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It’s a natural human reaction to help someone who seems to be in trouble.
Especially if that “someone” happens to be an attractive woman. For most men, the damsel in distress stereotype still exerts a pretty strong pull, and the instinct to jump on the nearest “horse” and ride to her rescue is hard to resist.
So far, this is pretty much predictable and essentially harmless.
Millions of women have been grateful for men who pulled over to help them change a tyre—although probably not the women who were doing the job pretty well when a man stopped to take over or explain how they needed to do it.
One feature that all those helping methods have in common is a difference in capacity, which can be perfectly healthy and mutually acceptable where it’s between, for example, an elderly person and someone younger, or when someone seeks out counselling.
But I’ve had personal experience of two situations where the imbalance between helper and helpee was more problematic.
The first was when I was an aid worker in a country in need, where the difference between myself and the people I was ostensibly helping was not about any lack of capacity on their part but was mainly due to their unfortunate economic circumstances.
Most people who go to work in those countries sincerely want to do good for the less privileged—and that’s great—but I learned that it’s a big mistake to assume that the recipients of this kindness are in any way less able, other than because of a limited access to cash.
I made the error of feeling slightly superior to the locals on my first trip to Africa, until it was explained to me that people were playing at being helpless for me because they thought it was what I expected and would help provide them with the financial support I was in a position to offer.
One village leader memorably told me, “If you want to help us, don’t bother, but if you’re willing to work in solidarity with us to change our situation, we’re happy to collaborate.”
Once I’d realised how much I could learn from the villagers, my relationship with them evolved into one of mutual acceptance and respect, and they began to believe that maybe I wasn’t totally stupid after all.
Another tricky type of helping situation is the one in a romantic relationship, which depends on balance and equality to thrive, and the trust that each person recognises and celebrates.
I smugly thought I was rescuing my current partner when I moved her away from her ex, whose behavior was abusive, and let him know I was on the scene now, so he’d better keep his distance.
I gradually understood how hard it was for her to love me because a part of her felt that she should have been able to sort out this situation without my intervention, which suggested an inadequacy on her part and caused her to have some feelings of resentment toward me.
And on top of that, as she explained to me, her guilt about this caused her to become disconnected from her own feelings and made it difficult for her to create a close connection with me.
I had to ask myself whether I’d truly acted from a place of love and compassion, or if my “rescuing” was really a way to help me feel better about myself, or perhaps just have power in the relationship.
These things are often intertwined, but the underlying intention is the most important thing, like the difference between care-giving, which has the well-being of the recipient as a prime concern, and care-taking, which is mainly done to improve the carer’s self-esteem.
The only way I could manage to sort out the difference between the two was to be scrupulously honest with myself about my motives, and to make sure—by asking her—that I was offering the kind of support my partner actually needed from me, on her terms, rather than what I thought she should need.
I discovered that a good antidote to the rescuer syndrome and a good way to empower my partner were to tell her more about my own vulnerabilities and what kind of support I needed from her, at the same time as giving her plenty of reassurance about how great I really thought she was, so that she could feel like the strong and capable partner as well and know how much I appreciated that.
It felt like a real win-win in our relationship and much better than trying to be a hero.