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Organizational Dynamics (2013) 42, 239—247

Available online at www.sciencedirect.com


journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/orgdyn

Are you a mentor, a helper or a rescuer?

Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries

THE NEED TO PLEASE Helping, Mentoring or Something Else?

Most of us are familiar with the syndicated comic strip Calvin Most often, a mentor is an experienced and more knowledge-
and Hobbes. It details the friendship between Calvin — the able individual who (without looking for personal gain) helps
imaginative, intelligent but also egotistical, obnoxious, and and guides another person’s development. Mentoring repre-
short-tempered six-year old — and his animal familiar, sents an ongoing relationship of learning, dialog, and challenge
Hobbes, an anthropomorphic toy tiger. In the strip, we follow to enhance an individual’s skills, knowledge or work perfor-
Calvin’s flights of fantasy and his magical interactions, a no mance. But often, however, there is a narrow line between
man’s land where his curiosity and imagination often get him helping, mentoring and doing something else. As some of us
into trouble. may have learned from hard experience, letting our own
Given all the trouble Calvin causes, at times his parents psychological and emotional hang-ups creep into our profes-
are at their wit’s end, want to take leave from him, and enjoy sional interactions can spell disaster. Take for example, the
an evening out. They need their private time to get some following business situation (both names have been changed):
respite from Calvin’s incessant antics. However, the baby
sitter they use, Roselyn, is the only person Calvin fears, as she Thomas had been with the company for over 20 years, the
has a way of figuring out his mischievous plots. In spite of past five as chief executive officer (CEO). Given his accom-
Calvin’s dramatic theatrics not to leave him in the ‘‘merci- plishments, he was proud of his track record. Thomas really
less’’ hands of Roselyn, there are occasions when the parents believed in developing his staff — he saw himself as a
persevere and leave him behind, asserting their own needs in ‘‘people person,’’ eager to help others make the most of
spite of the stiff opposition of their son. themselves. He’d made the company what it was today: a
The comic strip resonates so well with many us, as we (like happy, effective and successful place to work, staffed by a
Calvin’s parents) have sometimes been in situations where contented workforce. Ironically, however, Thomas was
we were wondering where to draw the limits — when we probably the least contented of them all.
would ask ourselves whose needs should prevail? Should we Miranda had worked hard to get where she was now — vice
keep on ‘‘helping?’’ Or should we draw a line — and create a president, finance — and she relished the challenge that
learning experience for the person who is asking to be came with it. She liked the people she worked with, and
helped? she especially liked Thomas, who had taken a keen inter-
Taking the various antics of this comic strip as a starting est to help her get on with her job. Indeed, Thomas was
point, it is fair to ask ourselves (in an organizational setting) anxious to coach her in the skills she’d need in her
whether we get a kick out of helping other people or whether relatively new and highly pressurized role. And he felt
we are really desperately trying to rescue them? Are we that he was the best person to do so.
taking on the role of mentor, helping others to find the right A few weeks into her new job, Miranda and Thomas had
direction? Are we helping them to develop solutions to career had their first informal meeting to check on progress.
issues, or are we doing something very different? And is what Miranda felt happy with the way things were going, but
we doing of benefit to the other? Referring once again to the confessed to feeling daunted by some of the challenges
comic strip, are there better ways to give Calvin a develop- that lay ahead. Thomas reminded her that she had his full
mental learning experience? support at all times.

0090-2616/$ — see front matter # 2013 Published by Elsevier Inc.

