and the underlying problem.
Goal: They will get better with your support and by following your advice.
Behaviors: You’re calling or texting your friend several times a day to see how she’s feeling and send her an article about how to handle breakups. You urge your partner to meet with his supervisor as soon as possible. You not only check in with your parents but are looking up their medications online and are tempted to call their doctor to see if there’s a Plan B if they’re not better in a few days.
Thoughts: You find yourself constantly strategizing about what your friend, partner, and parents need to do next, as well as how you should best be of help. You think they’ll fall into a worse situation if they're not proactive enough.
Emotions: You’re worrying all the time. You become frustrated and push harder when they don’t follow your suggestions. You’re beginning to feel a bit burned out and unappreciated for all you do.
Underlying problem: You think that if you do this right—step up more, find the solution to their problem, say the right thing—they will see what you see, realize what they need to do, take your advice, and feel better—but you’re being over-responsible; you’re working harder than them. You’re understandably anxious but are trying to manage your anxiety by getting them to do what you think they should do.
Goal: By stepping up, you are giving them what they need most to get through this problem.
Behaviors: You ask what they need. Your friend says to keep her company over the weekend; your partner says he’s on top of it and thanks for checking in; your parents say they’re looking into other medications but will see how they feel and maybe talk it over with their doctor.
Thoughts: You’re still worried and can wake up in the middle of the night thinking about them, but you also tell yourself that this is their problem, not yours. You can express your concern and offer advice, but you don’t need them to do it your way; there are no expectations, no push.
Emotions: You can feel burned out because you do a lot to help. You’re tired but not resentful. You can back off because you need to take better care of yourself, and you do so without guilt. There’s no resentment or feelings of not being appreciated because you’re doing what you’re doing because it’s part of your values. You’re doing you.
Underlying problem: There is no underlying problem because you’re clear from the start.
So what’s the difference between helping and saving? It’s about asking and letting the other person tell you what they need rather than you telling them what you think they need. It’s about acknowledging your anxiety but dealing with it directly rather than through controlling others. Once clear—what’s you, what’s them, who has the problem—now step up and offer to help.
Taibbi, R. (2014). Boot camp therapy: Action-oriented approaches to anxiety, anger & depression. New York: Norton.