For each person who volunteers to live the life of a tool, lest he turn out to be a knife, there is another who threatens to become a wound.

Sheldon Kopp

Patterns of Rescuing

In coming across the above quote recently I was reminded of the pain caused by being caught up in this cycle. Back in my mid twenties I was definitely coming from a wounded place, and to compensate I tried to take care of others and become the tool to their needs.  What often happened was when I felt the pain of my wounded child and that there was no relief from others (they didn't take care of me enough) I would more into the position of knife or tool to compensate.

I have found this description to be a useful way to understand how we are caught up in being dependent on each other’s happiness. Partners will move between these three positions creating relationships based on powerlessness and love additction.

When I began my training I was first acquainted with this system in relationships as having three positions, persecutor, victim and rescuer. It is useful to conceptualize each position as a separate person for description, but more accurately they are aspects within our psyche that are activated in relationships.  They will get triggered by our partners. However, you may recognize that one part is stronger in you and one part you deny more than another.

Here is a description of each of these positions.

  1. Victim (Wound). The victim carries beliefs about themselves as being a target for others hostility and rejection. They believe others are against them and responsible for their pain.  They see their life in hopeless and helpless ways with obstacles at every corner preventing them from having what they really want. The victim expresses their helplessness to elicit caretaking. They do this by; guilt tripping, acting helpless, blaming, sabotaging success, afraid to take action, self deprecating statements, emotionality, and looking to others for direction. They are self-absorbed and want others to feel the way they do.  For example, if their partner feels happy and satisfied this can be experienced as a slight to their feelings, after all ‘can’t you see I am hurting over here?’ (says the wound). They find it difficult to tolerate rejection or criticism. The victim feels afraid to take responsibility for themselves, and often mistakes responsibility for blame or rejection.  They are indirect about their needs believing the only way to be cared about is by manipulating it through being helpless and hurt.  Being self-sufficient means being alone and disconnected, and so resent others for not responding immediately when they need them.  Taking care of themselves is seen as a burden.  The victim has developed this view from either being a target as a child or learning through wounded adults to manipulate others. They view relationships as providing them with the safe haven that they crave. The consequence is to put pressure on others to do the impossible and make up for everyone who has let them down.
  2. Rescuer (Tool). The rescuer connects their self worth to being needed and taking care of others. They over function taking on things they perceive as helpful to their partner or that they think their partner ‘needs’ to be happy.  They have come to believe that their own desires are injurious to others and quickly deny them.  They want to avoid conflict at all costs and are governed by guilt whenever there is any possibility that they could be responsible for hurting anyone.  Some rescuers charge into situations where they perceive they are needed, taking on people as projects. They are also motivated by the fear that others will think badly of them. They carry shame about their own suffering or needs, striving to maintain a picture of themselves as in control and capable.  The rescuer is very focused on others and becomes very adept at anticipating disaster.  They rescue by managing and organizing others, catering to other’s emotional needs and attempting to provide whatever is requested, denying their own experience to protect others, saying what they think other’s want to hear, explaining their partners behaviour to others and apologizing for them, taking responsibility for others in an  attempt to take away someone’s suffering.  Through these actions the rescuer communicates a sense of them-self as capable and the other as incapable. The rescuer tends to be self-sacrificing in the hopes of a return of love from their partner they have tirelessly taken care of.  At their core they do not believe they are lovable and attempt to elicit love by doing for others. In this way they are driven by perfectionism believing that the only way to receive love is by being perfect.  The rescuer will periodically fall into a pit of despair when everything falls apart and all their efforts have been to no avail.  They end up feeling helpless and try to compensate by controlling more which often takes them into the persecutor position.  From here they will become superior and contemptuous towards the victim when their efforts are not appreciated. They can also move into the victim position feeling used and abused.
  3. Persecutor (Knife) The persecutor is a position that develops out of the victim and rescuer. For someone who maintains this position in relation to others has likely been the victim of extreme control or chaos and has learnt to protect themselves by attempting to control others.  So feelings of worthlessness and vulnerability are buried deeply beneath a fear of loosing control.  Their self worth is tied to being right and being superior.  They attack to protect themselves from being attacked.  They maintain their sense of self worth by perceiving others in an inferior position.  The persecutor uses various methods to maintain control including, contempt, dismissing, attacking (verbally and physically), humiliating, blaming, raging, self-righteousness, bullying, sarcasm, stonewalling and withholding.  In extreme situations violence and rage are used to control others.  They deal with their own pain by inflicting it on others, feeling justified because of being victimized by others. Persecutors keep their vulnerability well hidden and see things in terms of weakness and strength, having contempt for what they perceive as weak in others.  They will often move into the victim position in response to being challenged and held responsible for their behaviour.

Interactions between parts.

A person will move between these positions in an attempt to further control a situation or get their needs met. Here are some ways that they might do this:

  1. The victim and the rescuer will move into the persecutor position as an escalation of their attempts to control.  The victim will persecute with blame and guilt by torturing others with responsibility for their pain and not being good enough to make them feel better.
  2. The rescuer will persecute others with their self-sacrifice and resentment that they are not appreciated for what they have done for them.  The rescuer will often express their hostility in a passive aggressive way, because their need to be thought well of predominates.
  3. The more the rescuer feels unappreciated and the victim feels nothing works to take away the pain, the more they escalate into increasing resentment and hatred.  This cycle becomes increasingly abusive with both moving back and forth into the persecutor position.
  4. Intimacy and connection decrease. Feelings of powerlessness increase.
  5. The rescuer and persecutor parts disown their wounded child and vulnerability.
  6. The victim (wound) part disowns power and responsibility for their life.

The system and all parts are wanting others to be responsible for their happiness and contentment, or that they are responsible for others feelings and can control them.  The victim does this by being helpless, the rescuer by being accommodating, and the persecutor by intimidating.

Breaking the cycle.

Learning to take responsibility for ones own life and keep working towards the goal of wholeness is the way out.

Identifying your parts that keep you in this cycle and developing your relationship to these parts rather than your parts interacting with your partners parts.  In other words, when the rescuer wants to focus on fixing something for someone else your adult self can help that part of you let go of the anxiety, focus on your needs and let go of the guilt that keeps you hooked in.

Counselling can help. When we get stuck in dynamics we have a certain way of seeing things that has developed from our life experiences and can be very difficult to change.  We tend to continue to see things from this perspective partly because we are so good at fooling ourselves and not looking at things we don’t want to deal with.  Each of these positions has an investment in staying caught up in it.    Having a therapist to help explore these dynamics and providing a safe place to express the fear and shame that fuels these positions.

Self reflection. There are many ways to do this, meditation, reading, spending time by yourself doing the things you like to do.  Doing more separate activities from your partner will help to develop more of a sense of self.

Identifying your Fears. These interactions are driven by fear. Identify when you feel fear or guilt. Create some space before acting on it to calm yourself and reflect on what you really feel or desire in the situation.  By slowing yourself down you can often identify what is triggering the guilt or fear and what decision you are making in response. Do something different to break the habit.

Deal with Conflict.  Being honest risks others not being happy with you (you can't make them happy anyway).  The more honesty that comes into relationships the more you will develop a foundation based on responsibility for your own happiness.