240 M.F.R. Kets de Vries

That would have been enough for Miranda. She appre- it can be argued that we may be hard-wired to behave in ways
ciated a helping hand in these early days and weeks of her conducive to the sociability of the species. Without the
new position. But before long she wondered whether the intention to cooperate, it would have been very difficult
feedback sessions were more for Thomas’ benefit than her to survive as a species. Thus, we can even argue that human
own. Instead of allowing her to get on with the job — and behavior is oriented not only toward the ‘‘survival of the
to make her own mistakes if necessary — Thomas seemed fittest’’ but also the ‘‘survival of the nicest.’’
intent on continual intervention at what she saw at a But the desire to help is not always driven by such selfless,
micro level. altruistic motives. Some people are motivated less by a
The effect was debilitating. Miranda’s emerging confi- desire to benefit others and contribute to the common good,
dence was stifled by a sense that Thomas actually lacked and more by a deeper emotional need within themselves.
faith in her. As far as she could see it, he seemed These people are ‘‘rescuers’’ for whom the need to help is
preoccupied with her weaknesses and blind to what Mi- like an addiction. They suffer from the disease to please;
randa had always thought were her strengths. As their they are unable to differentiate between their own needs
relationship unfolded, she decided that she needed to and those of the people they are purporting to help or
take greater control over her life. To start that process, mentor. This specific modus operandi can incur a cost to
she compiled a report enumerating her achievements to themselves and the people who work with them, possibly
date that she presented to Thomas at their next meeting. even fostering an unnecessary, unhealthy, and inappropriate
She thanked him for his support but stated firmly that she dependency relationship. At best they make very ineffective
no longer needed any special help. mentors; at worst, they harm others by attempting to co-opt
At first Thomas felt hurt and rejected. He didn’t like the the people they should be helping, in an attempt to resolve
distant stand Miranda had suddenly taken. It felt some- their own problems. Ironically, as time goes by, these ‘‘help-
what like a slap in the face. Shocked by the power of his ers’’ may begin to feel helpless, powerless, resentful and
own emotional response, he suddenly felt very foolish. irritated. Instead of generating exhilarating highs, helping
What role had he taken on vis-à-vis her? Who had he been turns into a debilitating energy drain.
trying to help? Had he had been using their meetings to So how do you spot somebody who goes beyond helping or
feed his own ego and satisfy feelings which may have been mentoring? When does helping change in rescuing? How do
inappropriate? To sum up, whom had he really been you know if you are a rescuer yourself? And how can the
helping? problem of rescuer syndrome be solved?
Thomas thanked Miranda for the report — he never read it,
there was no need — and assured her that he was very
confidant about her abilities. Chastened, and ashamed of
Boxout: Are you a rescuer?
his own silliness, he resolved never again to let his own When the natural urge to help or mentor other
emotional neediness interfere with professional relation- people becomes contaminated with unresolved
ships. Her boundary management made him realize that emotional or psychological issues, it can quickly
what he had been doing was everything but helping or morph into rescuer pattern without the individual
mentoring. being aware of any change in his or her own
Successful executives seldom get to the top alone. Even
behavior. Hence anybody whose role involves
the most talented, charismatic and self-sufficient people helping or mentoring people who are struggling
need the help and cooperation of other people if they are with personal or professional issues should remain
to realize their true potential. Business — as so many business vigilant and look out for the warning signs of
leaders are wont to remind us — is fundamentally about rescuer behavior. The following checklist provides
people. And of course people need mutual support, help a useful reference:
and leadership. For example, mentoring can be a powerful
tool to help people in goal achievement and problem solving.
It can facilitate personal and professional growth, in parti-  Do you find it difficult to make time for yourself?
cular, when mentors are prepared to share the knowledge  Do you find it hard to stop thinking about other people’s
and insights that they have internalized through the years. problems?
Being prepared to help others in the organization aspire to  Do you take a personal interest in the problems of those
ever-higher levels of achievement is one of the fundamental you are helping?
roles of any organizational leader, and some are naturally  Do your colleagues and co-workers sometimes feel like
better at it than others. It is to your mutual benefit to help family members?
colleagues, and the urge to do so is both natural and laud-  Do you ever take responsibility for people who are in
able. Compassion, service, and dedication — these are all trouble?
noble virtues and highly prized in a society where, ideally, we  Are you inclined to make decisions on behalf of somebody
all help each other. Indeed, empathy is the very basis of all who has asked for your help?
human interaction. In an oversimplified way, empathy can be  Do you make excuses — explicitly or implicitly — for a
viewed as the identification with or the vicarious experien- person you are helping?
cing of the feelings, thoughts, or points of view of another.  Do you ever offer help to people who appear not to realize
When experiencing empathy, the empathic person is able to that they have a problem?
understand the inner experience of the other person.  Do you feel uncomfortable receiving help from other
Furthermore, from an evolutionary psychology perspective, people?
Mentor, helper or rescuer 241

 Do you often worry about what other people think of you? in a senior executive position in relation to those they purport
 Do you feel guilty when you are unable to solve another to help or be mentoring, it is often very difficult to rein them
person’s problems? in and make them aware of the harm they are doing.
 Does helping other people make you feel more worthy as a Practitioners in the helping professions — psychoanalysts,
human being? psychiatrists, social workers, counselors, coaches and other
 Do you feel unfulfilled or anxious when there is no crisis to qualified clinical professionals — are trained to differentiate
solve? their own emotional and psychological needs from those of
 Do you find it difficult or impossible to say ‘no’ when their patient or client. (They are not immune from rescuer
people ask favors of you? syndrome, however, and many will have heard the story of
 Do you find it difficult to set boundaries when people put the social worker driving along a treacherous mountain road:
demands on you? as he hits a patch of ice and his car plummets over the
 Do you ever feel that your efforts to help somebody are precipice, one of his clients’ lives flashes before his eyes.)
unappreciated? Helping professionals have a huge responsibility to look out
 Do you sometimes feel anger and/or resentment to be for their clients’ or patients’ welfare. On the other hand, they
giving all the time? are, of course, only human, and experience the same con-
 Do you feel resentful when those you are helping show no flicting interests and needs as any other person. Therefore, to
gratitude for your efforts? be effective in their roles, helping professionals must be able
 Do you ever feel mentally or physically exhausted with either to address their own needs outside the relationship or to
the effort of helping other people? suspend them. However, if they are unable or unwilling to
 During your childhood or adolescence were you ever made examine their own behavior, sometimes a desire to help can go
to feel responsible for the security or stability of the too far, turning helpers into ‘‘rescuers’’ unable to differentiate
family? between their own needs and those of their clients.
Legal and ethical standards are in place to safeguard
against inappropriate and potentially harmful transference
The more often you replied ‘‘yes’’ to the questions in the clinical context. In clinical training, psychotherapists,
above, the more likely it is that you go beyond psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts pay a great deal of atten-
mentoring and are prone to rescuer syndrome. tion to transference. They go to great lengths to point out to
Being aware of your susceptibility is the first step their clients that certain behavior patterns, appropriate at
in countering what can be a debilitating and an earlier stage of life, are no longer effective in the present.
destructive pattern of behavior. Their clients seem to be engaged in a ‘‘false connection.’’
They are confusing the therapist with an important person
from their past. But there are no such safeguards to regulate
interpersonal relationships in a more traditional sense like a
business situation, so that those afflicted with ‘‘rescuer
THE RESCUER TRAP syndrome’’ can often use their relationships with other
people to re-enact and resolve their own emotional and
What we may call ‘‘rescuer syndrome’’ is common in all walks psychological problems. The outcome can be extremely
of life and in the professional context it can prove debilitat- damaging for the other person who, without being aware
ing to individuals and damaging to businesses. It is a form of of what’s happening, has been handed a whole new set of
undermining of the natural balance in working relationships issues to work through — those of their ‘‘helper.’’
that can interfere with productive teamwork and reduce the While people in the helping professions receive some
effectiveness of individuals. training not to fall into the rescuing trap, the same cannot
The Rescuer Syndrome manifests itself when helping turns be said about executives. Inadvertently, like we saw in the
into a compulsion based on one central, but very flawed case of Thomas, they may resort to this pattern. Unfortu-
conviction: ‘‘The only way to be appreciated is to do what nately, in many instances, they are doing nobody a service.
other people want.’’ Thus these kinds of helpers don’t help The results will not be beneficial for them, the people they
others out of choice; on the contrary, they seem impelled to try to ‘‘rescue,’’ and the organization.
enter into and prolong a kind of rescuer—victim relationship.
It is probably fair to say that people suffering from the
Watching Out for Co-dependency
Rescuer Syndrome are suffering from an addiction, in the
same way as eating, smoking, drug taking, alcohol, or sex can The Rescuer Syndrome, while not an officially recognized
become addictive. To outsiders, rescuing behavior can disorder, is a widely acknowledged phenomenon and is espe-
resemble some kind of heroic martyrdom. However, there cially prevalent in the context of interpersonal relationships.
is an upside to it. A closer look at its underlying dynamics may Rescuers are sometimes characterized as ‘‘white knights,’’
reveal that acting in this way gives rescuers an excuse to ‘‘Florence Nightingales’’ or ‘‘Mother Teresas’’ and are prone
avoid dealing with their own problems. to the so-called ‘‘hero complex,’’ which drives them to seek
out people in need. Most don’t realize their behavior is of a
Know Thyself rather compulsive nature and dysfunctional and many gen-
uinely believe that their efforts at helping or mentoring are
Rescuers are seldom aware of their underlying motivations, entirely for the benefit of those they are trying to rescue. The
and most genuinely believe that their interventions are for challenge is to enable people to recognize the signs that they
the better. Bearing in mind that rescuers are also very often might be suffering from rescuer syndrome; only then can they
242 M.F.R. Kets de Vries

