Stepping Out of the Dysfunctional Rescuer Role in the Voice Studio

In Karpman’s Drama Triangle model, dysfunctional relationships often involve people taking on one of three roles at any particular moment: the Persecutor, the Rescuer, or the Victim. (Victim in this case does not mean an actual victim, but someone who feels or acts like one.) People do shift between the roles with each other, but there is often one role that they occupy most of the time.

The Rescuer Role

The Rescuer Role is created when someone agrees to engage with a Persecutor or a Victim in the Drama Triangle.

Both the Persecutor and the Victim have difficulty taking personal responsibility for their lives and want someone to take action on their behalf. That someone is the Rescuer, who agrees to take responsibility instead.

The Victim communicates, “Poor me,” feeling powerless and helpless to take action. The Rescuer jumps in to provide whatever the Victim feels powerless to do or create for themselves, believing this will somehow empower them to take next steps. Unfortunately, it generally has the opposite effect of showing the Victim that they are still powerless and need the Rescuer in order to change.

The Persecutor communicates, “It’s all your fault,” blaming others and manipulating them to get what they want with rigid rules, shaming, and guilting. The Rescuer takes on the responsibility of whatever the Persecutor is blaming them for and takes action in an attempt to solve the Persecutor’s problem and “keep peace.” Rescuing the Persecutor only enables them to continue believing that controlling other people creates change in their lives.

The Rescuer communicates, “Let me help you.” They do a lot of helping, enabling, caretaking, peacekeeping, problem solving, fixing, taking on others’ responsibilities, under-prioritizing their own needs, and being prone to guilt and obligation manipulation. They often blame themselves (and receive blame) for things that are not their responsibility. They generally believe they earn their worth and stay safe through these behaviors.

When a Rescuer’s help isn’t received in the way they want, they may angrily move into the role of the Persecutor, shaming and blaming the ungrateful recipient of their help for not actually changing or taking action. Or, the Rescuer can shift into the Victim role, exhausted and burned-out from being under-appreciated and taking responsibility for everything.

The Rescuer is the key to keeping the Drama Triangle active. As long as the Rescuer rescues, the Victim and the Persecutor will stay in their roles. When the Rescuer refuses to Rescue, the Victim and Persecutor either find another Rescuer or begin to take personal responsibility.

The Rescuer is the key to keeping the Drama Triangle active. As long as the Rescuer rescues, the Victim and the Persecutor will stay in their roles. When the Rescuer refuses to Rescue, the Victim and Persecutor either find another Rescuer or begin to take personal responsibility.

Rescuers Often Choose Helping Careers (like Teaching and Coaching)

Many Rescuers are drawn to helping careers: teaching, nursing, coaching, etc. It’s no wonder. They’ve had a lot of practice helping people. Humans tend to subconsciously repeat their childhoods in adulthood until they make conscious changes to those patterns.

There’s nothing wrong with people asking for help. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to provide help. Helping careers are necessary and beautiful.

But if we’re going to run a psychologically healthy voice studio that avoids falling into the Drama Triangle, it’s important to examine whether we’re taking on a dysfunctional Rescuer role or whether we’re engaging in healthy helping behavior.

If we’re going to run a psychologically healthy voice studio that avoids falling into the Drama Triangle, it’s important to examine whether we’re taking on a dysfunctional Rescuer role or whether we’re engaging in healthy helping behavior.

Breaking the Inferior/Superior Game

According to therapist Margalis Fjelstad, “All of [the Drama Triangle] roles require one person to be superior, right, good, and better than the other person, while the other person has to be inferior, wrong, bad, and worse.”

For the Rescuer, this often looks like feeling superior because people are dependent on them. The Rescuer feels they can and should fix or improve people and situations, which implies that they believe they know better and are more capable than others.

Coaching someone towards change does not mean we’re fixing or improving someone. That usually implies we’re seeing them as lesser than in some way. It’s important that we see them as whole and able from the get-go. As Coach Doug Silsbee said, “The coach infuses energy into the process by providing evidence of the client’s inherent wholeness and ability to make a difference.”

Also, knowing more information about a particular topic doesn’t mean we know better than our student about how they should take action. Our students are the ultimate authority on how and when they take action, regardless of how we feel about their choices and the consequences of them. We detach from how, when, and why they choose to take action. Our way is not the best way.

