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unsaddle your whiote horse

Have you ever had the experience of hearing the little voice in your head tell you to walk away from a situation you know is or will be fraught with difficulties, but you don’t listen?

Every once in a while, no matter how far I’ve come or how much I’ve learned, I still find myself taking on a project that I know I should walk away from. And every time I don’t pay attention to the loud wail of my early warning system and get involved anyway, I end up thrown from my big, white horse.  The culprit?  Dysfunctional Rescuing Syndrome (a term I just made up).

Dysfunctional Rescuing Syndrome is not specific to web designers.  It can and does happen in any profession and in any relationship.  In psychology circles, it’s referred to as the rescue triangle or drama triangle.

Dysfunctional rescuing usually follows this pattern:

  1. There’s a compelling person (the victim) who wants or needs something.
  2. Along comes a rescuer who knows they can help the compelling person and wants to feel good about themselves for helping. However, the rescuer doesn’t set limits around what they’re willing to do or not do before getting involved with the compelling person.

There are two common ways for this situation to get out of control.

First, the compelling person likes the outcome the rescuer produced and now wants more. He/she needs the rescuer to continue to take care of their problem; right about this same time, the rescuer realizes that they have set up a costly, dependent situation.

As the situation progresses unaddressed, the rescuer starts feeling like the victim.

Another scenario.

The compelling person (the victim) didn’t get what they expected and feels entitled to get more from the rescuer. The victim blames the rescuer for letting them down and doing a lousy job. When the rescuer finally does set boundaries, the formerly compelling person can turn mean and ungrateful – which is exactly what happened to me.

Last year, I offered to build a website for a woman starting her own business as a hairstylist. The fee I agreed to looked a lot like pro bono’s first cousin (a fraction of our going rate). Our agreement was that we would create a text-based logo for her business and spend ten hours building a simple website. She paid me a small deposit of  $350 and agreed to send me content and five stock photos of hairstyles we could use on the site before meeting with us to get started on her website design.

When the client arrived for the meeting, she showed up without her images and very little content for her site –  the first red flag.  It turns out, the client – a hairstylist – didn’t own a computer – a second red flag. I should have turned her back right then and there. But, since she was already at my office, I ignored this and forged ahead spending a few of the hours we had allocated to building her website, looking for images and getting content from her. Thankfully, we had already created a logo, which she liked and approved.

Before she left, we discussed the look and feel of the website design. The client had design ideas from the nineties. She wanted  a website with a black background. We explained the problems with having a website with a dark background. It wouldn’t look good with her images, the text would be hard to read, and a site with a dark background would take longer to design. She said she understood, but this is what came back to bite me.

Just wanting to get this project over with, I spent an entire Sunday creating her website. Everyone at New Tricks thought it looked great. I was looking forward to showing the client her new site. When I showed it to her, she thought for a minute and then complained that it wasn’t elegant. I asked her what she meant by that, and, she circled back to her desire for a dark background.

I spent an hour and a half on the phone with her making changes to the site to try and make her happy, and the entire time she never had one appreciative or encouraging word. It became apparent to me that she wanted a website design from the nineties and the problem was two-fold, the theme was not set up for a dark background, and she didn’t pay for a custom design.

At that point, I told her that I realized this tweaking wasn’t going to make her happy with the website. It was apparent that she wanted a dark background and that was not I had built nor was it what we had agreed to.

Willing to cut my loss, I told her that she now had a logo, but we wouldn’t continue with the site. We wouldn’t bill her the remainder of her fee for the hours we’d already spent on phone calls, meetings or the design and development of her website.

Most people in this situation would have seen the fairness in my offer and run with it. Of course, that’s not what happened. She now became outright nasty, wanting me to refund the $350 deposit as “no logo was worth $350”.

The woman I had tried to help, had switched from the victim role to play the persecutor role. Although I wished to extricate myself from the situation gracefully with an offer I thought was generous, that didn’t happen. I found myself changing from the rescuer role to become the victim, as she dealt the final blow by going on Yelp and leaving a bad review.

I didn’t want to get into a battle with her on Yelp or anywhere else. I’d already seen her dark side, and upon checking into it, I saw that all of her Yelp reviews were nasty. I knew to cut my losses and move on.

A month after this happened, one of the women I mentor found herself dealing with a similar situation. She was getting ready to have an attorney write a cease-and-desist letter to her victim turned persecutor.