address their own problems and become effective, construc- demonstrating to the rescuer that their intervention was
tive helpers. instrumental in achieving success. A more common outcome
Real helping is a joint effort — it should never be a one- is that the relationship deteriorates, with the subject of the
way street. Taking control of somebody else’s affairs robs rescue attempt becoming dispirited and confused while the
them of their ability of helping themselves. The ultimate aim rescuer becomes increasingly frustrated. Eventually, the
of helping, especially in an organizational context, is to make rescuer simply gives up and abandons the rescue attempt
the helper’s continuing intervention unnecessary, but res- to go in search of the next ‘‘victim.’’
cuers cannot accept the inevitable redundancy this entails. People who successfully work their way out of an entan-
Instead (because they need to be needed) they will try to glement with a rescuer are usually those who, like Miranda in
engineer the relationship into one of co-dependency in which our example, are fully functional executives who require no
the person they are helping cannot cut himself or herself free more than arms-length mentoring. In many instances they
from the helper. When this happens, the person being helped soon realize that the rescuer is not helping, and they take
often has no choice but to go with the flow; any initiative they steps to extricate themselves. But some people who ask for
take is stifled or undervalued. help operate on a very different basis: lacking initiative, they
But both parties inevitably suffer. The person being helped work on the assumption that the world owes them a living and
actually receives no help — and quite often the reverse — that they are entitled to load their problems onto a helper.
while the rescuer becomes overloaded and overwhelmed as These are the people least likely to find a resolution to their
the relationship becomes increasingly one-sided and unful- problems because rescuers give them the excuse not to rise
filling. Eventually the rescuer may become helpless, power- to the occasion. The result is usually a stalemate that can
less, resentful and irritated. Instead of generating the persist for as long as the rescuer is getting something out of
exhilarating highs they aspire to, their behavior becomes a the relationship.
debilitating energy-drain. All relationships entail an element of co-dependency, if
Some people are serial rescuers, always on the lookout for only in the sense that each party wants, and usually gets,
somebody who needs their help. Others become rescuers something from the other. In most instances it is a mutual
because of the specific circumstances that arise in their reciprocity and is not dysfunctional; but when the relation-
relationship with a particular individual. For example, refer- ship becomes one-sided and a rescuer is partnered with a
ring once more to the previous business illustration, Thomas passive or emotionally detached personality, both can suffer.
felt especially protective of Miranda because of her relative In this sort of relationship the rescuer can soon become
youth in relation to the senior role she had been given. frustrated by his or her repeated but unsuccessful attempts
Instead of seeing her as somebody endowed with above- to extract positive feedback from the rescue and will even-
average capabilities, Thomas saw a young, delicate girl being tually become both mentally and physically exhausted by the
thrown in at the deep end. He assumed that she needed experience.
rescuing, even in spite of the fact that he had taken a leading I remember working with a leadership coach who would
role in appointing Miranda to the board. call the office of one of her clients to tell them that he was
In this case, Thomas’s behavior toward Miranda was driven sick — when in fact her client was a chronic alcoholic who was
by strong paternal feelings (he had two sons of about Mir- prone to frequent bouts of heavy drinking which rendered
anda’s age, but no daughter), which were complicated and him incapable for days at a stretch. This is the kind of ‘‘help’’
heightened by a suppressed sexual attraction to her; Miranda that goes above and beyond normal care-taking behavior and
was a very attractive young woman. Thomas therefore felt is entirely counter-productive. The coach’s behavior gave
highly protective of Miranda, while at the same time he positive feedback to her client’s self-destructive lifestyle and
needed her to want his attention. made his alcoholism sustainable. When I asked the coach why
For people like Thomas, falling victim to rescuer syndrome she did this she explained that her client had repeatedly told
brings about a crisis, followed by a period of recovery and, in her that he couldn’t manager without her, and that he always
his case, a return to normal interpersonal relationships. felt much better after she took control for him.
Serial rescuers, on the other hand, usually fail to reach a The coach also said that this man was one of her best
crisis point, do not acquire insight into what they are doing, clients — and it’s not difficult to understand why: he gave her
and so never confront the problem. For these people, rescu- the kind of positive feedback that made her feel good and
ing follows a cyclic pattern: they find somebody who needs created for her the illusion that she was actually helping him.
help and then proceed to attempt a rescue that usually fails. The reality, of course, is that the coach was simply satisfying
The rescuer then goes in search of another person to ‘‘help.’’ her need to be needed while the client was encouraged to
Serial rescuers often have several ‘‘projects’’ running simul- sink deeper into his self-destructive cycle of binge drinking.
taneously because they are incapable of ignoring someone Coaches with co-dependent tendencies are drawn to highly
whom they believe needs their help and because their ‘‘dis- needy people and although (at least initially) their interac-
ease to please’’ makes them incapable of saying ‘‘no’’ to tion with these people may be gratifying for both parties, it
somebody who comes to them for help. will not last; rescuing never results in permanent solutions for
Very often, when ‘‘helping’’ becomes ‘‘rescuing,’’ the dependent people.
person being helped will respond to the rescuer’s ministra- Although an extreme example, this situation amply demon-
tions by backing away. Indeed, the unwelcome attentions of a strates how somebody with rescuer syndrome can feed off a
rescuer can sometimes inspire someone to take a pro-active vulnerable and dependent person. Most rescuers feel uncom-
role and deal single-handedly with whatever issues they had fortable in equal relationships and feel most satisfied when
struggled with previously. Although this is a good outcome for able to elicit gratitude and appreciation from somebody who
the person being rescued, it has the paradoxical effect of has effectively become dependent on their ‘‘help.’’ Many
Mentor, helper or rescuer 243

