The Rescuer Complex

The idea of a complex rests on the refutation of monolithic ideas of personality.  When we think about complexes we are acknowledging that we have many selves.  In Carl Jung’s psychology, we all have complexes, autonomous entities within the psyche.  Jung asserted that these complexes behave like independent beings.

A complex is a collection of ideas and images clustered around an archetype and it is characterised by a characteristic emotional tone.  When a complex is activated, we may behave in usual ways.  Our complexes will be triggered by particular things. 

When the rescuer complex is activated

Unless we have developed and raised our self-awareness we remain unaware of the complex that is driving our responses.  We act like puppets being operated by invisible forces. In psychotherapy and counselling it is possible to identify and learn more about the nature of the complexes that grip us.

We may not be able to eliminate these things but we can learn to live with them better.

In this blog, I am focussing on the complex that is triggered by realising that someone near to us needs help.

It’s no bad thing to want to help or rescue someone who is in need.  It is most normally a helpful thing, but if the desire to rescue runs away with you, if you typically spend your time on the watch for people that you can rescue, then you may have a problem.

The challenge is in trying to take yourself and your own problems seriously when you are so drawn to help and rescue other people. 

You can’t change another person, you might be able to change yourself.

It was Carl Jung who identified the nature of complexes

Where Freud had focussed upon one particular complex, the Oedipus complex, Jung saw the potential for developing complex theory further. It was possible for an individual to have a range of different complexes.

A rescuer complex indicates someone who is compelled to spot vulnerable people and try to rescue them. It creates a difficult basis for relationships in which the rescuer puts themselves and their own needs to one side as they focus on the work of rescuing the victim.

Rescuer complex or co-dependency

Sometimes this pattern of relating is described as co-dependency.  In co-dependent relationships, one partner works to rescue and look after the other partner.

This may sound like a reasonable way of relating but in fact, it sets up dynamics that can easily become destructive.

If you are in the grip of a rescue complex then you will derive satisfaction from the act of helping the other person, you will find yourself compelled to put the other person first this can have bad effects on you and your life and may do very little for the other person.

The other more vulnerable person is likely to become more dependent upon you and your ways of looking after them so they become less independent and less capable of looking after themselves independently.

In turn you become more attuned to putting the other person first which in the longer term has a negative effect upon your life.  Someone with a rescuer complex is likely to feel good about themselves when they are putting other people first. 

The Addiction of the Rescuer Complex

The sense of positive feedback that is derived from the act of rescuing other people becomes irresistible.  The rescuer becomes hooked on it, like an addict seeking out their next fix.  But like other addictions, the effect on the rescuer is to become burnt out.  The rescuer may be unaware that their own life is going downhill.  They can’t understand why they are feeling depleted because they are apparently doing so much that appears to be good and helpful.  What can possibly be going wrong?

The rescuer comes to expect the person they have saved to be grateful to them.

A rescuer complex is also referred to as a saviour complex. 

I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you….

Bryan Mills, Taken

If we think in terms of archetypes, another Jungian term that describes potential models of behaving and relating, I think it might be helpful to distinguish between two archetypes; the rescuer and the good Samaritan.

The Rescuer and the Good Samaritan

While the rescuer is characterised by a call to be heroic, to put the other person first, to do good while sacrificing themselves, the good Samaritan is different. 

The good Samaritan identifies someone who needs help, acts in a way that improves the situation of the vulnerable person, but they act appropriately.  They do things that help others without putting themselves in peril, without creating more problems.

Leopold Bloom, Ulysses – a good Samaritan

This was one of the mainsprings behind James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, in which Leopold Bloom saves Stephen Dedalus from danger but does so in an appropriately caring way.  Bloom doesn’t compromise himself.  In the novel, both characters are enriched by the act of kindness. 

This might be a helpful model.  Instead of being compelled to rescue, to leap into action without a thought for what that might mean for us, we behave with care both for the other person and ourselves.

Imagine you find someone who has fallen into quicksand, they are sinking and need help.  Before throwing yourself into the sand, you take care to make sure you are attached to something that will keep you safe.  In that way, the act of helping the other person does not harm you.

The rescuer tends not to behave like this.  They sacrifice themselves to do good for the other person but as they do so they become weaker.  Relationships that are built upon a model of rescuing tend to have a toxic quality to them.  The rescuer requires that the partner always needs to be rescued.  It isn’t a model of relationship in which both parties can develop, become healthy, live to their potential.  It is the opposite.  It always requires the other person to need help.

If you grew up in a family that was built along these lines, if your parents related to each other in this way, you will probably have to find a way of adjusting your own relationship compass.  But how will you do that?

Psychotherapy and the Rescuer Complex

Psychotherapy provides a confidential place in which you can explore these less well-functioning sides of your character. Don’t be Brian Mills, be Leopold Bloom instead.

Contact me

Having the chance to speak in a confidential setting is key to developing a genuine sense of personal freedom, to neutralising the power of your rescuer complex.

Out of this, you may be able to develop a clearer understanding of how your problems have developed, and of what you can do to change the way your life develops.

I have been working with people on issues such like this for twenty years.  My work is built around helping you to develop greater insight into who you are, and how you live. 

Contact me to arrange a free telephone consultation to discuss how my approach might help you.

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