The Rescue Game – Disempowerment 101

February 10, 2009 by  
Filed under Food for Thought

The other day, while writing about compassion, I stumbled into another fascinating subject:  rescue.   Many times when we feel compassion for someone, we want to jump right in and help.  But this is not what is compassion is all about.  It is, however, what Rescue is about.

Most of us feel that rescuing someone is a good thing to do.  However, there are times when we think we are helping another and actually, we are not.  This situation leads to conflict because we are confirming for them that they are stuck with being disempowered and cannot take their own power back.

When we rescue someone, we take full responsibility for that person’s life and well-being in that moment or situation.  We assume that the individual is incapable of making decisions for themselves.  We believe that we know what is best for that person, and that the individual doesn’t know what is best for herself.

There are very real situations in which rescuing someone is necessary.   The types of situations in which a rescue is an appropriate response are actually rather few and specific.  Someone who is lying unconscious on the floor and cannot help themselves needs rescuing.  An infant who cannot care for itself and cannot communicate what it needs or wants needs rescuing.  Someone buried under an avalanche or trapped in a burning building or experiencing some other physical disaster is clearly in need of rescuing.

But in our more ordinary daily living, we sometimes try to rescue conscious, fully-functioning individuals who are quite capable of caring for themselves.  Instead they may be in the habit of giving away their power to others by creating situations in which they appear to be needy or helpless.   This invites others to jump in and “fix” the situation.

The person who appears helpless but really isn’t helpless is called a Victim.  

A Victim is someone who refuses to take responsibility for one or more situations in their own life.  They blame everyone else for what’s making them unhappy or creating obstacles in their lives.  Victims look to others to fix their problems – to save them – when they are actually quite capable of doing it themselves.

A Victim may not actually ask for help, but a Victim is seeking someone to jump in and take care of them and whatever situation is currently “the problem.”  This person feels disempowered, but instead of saying, “I want to take my power back and fix my situation,” they are saying, “I am helpless and the situation is hopeless, so I want someone else to take responsibility for me and for it.”

A Rescuer is someone who jumps in to save the Victim.  A Rescuer thinks she has the best of intentions, but by agreeing to fix the problem for the Victim, the Rescuer is agreeing that the Victim is “helpless and hopeless.”  When the Rescuer decides to “save” the Victim, the Rescuer is not empowering the Victim to take charge of his or her own life and situation.

So now there are two players in this game, both of whom are in agreement that the basic assumption, disempowerment of the Victim, is an unalterable fact.  They also agree that the Victim does not have to reclaim his power in order to change his life or situation.

If you’ve ever been the Rescuer in this type of situation, you might already know what happens next.  What happens nearly every time is that the Victim decides that the Rescuer isn’t rescuing the way the Victim wants to be rescued or that the result of the rescue is somehow “wrong” or inadequate.  As soon as the Victim decides this, the Victim transforms into something else – a Persecutor.

A Persecutor is someone who blames a Rescuer for “doing it wrong.”  Of course, by definition, the Rescuer can’t possibly do it “right”, since doing it “right” would restore personal power back to the Victim, who doesn’t really want it.

So the former Victim, now the Persecutor, starts to “beat up” on the Rescuer, who is transformed into a new Victim who is now feeling betrayed and angry.  The Persecutor may use physical violence, but more often uses verbal negativity and verbal abuse against the new Victim. 

This often leaves the former Rescuer, now Victim, it a state of surprise and anger.  “I thought I was helping you.  I thought I was doing what you wanted.  Why can’t you show me some appreciation?” cries the new Victim.

Both parties who play this Rescue Game (first described in detail in Games People Play: The Handbook of Transactional Analysis, by Eric Berne) end up dissatisfied.   The basic problem, disempowerment, remains unresolved.  In my experience this happens because neither individual recognizes that we cannot give someone back their own personal power – they have to be willing to take it back and they have to take it back themselves.

We can assist another in taking back their power, but we cannot give it to them because it isn’t ours to give.  If someone is unwilling to take back their power, we can only feel compassion for them, but we must allow each individual to make his or her own choices.

We can model empowerment by taking back our own power.  This will give us more satisfaction in our own lives.   It will also put the energy of re-empowerment into the group Consciousness of Humanity.  It will demonstrate that taking back personal power IS possible. 

That is the very best we can do.  That is all we are meant to do.  Trying to do anything more will get us caught up in the Rescue Game.


p.s.  Eric Berne’s book, Games People Play, and other books on Transactional Analysis are available at