rescuers need this ‘‘fix’’ on a regular basis and typically There was nothing in this for Sue personally other
become anxious when the people they are supposed to be than to satisfy her rescuer compulsion. She had no
helping get their act together and no longer want their help. working relationship with any of the students and
In order to avoid the disappointment and rejection experi- they knew nothing of her actions. However, Sue’s
enced when somebody decides they no longer need rescuing,
behavior cast a veil of suspicion over the legitimacy
some rescuers operate from a distance — interfering behind
the scenes and without the cooperation (or indeed the knowl-
of the students’ claim to remain in the country that
edge) of those they believe they are helping. We have all could have resulted in their expulsion.
experienced instances when somebody has pre-empted our Sue had put herself in an untenable position, and
actions and made decisions for us in an attempt to help us on the University had no choice but to dismiss her for
our way: our parents did this for us as young children. gross misconduct.
The difference, of course, is that young children are
learning. Much of what they learn is picked up by observing
the actions of their parents and other adults. When an eight-
year-old girl announces that she wants to dance like her The Need to be Liked
favorite pop star, her mother is not acting dysfunctionally
A disproportionate need to be liked — a common trait in
when she unilaterally enrolls her daughter in Saturday morn-
rescuers — is usually associated with a shaky self-image.
ing dance classes. Her response is natural and constructive.
Rescuers fear that putting their own interests first will be
However, the mother has acted in a way that imposes an
perceived by others as unkind, uncaring and selfish (and
obligation on her daughter — in this case an obligation to give
rescuers care deeply about what others think of them). For
up her Saturday mornings. But for an adult to act unilaterally
many rescuers, saying ‘‘no’’ to someone who has asked a favor
on behalf of another adult (even a close relative) and espe-
is to let that person down; it is possibly even a repudiation of
cially in a way that imposes an obligation on the second adult,
their relationship. Of course there are often very good reasons
is to undermine the basis of the relationship and create a
for declining a request for help: lack of time, resources or
dysfunctional imbalance. This is true even if the person being
expertise for example, or simply a belief that the person asking
rescued would have made the same decision or taken the
for help actually doesn’t need it. But a rescuer only has to see a
same action if left to his or her own devices.
person in need and — however inconvenient, inappropriate or
An example of ‘‘behind the scenes’’ rescuing is illustrated in
burdensome the task — he or she will feel an obligation to add
the case of Sue (see Case 2 Box). This story shows how the
that person’s request to a list of projects. It is not surprising
actions of a compulsive rescuer can harm the interests of those
that rescuers often get overloaded with an unmanageable
supposedly being ‘‘helped’’ without them even knowing that
amount of emotional baggage.
the rescuer has been at work. There is the added component of
As in the case of Sue, rescuers are just as much at risk of
separation here that, concealing the activities of the rescuer,
harm from their actions as those on whom they prey. This is
makes it all the more difficult for others to identify and address
hardly surprising, since what drives them to seek people to
the problem. The outcome in this case was harmful only to the
rescue is their own emotional or psychological insecurity,
rescuer — those she was trying to rescue remained (and still
which, instead of confronting and tackling head-on, they
remain) entirely unaware of her activities.
have chosen to manage by projecting onto one or more
unwitting ‘‘rescuees.’’ Rescuer burnout is common if, as is
often the case, the attempted interventions end in failure.
Case 2: Behind the scenes
The rescuer becomes fatigued and loses a sense of idealism
Sue was a senior administrator at a university that and purpose.
enrolled a large number of overseas students.
Although efficient and helpful, she had to take
‘voluntary redundancy’ after it was discovered
that she was writing to students’ prospective With too much helping going on, the helper may be faced with
employers confirming their graduation before diminishing returns. The emotional labor associated with
their degrees had been officially ratified by ex- helping drains energy. For some executives prone to such
ternal examiners. behavior, it results in a progressive loss of idealism and
In each case there was little, if any, doubt that the purpose. Executives who find themselves in this position
students would not be awarded their degrees, but may become cynical, tired, and apathetic. Their positive
Sue’s letters were going out ahead of the process, outlook and work effort are compromised. Worse, they may
in strict contravention of the University’s code of unconsciously contaminate the people they try to rescue with
practice. their own sense of failure and burnout.
It takes a lot of energy when rescuers feel that, at all
So why did Sue intervene in this way? She knew
costs, they need to suppress or reframe their own negative
that the visas of some of the students were due to qualities, such as anger, selfishness, greed, rivalry, envy,
expire shortly after their graduation and that they spite, and vindictiveness. While they may display a positive
would have to leave the country if they did not exterior, under the surface there will be a lot of resentment
already have a firm job offer. Sue’s actions were about the show they have to maintain. And their exhaustion is
designed to secure offers for these students so compounded by the negation of their own needs and their
that they could remain in the country. unwillingness to take time out to revitalize their own energy.
244 M.F.R. Kets de Vries