I explained to her that no one would pay attention to the crazy ranting her client was doing and that continuing to add fuel to the fire with a person in that situation, incites them more.

I told her my story and advised her to let go of the fight since when she did this woman would likely run out of juice and move on to something else.

Hopefully, recounting this experience will serve two purposes. First, it will help me remember to pay attention to those big red flags and second, help you avoid getting yourself into similar situations.

And so, before you think about saddling up your own white horse, or staying in the saddle way too long, here are a few tips:

  1. Consider your pro-bono work wisely. Think the project through and be very deliberate about choosing to take on a client – or not.
  2. Treat your pro-bono work as if it were a paid gig. Create a detailed proposal that sets clear boundaries and limits your liability and, availability.
  3. If you didn’t set boundaries at the onset, as soon as you realize there’s a problem, have an honest conversation fess up to the part you played in creating the problem; then, follow up by setting boundaries and setting a date to wrap up the project. Hopefully, it won’t get worse.
  4. If it does get worse, don’t become a victim and don’t continue to engage with someone who’s switched to the role of persecutor. Do whatever it takes to cut your losses.

Most decent people like helping others and being of service where we can. That said, sometimes you just don’t know who you’re dealing with until you start dealing with them. My short list of caveats above can go a long way towards helping you avoid an uncomfortable situation in the first place and what to do if you happen to find yourself in one anyway.

Have you ever fallen into the Dysfunctional Rescuing Syndrome? Do tell in the comments.

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Showing 25 comments
  • Kellie
    Reply

    Oh my… excellent advice!

    • Judi Knight
      Reply

      I almost didn’t write this post. I am glad I did. Sounds like it is a familiar issue for everyone.

      • MarGO Geller
        Reply

        Dysfunctional Rescuing gets me in the butt in my business and in my personal life too. Great advice whether you are in biz or not.

  • Rose
    Reply

    Nice summary! I know many will be quite relieved to know that this response to someone else’s problem has a name. My examples are too numerous to list here, but boundaries are such a critical element of any solution. Reminds me of ‘put your own air mask on first….’ A couple of observations I can contribute: some of the warning signs listed are only made clear (to me) after the dysfunctional rescue is underway; and only the rescuer is aware of the true cost. Coming in on a white horse might make the rescue look a lot easier / more streamlined than it is. I think it’s important to be helpful, but we owe it to ourselves and those around us to know, respect and communicate our own boundaries. Well done Judi!

    • Judi Knight
      Reply

      Rose, those boundary issues are tricky because they are not clear cut at first. I think what I said to Lyn in the comment above about these situations having a big part of ego and the other part feeling sorry for them since I really know that no other person in their right mind would agree to do this. What I need to be aware of is that combo is the danger and pay attention to the no one in their right mind part. Not my circus, not my monkeys.

  • Debra Fowler
    Reply

    Such a familiar and frustrating situation – Love the “White Horse!” That will help me so much in realizing this dysfunctional rescuing impulse in the future!! Thanks!! Great blog!!

    • Judi Knight
      Reply

      Check out Kathy’s comment. I love that. Not my circus, not my monkeys.

  • Kathy Drewien
    Reply

    Repeat after me, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.”
    Image: http://www.familytreecounseling.com/marksblog/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/monkeys-3.jpg

    • Judi Knight
      Reply

      Not my circus, not my monkeys. Not my circus, not my monkeys.Not my circus, not my monkeys.Not my circus, not my monkeys.Not my circus, not my monkeys. Thanks Kathy, I needed that!

  • aj
    Reply

    This happens in all levels of software development. At big companies the sales team over promises since they don’t really understand the technical requirements and then either the costs run out of control or dev company loses big. This is whay fixed price bidding is dangerous game if you are doing work with a new client or doing something you haven’t done at least 10 times before.
    In this case perhaps you wanted to please this client (are you a pleaser personality like me? ) and maybe take on a new project that would push your own boundaries so you can expand your skills on the client’s dime.

    Most of the time #2 is really what is going on since we small shops always end up with the clients with tiny budgets. Most client’s dreams exceed their budgets and if we like them we try to make it happen for them. Ultimately its a lose/lose and everyone walks away disappointed. I like to “learn” on my own sites and I say “NO” much more than I used to. A lot more than I used to.

    • Judi Knight
      Reply

      I just want to help;-(

      • MarGO Geller
        Reply

        My ideal profiles help me to say no, as well as my qualifying questions. Still find it hard many times to hold firm on my fees.

