When you are engaged in conflict and can’t see your way out of it you often wish that someone would come along and rescue you: a White Knight in Shining Armour. And very often you do find a version of the white knight. This is the Prince in the Princess-Dragon-Prince* framework that was introduced two blog posts ago. It is the Prince who rescues the Princess from the Dragon in our traditional fairy tale stories.
The Prince is perceived by the Princess (the one telling the story of conflict) to be a supportive, possibly neutral third party providing an unbiased perspective. The storyteller is validated when the Princess perspective is acknowledged and confirmed by this neutral third party. When the Prince agrees that the Princess had no choice but to respond the way she did, the Princess can feel justified in adopting behaviour that, under normal circumstances, might be considered inappropriate. The Princess or victim perspective is further supported by this validation.
The danger is that it is easy for the Prince to get caught up in the Princess’ story or worldview and see the conflict solely from the perspective of the Princess. In this way, the acknowledgement comes with emotional emphasis that serves to strengthen the validation. The trap is that the Dragon is rarely ever as horrible as it is made out to be. If the Prince validates the Princess without exploring the Dragon’s side of the story, there is no real rescue and the Princess is likely to become more entrenched in the victim aspect of the story.
Another way the Prince may come to the rescue of the Princess is by stepping into the middle of the situation and solving the problem with the Dragon or by removing either the Princess or the Dragon from the situation. In so doing, the Princess never develops the skills needed to solve the problem on her own or deal effectively with the Dragon or the issues it represents. The Prince is counted on and expected to solve the problem, and the Princess never owns it. The Princess continues to be a victim, helpless and powerless.
It is quite common for the Princess to find a rescuer because the allure for the Prince of coming to the rescue can be strong. The Prince may derive some sense of self-worth or identity from always being able to help. It may be a way that he defines purpose and meaning in his life. There are some people who are best able to be in friendships or other relationships only when they are able to play the rescue role. When everything is going well, they retreat.
There is power in having other people need to rely on you for problem solving. When you solve other people’s problems for them you exercise some control over their lives and you may even shape part of who they are. It is always easier to see other people’s problems than it is to see our own or what we bring to a situation and it is therefore easier to provide solutions to someone else. In accepting this kind of help, the Princess stays helpless and the Prince gains power.
Business or personal coaches, counsellors, consultants and health care providers may be particularly prone to the allure of the role of rescuer. These professions all work with individuals to help them change aspects of their lives. There is a fine line between helping someone solve their own problems and rescuing them. If a client or patient becomes dependent on you, you are an enabler for the Princess or victim and her continued victimization. It should be incumbent on a professional in these roles to make themselves redundant as their client learns to take control of their own life.
As a professional providing assistance it is always a good idea to question your own motives and your role in assisting your client or patient. You can always be asking yourself what it is you gain from intervening in the problem. As a friend, colleague or family member of the Princess, you may also want to consider your response to those questions, especially if you frequently find yourself in the middle of someone else’s conflict. It is meeting a need within you. If you unearth the need, you may find a better way to meet it or perhaps you may change or grow beyond it. You learn to define or know yourself beyond the rescue role.
As you learn to extricate yourself from the middle of other people’s problems you may find your friendships or your work relationships shifting and changing. As you understand what motivated your need to intervene, you may find yourself more frustrated and less satisfied with the nature of those friendships because the needs they met are either met in other ways or no longer exist. Those people may still be stuck in the need to be rescued. If they are stuck in that need, then they are usually stuck in the problem that generated the need and make no progress on the issue.
In my university days I volunteered for the Help Line. We responded to a whole range of calls from immediate crisis to ongoing needs for support. One summer I had a job that took me on the road and so wasn’t able to volunteer for about 3 months. After a 3 month break, I was astonished to notice how many of the regular callers were still calling with exactly the same problems and issues they had had 3 months ago. They weren’t interested in moving on. They were looking for a rescuer but they weren’t really interested in solving the problem. I moved on.
The most effective rescue roles are those where we help people learn how to become their own Prince and rescue themselves. This doesn’t hold the same allure for many rescuers because you allow people to discover things for themselves instead of supplying them with your own solutions. However, the benefit to the Princess is that the solutions are more personally relevant and they are longer lasting.
When you find yourself in the role of the Prince, consider the allure for you and the motivation for being in the role so you don’t inadvertently turn yourself into a different kind of Princess – someone who always has other people’s problems dumped on you.
* While the Princess is referred to “she”, the Prince “he” and the Dragon “it”, all of these roles are played by both men and women.