Their feeling that they don’t receive the gratitude they perfectly well adjusted and free from any form of dysfunc-
deserve increases rescuers’ frustration and disillusionment. It tional behavior before helping somebody overcome a perso-
may cross their mind that the people they are trying to help nal or professional difficulty — if that were true, very few
don’t really appreciate what they are offering, or worse, don’t people in the helping profession would ever qualify. But it
seem to want to be helped. Eventually a point is reached where does mean that, having acknowledged our own psychological
rescuers fear they are no longer doing anyone any good. situation, we must learn to separate our needs from those we
Other indicators of rescuer burnout are feelings of guilt aim to help.
and self-hatred associated with less interest in rescuing To understand why people are prone to the rescuer syn-
people. Rescuer withdrawal is symptomatic of this state of drome we need to look into the unconscious part of their lives
mind. There can also be an increase in ‘‘projection’’ — to make sense of the interrelationship between the ‘‘self’’ and
rescuers start blaming the people they are supposed to help the ‘‘other.’’ Children who have received consistently warm,
for various misdoings. sensitive and responsive care from their primary caregivers
Eventually, some rescuers (having become increasingly will grow up securely attached to those close to them; they will
desperate) may reach the point where they terminate the have formed an internal working model of the ‘‘other.’’ They
rescue missions that are stalling. They may even deny and become secure and confident adults with a healthy sense of
conceal the problems of their troubled client in an effort to self-esteem. But for children whose caretakers are needy or
find a way out. While this is going on, anxiety, emotional frequently absent, the outcome can be very different.
detachment, or depression may come to the fore. Substance
abuse may occur. The chronic stress they are exposed to can Family Constellations
manifests itself in physical problems. These physical stresses
may even reduce the life expectancy of these rescuers. The dysfunctional family background of the typical rescuer
As I have suggested earlier, apart from these psychological can range from one in which ineffective parents or caregivers
and physiological problems, people suffering from the Res- leave their children with no choice but to take on the
cuer Syndrome may also lose a sense of boundaries. By acting parenting role themselves (and in the process lose touch
out some of their own fantasies with the people they are with their own needs) to families that may look loving and
supposed to help, they may find themselves into other kinds stable from the outside but in which the parents’ obsession
of trouble. Sexual transgression may be one of the hazards. with trying to make their children achieve perfection has
When ‘‘helping,’’ people should never forget that, as helpers, created an oppressive and stifling environment.
they wield extraordinary emotional powers. In the first type of family, it is the parents who need
Struggling under the weight of too much self-imposed parenting, and the children are left to fend for themselves
responsibility quickly takes its toll. And things can quickly emotionally. Without the warmth and responsiveness they
get out of hand if the rescuer does not see quick results. should be getting, the children grow up feeling that their
Rescuers need the immediate gratification of seeing the needs and feelings are unimportant; they become premature
results of their efforts; otherwise their stress levels quickly caregivers. People from this kind of background find it very
escalate. Even if there are no instant solutions to the pro- difficult to ask for help from others, feeling that to do so is a
blems presented to them, rescuers can feel inadequate if very selfish act. Their unsatisfactory early attachments lead
they don’t quickly provide concrete results. In their haste to to a tendency in later life to try and repair their damaged
be helpful they can compound problems or create new ones sense of self by working through painful childhood experi-
and they can then suffer miseries for having failed to accom- ences that have never been resolved.
plish the unrealistic goals they have set themselves. In the second type of family, the love of the parent or
In many situations, all that people who ask for help really caregiver must be earned. Children growing up in this kind of
want is to be listened to. They do not want to be told what to environment are always striving for approval by meeting their
do. A rescuer who leaps in feet first to find a ‘‘solution’’ parents’ unrealistic expectations. The rigid conscious and
presupposes the existence of a problem that might not unconscious rules laid down with the family leave little room
actually exist. Instead of providing the passive sounding for the child to express his or her individuality: they don’t feel
board the other person needs, they take control of the loved for what they are but for what they do. This early
situation and start planning a course of action that is often experience of parental love being conditional turns the devel-
inappropriate and totally unnecessary. Rescuers have forgot- oping child into an approval addict in adulthood. As adults they
ten that the purpose of helping is to allow others to discover continue to try and live up to their parents’ expectations; they
their own course of action. continue to live by the unspoken rules of childhood.
These people have an intense desire to put right the
WHAT MAKES FOR THE NEED TO PLEASE? perceived wrongs of the past and their striving for perfection
conceals a very real need to be accepted and recognized by
Professionals such as psychoanalysts, clinical psychologists, their peers. Whatever they do, however, it never seems good
and psychiatrists who help people overcome emotional or enough, and they continue to feel inadequate, flawed and
psychological problems for a living know that they have to inferior. People from these two family types learn to believe
recognize the inner forces that motivate them to help others that the only way they can enter a relationships is through
and remain constantly aware of their own emotional needs. self-denial, suffering and sacrifice. They continually suppress
The same applies to anybody who adopts a helping role within and deny their own legitimate needs and replace them with
the working environment: they must acknowledge that their the compulsive need to be useful or helpful to others.
own state of mind will affect the relationship they have with As adults, some of these helpers with such a past are still
others. This doesn’t mean, however, that we all have to be troubled by the ghosts of childhood as these difficult, early
Mentor, helper or rescuer 245

