Why Highly Sensitive Introverts Become ‘Rescuers’ — And How to Stop

A highly sensitive introvert tries to rescue someone

As highly sensitive introverts, our natural compassion pulls us to want to help others — sometimes to our own detriment.

It’s a story known all too well: Someone is suffering and obviously needs help. Enter: the “Rescuer” — being kind-hearted, and not wanting anyone to suffer, they swoop in to help the struggling person. The Rescuer puts all of their time, energy, and resources into saving them. 

Yet, despite the Rescuer’s best efforts, this person still struggles. So the Rescuer continues to give all they can — because maybe if they could just give a little bit more, that would finally be enough to save the person. 

Eventually, however, the Rescuer has given so much of their resources that they are completely depleted. Meanwhile, the other person remains suffering.

Does this story sound familiar? Perhaps you have lived it — you are the Rescuer. You have tried (likely on multiple occasions) to help someone in need, only to end up struggling yourself. 

As a psychotherapist, I am here to tell you that it is not your fault and that you are not alone. Indeed, many of my clients have experienced this dynamic to some degree. It occurs more often for those of us who identify as both introverts and highly sensitive people (HSPs). And as a highly sensitive introvert myself, I, too, resonate with this. 

Why Highly Sensitive Introverts are More Vulnerable to Being the Rescuer 

Although anyone can become the Rescuer, highly sensitive introverts are more likely to take on this role for a few reasons. 

For one, empathy is a significant part of our inherent nature as highly sensitive introverts. We are not only strongly moved when we witness the suffering of others, but we can actually feel their despair. 

Our natural compassion also pulls us to want to help others. While this is a beautiful quality (frankly, I wish that we had more of this in our world!), if left unchecked, we cross that thin line from helping into rescuing. Unlike with simply helping, rescuing entails taking on personal responsibility for the other person’s well-being, often neglecting your own well-being in the process.

What’s more, the highly sensitive introvert’s high levels of empathy can make them into a target, attracting people who take advantage of them. These people will prey on highly sensitive introverts’ kindness in order to get what they want out of the relationship, all while playing the victim, i.e., expecting to be rescued. 

This may look like someone who is always conveniently “forgetting” their wallet and inviting you to pay (but never paying you back), someone who constantly asks for favors without considering your needs, or someone who is always going through a rough time and can never catch a break (they’re like “energy vampires” — they then dump their emotional turmoil onto you and do not provide you with the same space and emotional support).

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Society, Too, Encourages People to Step Into the ‘Rescuer’ Role

Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that society encourages us to step into the role of the Rescuer. For example, one of my favorite books and movies during my teen years was A Walk to Remember, which romanticizes the idea of rescuing another person. 

For those unfamiliar with the plot, the story centers around Jamie, a pastor’s daughter, who is kind, but comes off to others as naive. Although not explicitly stated, Jamie is most likely a highly sensitive introvert, or at the very least, she exhibits many of these qualities (e.g., being very empathetic, enjoying spending time alone, etc.). 

“Bad boy” Landon has to spend time with Jamie at the school play as a consequence for his rebellious actions. And wouldn’t you know it… they fall in love. Well, actually, it’s more like Jamie rescues Landon from his bad boy ways, changes him into a completely different person, and then they fall in love. 

The message my introverted, highly sensitive teen self took home from the story was: It’s romantic to rescue others.

A Walk to Remember is far from the only story with this take-home message. However, stories such as these do not portray the reality of rescuing others. They make the assumption that everyone wants to be rescued — after all, Landon was so thankful that Jamie came into his life! Where would he be without her “saving” love? 

The truth is, though, that not everyone wants to be rescued. In fact, many people want to simply be. Neither do such stories portray how much time and energy goes into being the Rescuer. In A Walk to Remember, for example, all Jamie had to do to rescue Landon was to show up and be herself. But as anyone who has ever tried to rescue someone can tell you, it takes a lot of work, most often resulting in exhaustion and even burnout

Further, these stories exclude how the person being rescued can still continue to struggle. Most people’s problems are complicated enough that one person cannot effectively save them, which is why healing takes time and is not a linear process. But these stories portray rescuing as fairly straightforward, perhaps with one or two hiccups along the way to drive the plot along, but relatively uncomplicated otherwise. Real people with real problems are much more complex; hence, struggling is an ongoing process. 

Finally, these stories praise the self-sacrificing that is needed to rescue others. So for highly sensitive introverts, who are already prone to selflessness due to our compassionate nature, the idea that others have a right to our time, energy, and generosity is reinforced, boundaries (and our own well-being) be damned.

So even if falling into the Rescuer role seems to come naturally to your highly sensitive, introverted self, here are five ways to stop playing the role once and for all.   

5 Ways Highly Sensitive Introverts Can Stop Being the ‘Rescuer’

1. Define your role within your relationships.

It can be surprisingly easy to get swept into the role of the Rescuer, even if it wasn’t our intention. As mentioned earlier, this is especially true for highly sensitive introverts, given our high levels of compassion. 

