Elizabeth was a long-tenured senior officer at a commercial bank. She had a high sense of responsibility. Most of her time was spent fixing problems created by others both at work and in her family, leaving no time for herself. Friends stopped inviting her to get-togethers as she said “no” many times. The irony is that despite helping others, her relationships with her family (her adult siblings) and colleagues were also pretty strained.
Ben, a high-achieving retired physician in his early seventies, volunteered for a cause close to his heart. After a while, he realized that instead of fulfillment, he felt guilty and overwhelmed most of the time. The sense of “I am not doing enough” and “I am letting others down” had been bugging him. Even asking for time off from this volunteer role made him feel guilty.
Being of service is a very core human need. It gives a sense of belonging and fulfillment and makes the world better. The problem is when it takes an unhealthy dose, like in Ben and Elizabeth’s case.
After finishing school, I had great jobs and eventually had a family of my own. However, when I fairly and squarely earned the right to be called a successful professional woman, I realized it was too much work! And even though I could perform those well, it produced an endless series of hurdles without much of a sustaining fulfillment. I was getting depleted, I felt disappointed, and I started to question my competence!
Where Did We Get Such Unrealistic Expectations Of Us?
There is much to blame on the husting culture, especially in the corporate world. We revere those who are there to fix when others fall short.
According to the article, Performance Punishment: The Reason You May Be Losing Your Best People:
Humans innately want to be great. Our drive for status – a need to be seen by others as capable, worthy, or impactful – is so fundamental to human survival that the brain releases feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin when we get a status boost so that we keep coming back for more. In fact, those brain candy rewards are so sweet that we work harder to get them again and again.
I found another explanation from the book, The Power of TED. It described the Problem Drama Triangle and the role of a rescuer who thrives by being a savior. The rescuer is driven by the victim’s misery and feels the urge to fix the problem for the victim. Rescuers find their purpose in life by “being there” and “saving the world” – they fear abandonment if they are not helpful.
And my favorite Dr. Brene Brown said it the best:
“When we spend a lifetime trying to distance ourselves from the parts of our lives that don’t fit with who we think we’re supposed to be, we stand outside of our story and hustle for our worthiness by constantly performing, perfecting, pleasing, and proving.”
What Is A Healthy Way To Help Others Thrive?
As an executive coach, I see rescuer tendencies in many high-performing individuals. Unfortunately, it is not easy to change our rescuer and hustle-for-worthiness mindset. But, as Dr. Brene Brown describes, Wholehearted living could be the best antidote to those tendencies.
Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.
The Power of TED book described the empowerment dynamic, where we can see others as whole, capable and creative individuals who don’t need our rescuing. Instead, we can take the role of a coach to support them as appropriate.
These models take months, if not years, to practice and change our internal stories. But once people commit to the inner development journey, they can turn their hyper-responsibility into collaborative energy that helps everyone, including themselves, thrive.