life experiences create distorted assumptions of themselves only contributes to self-destructive or unduly self-sacrificial
and others. Cast in the role of helper in childhood, and with behavior. These rescuers may do more harm than good and
few emotional resources, they may be left with feelings of prevent people who are looking for help discovering salient
guilt for not having helped these ghosts from their past issues on their own. Focusing on the needs and concerns of
adequately. others means they can avoid having to confront their own
emotional issues. Rescuers are seldom in touch with their
Faulty Assumptions own emotions.

What is another aspect in the background of these people is MANAGING THE RESCUER SYNDROME
that rescuers often operate on the basis of a number of faulty
assumptions For example, some of these are: ‘‘I should Nevertheless, if prone to rescuer syndrome, the only way to
always be helpful and try and please others. If not, bad address the problem is to face it squarely. For somebody who
things may happen;’’ ‘‘I should always be happy, and never has spent his or her life in denial as a defense against feelings
show any negative feelings toward others;’’ ‘‘My self-worth of pain, shame, guilt or fear of rejection, facing up to these
depends on what other people think of me;’’ ‘‘Unless I do issues will not be easy. Rescuers can only change their
what other people want, I will be rejected.’’ Frequently, this behavior if they learn to recognize the flaws in their reason-
compulsion to help — to please others — is maintained by the ing and examine some of the assumptions they have about
many ‘‘musts’’ and ‘‘shoulds’’ that linger from childhood. But themselves. For example, simply realizing that the act of
these ‘‘musts’’ and ‘‘shoulds’’ become terrible drivers. These rejecting a request for help does not amount to rejection of
helpers become addicted to other people’s approval, but to the person making that request makes it possible for the
no avail. They never feel pleased with themselves; they rescuer to take control and learn to set boundaries.
never reach their self-imposed standards; and although there During this journey toward change, a number of issues need
is a lot to be said for setting high standards, striving for to be addressed. Helpers need to learn to be more selfish; they
perfection is another matter altogether. It sets people up for need to be nicer to themselves. They need to actualize their
failure. And so people suffering from the Rescuer Syndrome own dreams and aspirations, rather then constantly focusing
enter a self-perpetuating stress cycle. on those of others. They also need to learn how to enjoy
Although the scripts that rescuers followed in early life themselves — not always an easy proposition. Furthermore,
may have been helpful at the time, they become dysfunc- they need to take stock of the kinds of people they are
tional in the present. If rescuers were to look deeper into attracted to. They have to learn to become detached from
their driven behavior, they might discover that they are the toxic people in their lives — people who are emotionally
repeating themes from old, unresolved family dramas. All and physically draining. They also need to reflect on the quality
too frequently, while their heroic actions may take the form of help they can give. Then they should take a serious look at
of slaying their clients’ metaphorical dragons, their real goal the reasons why they feel compelled to want to help a specific
(usually beyond conscious awareness) is slaying the dragons person. If they come to the conclusion that they are once again
from their own past. A deeper analysis of rescuers’ inner doing it for the wrong reasons — that they are entering a
theater may reveal that their choice of people, and that the transferential trap, responding at a deeper level to their own
way they treat them, often repeats (symbolically) the same problems, not those of the person they are dealing with — they
kind of distress that they themselves experienced in child- should not enter into such a relationship.
hood. And ironically, it is often the rescuers who are far more Rescuers will improve their ability to change their default
troubled than the people they deal with. Their scripts have behaviors if they realize that they have been functioning
turned into restrictive liturgies, limiting their sense of free- according to a number of fundamentally flawed assumptions.
dom. They have yet to learn that being ‘‘nice’’ is not a For example, they confuse the act of rejecting a request for
magical formula that provides protection. help with rejection of the person. Often, this fear is exag-
Many of these rescuers have also difficulty getting in touch gerated, however. If sufficient explanation is given, most
with their own emotions. The needs and moods of others are people will accept the logic of such a decision. Finally, when
all that matters. This attunement to others’ needs may go so rescuers realize that they no longer have to heal the whole
far that they no longer know what they really want or need world as they were encouraged to do in childhood — a time
themselves. Sometimes, they don’t even know what to think when they were least capable of doing it — rescuers will be
or feel. No wonder that so many rescuers find it hard to not only more effective, but also much happier.
describe themselves or their feelings. Worse, some of these Tackling rescuer syndrome does not have to mean having
rescuers experience intense stress, feelings of inadequacy, to give up helping or mentoring other people. Nobody actu-
and low self-regard because they persist in looking for ally believes that the urge to help others is anything but a
‘‘redemption’’ by helping others — the old script they follow force for good, so long as it is not allowed to mutate into the
tells them that doing things for other people will guarantee dysfunctional behavior of the rescuer syndrome. Construc-
their love and respect. Instead, they may be setting them- tive helpers can be catalysts in the process of helping people
selves up for use and abuse. solve their own problems, and their role is to encourage
The modus operandi of some of these rescuers is pleasing others to make difficult decisions for themselves. But to be a
other people. But by caring and helping others, at their own constructive helper, the person needs to have the ability to
expense, they risk becoming a caricature of themselves. When think rationally, objectively and dispassionately about other
rescuing others becomes the main driver, there can be people’s problems. And to be able to do that, a helper must
unhealthy consequences for the giver, the receiver, and the have sufficient self-knowledge to know how to prevent their
relationship as a whole. Trying to meet others’ expectations own emotional health affecting those they aim to help.
246 M.F.R. Kets de Vries