Many of us associate being kind with self-sacrificing and giving all we have to the other person. However, kindness does not have to equate to rescuing others. In order to act kindly without slipping into rescuing, clearly define your role within your relationships

For example, perhaps your role is to support those you care about — you provide emotional assistance, lend a listening ear, validate, be the shoulder they cry on, and offer help in sustainable ways. 

Or, perhaps your role is that of the accountability buddy — you are there to check on, and hold, someone accountable for behaviors that they are trying to change. 

Yet the difference between the aforementioned examples and the role of the Rescuer is that being the Rescuer entails being responsible for the well-being of others, a responsibility that is not yours to bear. 

It also may help to reflect on questions such as: What can I do to help others without sacrificing my own needs and well-being? How can I support them without taking on responsibility that isn’t mine?

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2. Set (and stick to) clear boundaries.

Boundaries can be tricky to navigate, especially for introverts, as well as for highly sensitive people. So when you’re a highly sensitive introvert, it’s a double whammy when it comes to boundary-setting.

After all, doing so means risking disappointing others, something that often feels out of alignment with our values. On top of that, I imagine that the vast majority of us weren’t taught how to set boundaries, and may have even been praised for our lack of them. 

Yet boundaries are essential for protecting our energy and sensitive nervous system. Boundaries aren’t selfish because they allow us to take care of ourselves in the ways that we need, preventing burnout and promoting longevity. This means that we will ultimately be able to continue acting in alignment with our values of kindness and compassion rather than succumbing to resentment. 

What’s more, boundaries can be an act of kindness — they are a way of letting people know what is and isn’t acceptable in the treatment of others. They also give the message that we are worth taking care of, and may inspire others to do the same. 

So start by identifying your boundaries by asking yourself: When helping others, how do I know that I’m giving away too much of myself? How do I know when others are taking advantage of my generosity? How can I tell when I am approaching burnout? What acts of self-care do I need in order to function and thrive? 

Once you have identified your boundaries, it is equally important to stick to them, upholding them in the ways you need to. Otherwise, what good is setting a boundary if it isn’t going to be implemented? 

3. Put yourself into the other person’s shoes.

This may seem counterintuitive, given that you are likely rescuing others because of your consideration for them, but stick with me here. Despite your good intentions, acting as the Rescuer can come off to others as you believing you know more than they do about their own experience. This feels condescending and infantilizing, like they do not know how to take care of themselves.

In my experience, I feel frustrated and annoyed when I want to process a problem with others and they jump in with unsolicited advice. Even though I know this is not their intention, the message I hear is: “I have the answers, I know more than you do, I can fix this.”

However, more often than not, people don’t want others to fix their problems — they just want to be heard so they can feel more emotionally stable in addressing their problems. Likewise, many of my psychotherapy clients have expressed similar grievances in their relationships: They inform me how they want their friends to listen, support, and validate them rather than telling them what to do or try to fix the problem. 

By dropping straight into Rescuer mode, you are robbing this person of the opportunity to implement their own wisdom and to learn important life lessons along the way. 

So put yourself in the other person’s shoes before jumping in. Everyone is on their own journey, and that’s okay. You don’t have to get them to their destination — oftentimes, all they’re looking for is for someone to walk alongside them. 

4. Channel your values into other endeavors.

Being conscientious about not rescuing others doesn’t mean abandoning your values of compassion and kindness. Indeed, these are wonderful values that are greatly needed in this world! Yet there are plenty of other ways to channel these values into more productive endeavors.

For instance, you may be so passionate about helping others that you enter into a caring profession, such as psychotherapy, social work, medicine, nursing, teaching, working for a nonprofit, etc. This way, you know that you are making a positive contribution while also having a clearly-defined role and boundaries. 

Or, you may want to volunteer your time to a cause that is meaningful to you, or donate your finances or other resources to help further that cause. 

Finally, I believe one of the only times when it is truly appropriate to rescue another is by adopting a rescue animal. Having a pet entails being responsible for another being anyways. And, as the ever-popular “Who rescued who?” bumper sticker suggests, caring for a pet can be incredibly emotionally rewarding, given how loving animals are. Plus, both introverts and HSPs have a special connection to animals.  

5. Work through any toxic messages you may be holding onto. 

We have all been subjected to toxic messages that no longer serve us; however, these messages have been more strongly ingrained in some of us more than others. There’s a chance that some of these messages could be contributing to your desire to rescue others. 

For example, maybe you have internalized the belief that your worth comes from your ability to save others. Perhaps you were assigned the role of the Rescuer for those in your life before you even could consent to be in this role. 

But I want to remind you that your worth is inherent. You do not need to prove your worth by “saving” others, nor do you need to stay in a role that you did not consent to (or that no longer serves you). 

If these are messages you have been struggling with, I encourage you to find a therapist whom you trust to help you unlearn such beliefs and find your value in who you are as a person. At the very least, please give yourself that same compassion that you so readily give to others

My fellow highly sensitive introvert, I want to leave you with this: Please remember that you are a wonderful person who has inherent worth. You don’t need to “rescue” anyone to be deserving. Let your kindness shine through — and, most important, don’t forget to be kind to yourself.

Want to learn more about being a highly sensitive person? Check out Introvert, Dear Founder Jenn Granneman’s new book, Sensitive.

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