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Well-being: Rescue yourself


Nathaniel Branden

Nathaniel Branden

Nathaniel Branden

Of all the self-development books I've read, there is one piece of advice - just seven words in all - that stands out above all else: "No one is coming to save you."

The sobering statement appears in the late Nathaniel Branden's Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, and it's a reminder that financial problems aren't going to be solved by an unforeseen financial windfall, career slumps won't be surmounted by an out-of-the-blue job offer and a white knight isn't going to ride in on his white horse to save the day.

As the author and psychotherapist put it: "A major cause of unhappiness or frustration is imagining that someone will come along to 'rescue' you - to solve your problems and fulfil your wishes.

"A self-responsible person recognises that no one is coming to make life right or to 'fix' things. You acknowledge that nothing will get better unless you do something to make it happen."

Branden's advice is heavy-hitting, especially for people who are prone to taking flights of fantasy, yet it's a trap that we can all fall into from time to time. In many ways, the 'just-world hypothesis' - the widely-held belief that good will be rewarded and evil will be punished - is the groundstone of the rescue fantasy. We labour under the delusion that our noble deeds entitle us to good fortune, just as we think of bad luck as an augur of good luck. Likewise, a person who selflessly helps others believes that cosmic justice will eventually mete out the help he needs too. The roles we assume in dysfunctional human interactions (say within an abusive family unit or a toxic work environment) also play a part in the rescue fallacy. The Drama Triangle, which was conceived by Stephen Karpman, describes the three ego states that people take on in response to a conflict. The persecutor points the finger and believes he is right; the poor-me victim believes he is blameless and the rescuer believes it is his noble duty to save the day. What's interesting is that the roles can shift, and the person who assumes the role of victim in one scenario may become the rescuer in another. At first glance, it may look like the victim has overcome his own problems and now has the time and energy to donate to someone else. In actual fact, he has decided to focus on someone else's problems to avoid examining his own.

Mary C. Lamia, co-author of The White Knight Syndrome: Rescuing Yourself from Your Need to Rescue Others, sums it up perfectly: "Although the white knight's heroic actions may take the form of slaying her partner's metaphorical dragons, her real goal, which is often beyond her awareness, involves slaying the dragons from her own past. Thus, at a deeper level, the compulsive rescuer is trying to repair the negative or damaged sense of herself that developed in childhood."

White Knight Syndrome manifests most commonly in romantic relationships, says Lamia. However, while the rescuer trope is at the heart of just about every happy-ever-after love story, it rarely bodes well in the real world.

"Unfortunately, the white knight's choice of a partner, and how that partner is eventually treated, often repeats symbolically the very same kind of distress that the white knight himself experienced in childhood," she explains. "Ultimately, rather than repairing his sense of self, this repetition leaves the white knight feeling defeated."

If you have a pattern of trying to fix bad boys or damsels in distress, it's worth asking yourself what it is you're trying to avoid fixing in yourself. It's also worth taking a hard look at your motivations. If you've spent considerable time thinking about your public image as a saviour, then perhaps it's time to admit that these relationships are feeding your ego rather than nourishing your heart. More to the point, are you helping your partner, or enabling them? Remember, when you consistently come to someone's rescue, you send them the subtle message that they are incapable of rescuing themselves. It's a form of emotional bondage that keeps a person trapped in their role as the dependent, helpless party. Sure, you might think you want them to succeed, but the unconscious dynamic of the relationship depends on their failure.

The desire to be rescued and the compulsion to rescue others are fundamentally avoidance strategies that allow us to escape from challenging inner work. It may feel like we're forging a new direction and readying ourselves for change, but the uncomfortable truth is that it's a state of inertia - a repeating pattern with a predictable outcome.

As Branden wrote: "The dream of a rescuer who will deliver us may offer a kind of comfort, but it leaves us passive and powerless.

"We may feel 'If I only suffer long enough, if I only yearn desperately enough, somehow a miracle will happen', but this is the kind of self-deception one pays for with one's life as it drains away into the abyss of unredeemable possibilities and irretrievable days, months, decades."

Those who are waiting patiently for their white knight to arrive congratulate themselves for maintaining a positive outlook in the midst of the storm. White knights, meanwhile, congratulate themselves for saving the day. In truth, they are both abdicating personal responsibility for their own happiness.

Health & Living