Being a Constructive Rescuer Constructive rescuers have the emotional sensitivity to be

glad when others are glad, and sad when they are sad. They
Constructive rescuers are sensitive to the needs of others — are not only capable of insight, understanding, empathy, and
within reason. They realize that their efforts to help should compassion, but are also able to act accordingly without
not come at the cost of their own health and happiness. losing their sense of boundaries.
Constructive rescuers make clear to the people who come to Constructive rescuers also have a considerable tolerance
them for help that they should recognize and accept the for ambiguity. They have what has been called negative
consequences of their own troubled behavior. capability — a state of intentional open-mindedness — the
As constructive rescuers, these executives make it clear to ability to keep the imagination alive without having the urge
the people they are trying to help that they own their own life for closure. They are able to accept uncertainty without
— asking them what they have done to fix their own problems. becoming over-anxious. They value the cognitive complexity
They make others understand that they cannot use them as a and the ambiguity of the human condition. They can suspend
dump for all their emotional garbage. They need to work on disbelief when they encounter puzzling situations. Naturally,
their own problems. Constructive rescuers realize that by this makes the capacity for patience a sine qua non.
creating reciprocity in relationships, they will be more help- Constructive rescuers recognize the power of both con-
ful than putting others in their debt. scious and unconscious processes. This necessitates, to be a
Constructive rescuers act as catalysts in the process of truly effective in a socio-emotional sense, having sufficient
helping people solve their problems. Their role is to encou- self-knowledge and self-discipline to manifest these qualities
rage people in need to face their difficulties honestly. Hand- under stress, and when faced with the almost overwhelming
ing the responsibility for the problem back to the people in temptation to behave differently. These people are hyper-
need, and viewing the problem more objectively — taking aware of how their emotional health affects the quality of
account of transferential processes — encourages the people their work.
they work with to take ownership of their problems, and work
on them to enact change. CONCLUDING COMMENTS
Ideally, effective executives will have the sort of self-
knowledge and objectivity that comes after having acquired
Each of us has their own unique constellation of strengths and
a solid dose of emotional intelligence. Through various activ-
weaknesses. Each of us has a shadow side. Each of us may
ities, they need to have the kind of emotional receptivity that
regress, at times. We all need help — and that includes the
creates self-awareness, reflectivity, and non-defensiveness.
ones that do the helping or mentoring. But it is imperative
‘‘Using themselves as instruments,’’ constructive rescuers
that helpers help themselves before they start to help others.
can recognize major themes in the lives of the people they
As all healing starts in the mind, constructive rescuers are
work with, and, simultaneously, attend to their own
willing to look inside themselves to face their source of their
thoughts, emotions, physiological responses, and behavior
pain in order to become more effective. And they system-
during their interactions with them. This is what social and
atically discuss their own thoughts and needs with someone in
emotional intelligence is all about.
the helping profession (when needed) who will help them see
I would also like to add that constructive rescuers are
what they are unable or unwilling to admit to themselves.
reliable, trustworthy, and discreet — within reason. They are
It is not always easy to take an empathic, tolerant,
respectful of the people they deal with and have a steady
acceptant, compassionate, and realistic view of our own
regard for other people’s autonomy and reality. In their work,
humanness. But being effective as a helper, be it a mentor
they are able to put their own interests and concerns aside in
or otherwise, can be a very challenging proposition. It can be
the presence of others. They like to help others obtain in-
difficult to tolerate not knowing; to be silent with others in a
depth insights about the way they function. While doing this
moment of despair or confusion; to be with others in difficult
kind of helping or mentoring, they have the knack of making
times of grief and bereavement. But effective, helpful
other people shine. They enhance the learning process with
executives are prepared to face these issues and accept
their skill at asking good questions that make others think and
personal vulnerabilities while doing so. What’s more, they
feel challenged and supported rather than criticized. They
understand that the nature of their work, and the stresses
are also prepared to face difficult questions and ready to tell
and challenges it creates in their personal lives, will cause
the truth even if it is not what people would like to hear. But
distress that needs to be addressed proactively. Therefore,
they also time their inventions well, striking when the iron is
constructive rescuers accept that ongoing self-care is needed
cold: Too early and the intervention does not stick; too late
to prevent burnout and impaired professional competence.
and the opportunity has passed. Their openness and frank-
Through self-understanding, executives can raise the
ness, and their ability to recognize and express their own
quality of their relationships with the people they are men-
feelings in the interface with the people they work with,
toring by becoming aware of their own unique attachments
makes these exchanges extremely valuable. And they can be
and aversions. By knowing their own limitations, ensuring
even more effective if they know how to use humor well.
that they have their own support system, they will ensure
Constructive rescuers are also exceptional listeners. Their
that they don’t fall victim to the Rescuer Syndrome.
ability to make the people they work with feel understood
enables them to build an effective relationship with them.
Establishing such bonds necessitates the capacity for empa-
thy, that is, identification with and understanding of
another’s situation, feelings, and motives — the ability to
recognize, perceive and feel directly the emotion of another.
Mentor, helper or rescuer 247


