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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

Are you a rescuer? (careers and power series)

Ever wondered how far you should compromise in relationships whether at home or at work? Should you take on that project/task to avoid trouble or are you giving too much of yourself?

I was travelling in a group including longstanding friends last week and I was reminded of the roles we take on by default in order to get along and avoid tension…

The same happens at work and if you’re a doctor or professional with a service ethic you’ll tend to take on the role of rescuer. This is appropriate in emergency situations…

However, if this is your day-to-day modus operandi, it can be a sign of the identity sometimes called “needless-wantless” i.e. you’re fine, you don’t need anything other than to do your job well and make sure everyone else is happy.

(see the video for ten signs you may be a rescuer)


If you grew up with a “needless – wantless” tendency and were rewarded for it through your education and profession, you may have a hard time connecting with your deepest goals, desires and aspirations. You may even experience a constant low-level tension, especially when you’re around other people.

In fact, if you’ve tended to put others first, it’s likely your road to freedom and fulfilment involves learning to acknowledge your own needs, particularly the need to be seen and accepted in your weakest moments. Sometimes, it will help to reconnect with a creative, messy side that has been suppressed to be able to express yourself and articulate forgotten needs…

Legend in the making: M, a talented trauma surgeon, was facing extreme pressure from the job juggling dual clinical training, academic demands and family responsibilities. She had to sacrifice her creativity and single-mindedness to tow the organisational line which was making her unhappy. We worked together to help her reconnect and accept her true aspirations as well as navigate the implications of breaking rank where appropriate. This helped her reignite her self-confidence and inspiration. I appreciate her courage as I know how difficult it is asserting your autonomy, creativity and individuality in a hierarchical organisation that provides your livelihood. She was able to successfully apply for an exciting fellowship with the Helicopter Emergency Medical Services which will undoubtedly open up career opportunities within and outside the NHS. Most importantly she feels in the flow of life again.


It’s not that giving and focusing on service to others is a problem, but doing so blindly, out of sense of compulsive rescuing is unhealthy. For one it creates a power dynamic in which others are cast as helpless victims.

Often the rescuer identity developed as a survival strategy in early life in exchange for belonging and connection. There’s a difference between giving as a survival strategy and giving out of a sense of personal abundance knowing that you are OK no matter what.

Receiving and giving are part of the same cycle – it’s the flow of life. Contrast this with giving without receiving which is depleting and leads to compassion fatigue i.e. running on empty and a sense of tension, contraction and brittleness. This ultimately blocks the flow of life.

So it’s important for you to receive what you need in order to give.


The most powerful two questions I know on the transformational road for anyone who has a needless-wantless/rescuer identity are:

  1. What do I feel?

  2. What do I need?

Research shows that naming your feelings can take the intensity out of them and help you recover mental clarity.

If you’re struggling with balancing competing demands and unable to find a way out, can you allow yourself some space to pause and ask yourself these two questions? Be completely honest with yourself and reflect the answers back to yourself.

Even if you can’t meet those needs immediately, you’ll feel more at peace and next steps will become more obvious. Until next week, Amina ANNOUNCEMENT I’ve been invited back to the Strategy Café held by leadership consultancy Alembic. The first interview was on “Self-Leadership: Barriers and Doubt” where I talk about overcoming fear and confusion in a career transition. Replay here

This time I’ll be part of a panel for the “Beach Edition” webinar. We’ll be talking about themes and priorities to inspire success in work and business in the coming months. Grab an ice-cream or frappe and come along.

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