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:
- There’s a compelling person (the victim) who wants or needs something.
- 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.
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:
- Consider your pro-bono work wisely. Think the project through and be very deliberate about choosing to take on a client – or not.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.