And having more skill and/or experience doesn’t mean we’re more capable than our student. A teacher’s job is to believe our students are capable, and to help them believe that about themselves as much as possible.

As Fjelstad says, “Breaking the Inferior/Superior Game means you will see yourself and the [Victim/Persecutor] as unique individuals with your own different strengths and abilities, weaknesses, and lack of skills without seeing either of you as better or worse than the other, completely without the judgment of right or wrong.”

Moving from Rescuing into Empowering

Our students come to us because they want help. They have a goal they want to reach, and they want a change in their knowledge, skill, habits, and perspective in order to get there. So how do we help without rescuing?

According to David Emerald, “The key difference between a Rescuer and a coach is that the coach sees the creator as capable of making choices and of solving their own problems. A coach asks questions that enable the creator to see the possibilities for positive action, and to focus on what they do want instead of what they don’t want.”

Our role is to empower our students to be self-generative. Presence-Based Coach Doug Silsbee defined self-generation as “taking personal responsibility for developing one’s own capabilities.”

Enabling Helplessness vs. Building Capacity

Many students and clients come to us in a helpless state. They believe we know better and are more capable than them, or that we should fix or improve them.

We can refuse to feed into this thinking. In hundreds of different ways, we continually and compassionately hand the power of choice and action back to the student.

Many students and clients come to us because they believe we know better and are more capable than them, or that we should fix or improve them. We can refuse to feed into this thinking. In hundreds of different ways, we continually and compassionately hand the power of choice and action back to the student.

But what do we do when a student literally has no idea what to choose or how to take action? When this happens, I love using Silsbee’s Three Levels of the Guide from The Mindful Coach.

Guide Level 1

Guide Level 1 is when we coach the student to create their own action plan. In the voice studio, this might look like guiding the student through questions that help them create their own practice plan, choose their own song, decide what part of the song to work on and how, or to create their own vocal exercise.

Don’t be surprised if your inner Rescuer voice tells you you’re not earning your money as a teacher unless you tell the client exactly what to do or come up with all of the ideas yourself. This is the superior/inferior game at work, feeding your ego’s need to know better than the student, to have the student be dependent on you, to have all of the answers, or to earn your worth by being the Fixer and Helper.

Don’t be surprised if your inner Rescuer voice tells you you’re not earning your money as a teacher unless you tell the client exactly what to do or come up with all of the ideas yourself.

Giving the student every opportunity to create their own solution builds their self-generative capacity and decreases their helplessness.

We use Guide Level 1 whenever we can.

Guide Level 2

We move to Guide Level 2 if the student feels stuck at Level 1.

Guide Level 2 is when we suggest options. This can look like saying, “Well some people do this, other people do this, and then some other people do this. What do you think of those options? Are there other options coming to mind after hearing those options? What action would you like to take based on these thoughts?”

Sometimes hearing options at Level 2 sends the student back to Level 1 where they realize they actually have a really great idea and want to implement it.

Be mindful of any wounded ego moments your Rescuer may have if the student doesn’t use one of your ideas. Remember, if they reject all options and move themselves back to Level 1 with their own idea, this is wonderful! They are being self-generative and refusing helplessness.

If the singer has some anxiety and/or trauma responses around freedom of choice, they may need reassurance from you that there is no wrong answer, and that you have no personal investment in their choice (see the post on manipulation in the studio for more). We help them understand that the most important thing is for them to make a choice that moves them from not doing into doing. They need to know you don’t care how or when they get to their goals. You’re just there to help them get there in the way that works best for them. It may take time for a narcissistically abused person to trust that you’re not going to psychologically punish them for making autonomous choices that are purely for their benefit.

Guide Level 3

Guide Level 3 is when we provide a student with a specific directive. “Do this.”

Level 3 is the most prescriptive of the levels, which also makes it the most likely to subconsciously include the teacher’s personal bias and agenda. We use it only when truly necessary.

Level 3 is what someone in the Victim role will want us to use most often. It’s also where we will feel most useful as a Rescuer, which means it’s also where we have to be most mindful of our motives. Am I being prescriptive right now because it feeds my ego? Or because my student truly needs this?