The Altruism Reader (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation explored why people have difficulty recognizing and
Press, 2007) by Thomas Oord provides an excellent anthology acknowledging their own needs. Also, concerning the topic
to better understand the various dimensions of altruistic of ‘‘false connections’’ (due to transference and counter-
behavior. This reader includes key selections pertaining to transference relationships) the book by R.J. Marshall and S.V.
the dynamics of helping (and self-sacrificing behavior) Marshall, The Transference Countertransference Matrix
derived from religious texts, the work of philosophers, ethi- (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988) is very illumi-
cists, anthropologists, sociologists, biologists, evolutionary nating. My book (Manfred Kets de Vries), The Leader on the
psychologists, and neurologists Also, I wrote about the Couch (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006) also includes an
altruistic motive in one of the chapters of my book (Manfred elaborate discussion of this phenomenon.
Kets de Vries) Sex, Money, Happiness, and Death (New York: In answering the question why people want to be in the
Palgrave/MacMillan, 2009). In this text, I explore the ques- rescuing business, I found Sofie Bager-Charleson’s book Why
tion why people transcend the bounds of kinship and self- Therapists Choose to Become Therapists (London: Karnac,
interest to help out of genuine concern for the welfare of 2010) quite helpful. Also, the edited book by Windy Dryden
others. Furthermore, adding to insights about the psycholo- and Lawrence Spurling, On Becoming a Psychotherapist (Lon-
gical makeup of altruists, are the articles by Beth J. Seelig don: Routledge, 1989), and the contribution by Philip J. Flores,
and Lisa S. Rosof, ‘‘Normal and Pathological Altruism,’’ Jour- Addiction as an Attachment Disorder (Lanham, MD: Jason
nal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 2001, 49, Aronson, 2004) provide many insights of why people want to
933—958, and of Nancy McWilliams ‘‘The Psychology of the help. What’s more, these books touch on the stress associated
Altruist,’’ Psychoanalytic Psychology, 1984, 1, 193—213. with rescuing. However, the contributions by Ved Varma,
A considerable amount of literature is available about the Stress in Psychotherapists (London: Taylor & Francis, 2004),
disease to please, or the white knight syndrome. A good Jerry Edelwich and Archie Brodsky, Burn-out: Stages of Dis-
expose of what it takes to become a compulsive rescuer can illusionment in the Helping Professions (New York: Human
be found in the book The White Knight Syndrome (Oakland, Sciences Press, 1980), and E. Lakin Philips, Stress, Health and
CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2009) by Mary C. Lamia, and Psychological Problems in the Major Professions (Washington,
Marilyn J. Krieger. This text deconstructs how people fall into DC: University Press of America, 1983) address this subject
dysfunctional relationship patterns and how others compul- more directly. The same theme is also explored in articles such
sively seek to be rescued. Also, in the book The Disease to as Richard Tillet, ‘‘The Patient within — Psychopathology in the
Please (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001) by Harriet B. Braiker, Helping Professions,’’ Advances in Psychiatric Treatment,
an expose can be found of people who struggle with where, 2003, 9, 272—27, and Amanda Ramirez et al, ‘‘Mental Health
when, and how to draw the line between their own desires of Hospital Consultants: The Effects of Stress and Satisfaction
and the demands of others. These authors explore how the at Work,’’ Lancet, 1996, 347, 724—728.
uncontrollable need for the elusive approval of others can Finally, the articles by Theresa M. O’Halloran and J. M.
turn into an addiction. They examine how by trying so hard to Linton, ‘‘Stress on the Job: Self-care Resources for Counse-
please others, these people end up pleasing no one — includ- lors,’’ Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 2000, 22, 354—
ing themselves. Also recommended is the article by Robert 365, Michael F. O’Connor, ‘‘On the Etiology and Effective
Hale, ‘‘How our Patients Make us Ill,’’ Advances in Psychiatric Management of Professional Distress and Impairment among
Treatment, 1997, 3, 254—258 that provides additional Psychologists,’’ Professional Psychology: Research and Prac-
insights about this dysfunctional behavior pattern. In addi- tice, 2001, 32, 345—350 and Edgar Heim, ‘‘Job Stressors and
tion, in the contribution by Pia Mellody, Facing Codepen- Coping in Health Professions, Psychotherapy and Psychoso-
dence: What it is, Where it comes from, How it Sabotages our matics, 1991, 55, 90—99, include many suggestions of how to
Lives (New York: HarperCollins, 1989) the reasons are deal with the rescuer syndrome.

Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries holds the Raoul de Vitry d’Avaucourt Chair of Leadership Development and
Organizational Change at INSEAD, France, Singapore, and Abu Dhabi. He is also the Distinguished Visiting Professor
of Leadership Development Research at the European Institute of Management and Technology in Berlin. In
addition, he has been the founder of INSEAD’s Global Leadership Center, one of the largest leadership development
centers in the world. He is the author, co-author, or editor of more than 36 books, and more than 350 articles. As an
educator and consultant he has worked in more than 40 countries. He is the chairman of the Kets de Vries Institute
(KDVI), a boutique organizational consulting firm. In addition, Kets de Vries is also a psychoanalyst and a member of
the Canadian Psychoanalytic Society and the International Psychoanalytical Association. The Financial Times, Le
Capital, Wirtschaftswoche, and The Economist have judged Kets de Vries as one of the 50 most influential
management thinkers of the world. He is the recipient of many awards, including two honorary doctorates
(INSEAD, The Business School for the World, Boulevard de Constance — 77305 Fontainebleau Cedex, France.
Tel.: +33 01 60 72 41 55; fax: +33 01 60 72 42; e-mail: manfred.ketsdevries@insead.edu; www.kdvi.com).