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  • Robert Schwebel, Ph.D.

Help Without Hurting

Updated: Feb 17, 2021

Posted October 13, 2020 on

Sometimes backing off means being terribly scared and uncomfortable, knowing the risk that bad things might happen, but believing it is the only possible way things might change.

Ideally, our message should be: “You can do it. Work hard and I’ll back you up, all the way.” Photo 141618735 © Anan Sudsaithong | When problems from drug use begin to mount, such as relapses, lost jobs, school suspensions, neglect of responsibilities, DUIs, etc., friends and family members sometimes provide certain types of help that can actually be harmful. That’s right, they harm their loved ones by bailing them out or doing too much at times when these folks would be better served by learning from the consequences of their behavior and standing up on their own.

For example, after binges or serious relapses, friends and family members often make excuses and try to clean up the mess. When this happens, they unwittingly teach powerlessness.

You don’t have to think about what happened or make an effort to change. I’ll take care of it. You can keep doing what you’ve been doing, and everything will be ok.

They also deprive people of an opportunity to learn from the experience; to figure out what was happening before the relapse, how they responded to the circumstances, and what consequences resulted from their use of drugs.

Less obvious but equally damaging are subtle meta-messages that undermine self-confidence and manufacture dependence:

You can’t handle this. You really need me to step in. (You don’t have to grow up or take responsibility for your life.)

Sometimes, it’s important to back off and allow a person room to grow. Of course, there is a fine line because we definitely want to be kind, supportive, and give help generously. We certainly don’t want regrets, as in, “I wish I had done more.”

On the other hand, we can end up saving people who don’t need to be saved; people who would be better served by investing more of their own effort and depending on their own initiative, with less help from loved ones.

Saving people who don’t need to be saved is called a “rescue.” It should be distinguished from times when we save people who actually need to be saved, like throwing a life preserver or diving into the water to save someone who is drowning, or giving first aid at the scene of an automobile crash.

The key to help without rescuing is to ensure that people with a problem want to make changes and are willing to do their part. We can provide support and match their efforts, but not be a “fixer” who does it all. And, we should be willing to back off when the people we are helping are not making a full-blown effort to do their part.

Guiding Principles for Avoiding Drug Problem Rescues

  1. Find out if the person with a drug problem is sincere and committed to working on the problem. (Not lip service or oft-repeated promises).

  2. Find out what the person plans to do differently in the future. Get specifics.

  3. Ask if the person wants help and if so, how you could be helpful.

  4. Be clear that you are not trying to fix the problem yourself. You are providing back up.

  5. Watch to see that your effort is matched. Never do more than half the work.

  6. Watch that change is occurring. If not, discuss what further measures loved ones need to take so that your combined efforts can bring results.

  7. Be willing to back off in a kindly way, without negative judgment.

Model Statement for Backing Off

If nothing is improving, your help is of no value. It’s best to back off and open a dialogue. You don’t want to discourage the person with a drug problem, but also don’t want to fail to notice the reality of the situation. You can make a statement about the lack of progress without blame or any negative judgment. You can show your love and enduring desire to help. Before backing off, make sure you have allowed time for the change to take hold. However, if you wait too long, you will probably end up angry and alienate yourself from the person you want to help. Timing is important.

Here is an example of a model statement for avoiding a rescue when the person you are helping is not making changes.

I’m doing (or “I have been doing” or “I have done”) what you asked. But it doesn’t seem that things are getting better. I think you may need to invest more energy or find a different strategy. There’s no point in me continuing to help until you have revised your plans. I love you (or “really care about you”) and remain ready to help when you update your approach to this problem.

Signs You Might be Rescuing

  1. You feel like you’re saving someone from themselves

  2. You keep giving help and nothing is changing

  3. You feel angry when you are trying to be helpful

  4. The same problems keep recurring

Difficult and Unpleasant Choices

People with serious drug problems often face exceedingly difficult and disastrous circumstances that make it hard to distinguish between help that is urgently needed (a legitimate rescue) or simply a harmful rescue that will reinforce powerlessness. For example, we may have loved ones who are about to lose their job or need transportation to maintain employment or could lose custody of a child or find themselves homeless, living under a bridge. Caring people will have an urge to jump in. Sometimes we must. These are painful and unpleasant choices with no simple answers. At these times, we have to ask ourselves: What sort of rescue is this? What will happen if I don’t step in? What are the consequences? If I do step in, would it be disempowering? Would I be resentful? Am I fostering dependence? Has the same problem been happening over and over again?

Sometimes backing off means being terribly scared and uncomfortable, knowing the risk that bad things might happen, but believing it is the best choice and the only possible way things might change. It’s never easy.

Help and “Help”

Avoiding harmful rescues is an act of love. You want to help people when it can improve their lives, but avoid providing “help” that disempowers them, promotes dependency, and allows problems to persist. Ideally, our message should be: “You can do it. Work hard and I’ll back you up, all the way.”


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