Am I being prescriptive right now because it feeds my ego in this moment? Or am I being prescriptive right now because my student truly cannot create an action for themselves or choose from options?

Level 3 Guidance is also where a Victim may return when they occasionally shift into the blame state of the Persecutor, which can happen when an action they took doesn’t pan out the way they wanted. The same inner child who is afraid to make a choice is the one who will also say “but you told me to do that” when a choice doesn’t pan out and they’re scared they’ll be abandoned as a result.

Now, to be clear, building capacity doesn’t mean that a singer should eventually do every single piece of their creative life by themselves. No one can do it all. But people who are stuck in helplessness often struggle to get to the place where they even realize this is true. They look at the amount of things that need to happen to complete their creative project and start to shut down and go into freeze mode. They get stuck precisely because they don’t look into other resources to help them complete tasks, which often includes asking and hiring people to do certain tasks in order to give their art more time and space.

Enabling Blame vs. Building Personal Responsibility

When singers get stuck in blame, they ruminate on the ways that something outside of their control put obstacles in their path or diverted them from their original plan, and struggle to see their role in the situation.

Again, as stated before, we’re not talking about actual victims in this article. I’m in no way advocating for victim blaming.

Instead, we’re talking about situations where someone is struggling to see and acknowledge the hard truth that they alone are responsible for reaching their goals, and they have to stop blaming others for their lack of personal responsibility.

This may look like a student who has been to 12 different teachers and won’t consider that their lack of practice is the primary reason they aren’t improving. They blame the teachers for not having the right technique or approach. In this scenario, rescuing could include never addressing the practice issue. It could also include feeding the singer’s belief that there were actually 12 terrible teachers and that you alone will rescue them from their terrible lesson experiences.

You could instead build personal responsibility from the get-go by asking deeper interview questions that encourage them to think about all of the reasons they are not improving. You can dodge a bullet if you see that they refuse to consider their responsibility as a reason.

Being stuck in blaming could also look like a student who comes back each week with reasons why your practice plan made it impossible to practice. In this scenario, rescuing would look like continuing to offer practice plan adjustments (Guide Level 3).

Instead, you can guide the student through coming up with a practice plan that they would be more likely to follow through with (using Guide Level 1 and/or 2) and then compassionately (no superior/inferior game) holding them accountable for the actions they did or didn’t take with that plan.

Remember that Rescuers take responsibility quickly. They’re the first to ask, “How can I do this better?” This is great when it’s for things that are actually their responsibility. For teachers, that often looks like trying a better technique or learning how to communicate more clearly or revising policies. Being willing to consider our role in a dynamic is a wonderful and healthy practice.

Taking responsibility is toxic when it’s for things that are the responsibility of the student.

We need to continually remind the student that only they can truly get themselves where they want to go, and while it’s healthy and cathartic to get mad and frustrated when difficulties and obstacles arise, particularly when other people are involved, the only way forward is to believe that we have the power and responsibility to take action again and again after each obstacle and detour. Our job is not to protect our students from all discomfort and difficulty, but rather to show them that they are capable of handling whatever discomfort and difficulty will come their way.

Our job is not to protect our students from all discomfort and difficulty, but rather to show them that they are capable of handling whatever discomfort and difficulty will come their way.

I find that the practice of building personal responsibility in a student can be particularly difficult for Rescuers who are working with a student and/or parent who regularly uses the blame tactics of the Persecutor role. When Rescuers have unresolved childhood wounds in this realm, blame can trigger dysregulating shame spirals that make Rescuers particularly vulnerable to doubting themselves and having trouble seeing where the lines of responsibility actually are. I highly recommend working with a therapist who specializes in narcissistic abuse and trauma responses to help untangle that confusion.

Conclusion

As you consider your Rescuer tendencies, remember:

  • Your students most need to build their ability to self-generate: to take personal responsibility for developing their own capabilities.
  • Continually hand choice and power back to your students.
  • You are worthy of love because you exist. Not because you help others.

What are your thoughts on the Rescuer role in the Drama Triangle? Leave them in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Stepping Out of the Dysfunctional Rescuer Role in the Voice Studio

  1. Wow Jess. This is truly life changing information. Thanks for this blog post. I’m now going to read everything else you’ve ever written!

    Like

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