  • lyn
    Reply

    Judi, I commend your brilliance on “discovering” and labeling this. Anyone who has ever been caught up in this syndrome (me) will get it immediately. I have a thought to add: while we often undertake the rescuing to be a Good Samaritan or because we know the person/company well, or because we think we can help (all good intentions), I’d suggest that perhaps a bit of ego (sometimes) is also involved. We’ve been asked to solve a problem and we think we can – and loved being asked! This is just great insight to evaluate the request a bit more clearly before saying “Yes” to everything!

    • Judi Knight
      Reply

      Oh yes Lyn, there is a lot of hubris in thinking only I can solve it for them. But in actuality, what is probably true is that I may be the only one willing to spend enormous amounts of the capital of my life, to do something that others wouldn’t even consider.

  • Marilyn
    Reply

    There’s two sides to that ego coin. Yes, the puffed up side says, “I’m the only person who can solve this for them.” The deflated ego side gets hooked with the fear of, “I need the work.” The truth is, there’s more work out there to be had and it’s better to spend the effort to find the client who isn’t so dysfunctional. OR, as you say, put very clear boundaries on the parameters of the work.

    • Judi Knight
      Reply

      For me in these cases it is knowing that they won’t find anyone to do it for their budget and not taking into account that I should not either. I get hooked by the rescue. Then, I don’t get compensated properly for that project and it stops me from being able to get other work done where I am compensated well. Double bad.

  • Kate
    Reply

    Yes, I have found myself on that white horse a few times for individuals. Thought I had cured myself and then recently found I had done the same thing for a very disorganized organization. Next thing I knew I was being touted for the next association President. Yikes! I have managed to extricate myself just recently and I am feeling I have had a lucky escape. Time now to focus on what I need.

    • Judi Knight
      Reply

      Yeah, it is a bitch when you think you are not going to do it again and there you are up to your neck.

  • Melody-Rose Parker
    Reply

    Judi, great post. It’s sometimes hard to acknowledge that we are conditioned to connect being a “good person” with rescuing people, organizations, and circumstances, in general. How many times have you heard, “_______ is a good _______ member. He/she always lends a hand when no one else will.” So, there’s a reward for over-rescuing and a tendency to feel bad about one’s boundaries when the situation really warrants a “No, that’s not possible with your budget on that timeline.” The level of conditioning we have always amazes me, because eople who are authentic and have strong boundaries are judged so harshly. Congratulations for sharing your experience with such candor.

  • Paul Latta
    Reply

    Judy,
    Great post. I especially like the arrow points. My dysfunction is offering help to others when it takes me away from getting my own work done.

    I’m going to get a tattoo on the back of my hand which says: “Remember the power of NO”

  • Melanie Adcock
    Reply

    One of the most important lessons I have learned is the power of “No”. Sometimes you have to grit your teeth and find the nice way to say it. “We aren’t going to be a good fit”, “I don’t think we should do __________ (insert crazy idea) and here is why”, to even more blunt responses when you can’t get them to go away. “No, I the reason I am not going to build a website that you designed in Word because I don’t build hideous websites”. This is a great reminder that the money isn’t worth the aggravation that some prospective clients bring. Some of us have the luxury of saying no. The beginning freelancer can protect themselves from the rabid client by building high fences to contain their crazy.

    • Judi Knight
      Reply

      Amen! I let a client go once by telling her that I was trying so hard to make her happy and that no matter what I did it wasn’t enough and she let me know in a mean way. I said I wonder if you act that way to other people who try and produce for you? She said I don’t work with many vendors. I told this single middle-aged woman, “I’m not talking about vendors. Shut her right up.

      • Karen Cleveland
        Reply

        You go girl!

  • Karen Cleveland
    Reply

    Add me to the list of Dysfunctional Rescuing Syndrome sufferers!

    I’m getting better at recognizing the victims who complain. It’s the ones who don’t even seem to know they need help that are my undoing!

    I hope I remember your cautionary tale before I become entangled with a persecutor in victim’s clothing who won’t be painlessly dislodged!

    Perhaps checking out a person’s Yelp review history might reveal how they deal with disappointment – but of course we never think they’re going to be disappointed with US! lol

  • Judi Knight
    Reply

    Thank, Karen! Such a recurring lesson. Alison was the other recent sufferer:-(

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