You’ve probably seen it several times (maybe you even were guilty of it):
- Going the “extra mile” for individual students;
- Wanting everyone to know the sacrifices you’re making so students can succeed;
- Putting extra long hours over tasks that are, quite frankly, not that important;
- Passing up days off;
- Basking in the praise you receive for being a team player;
- Being unable to say “no” when a student leader asks for something just as you are leaving the office;
- And more . . .oh so much more.
There are several careers within Student Affairs that lend themselves so easily to this kind of effort. Immediately, Student Activities and Residence Life come to mind, but this can also be true in other fields with extraordinarily high levels of student contact. Like many of you, I entered the field of Student Affairs specifically to help students in the way that I was helped during my college years: to be a resource, a guide, and a mentor to students. But it wasn’t until graduate school where my program director really made it clear that professional boundaries within student affairs can be summed up in one simple goal: not doing for students what they are otherwise capable of doing themselves. This idea really resonated with me, because I had spent a great deal of time in my graduate assistantship in Multicultural Services trying to distinguish myself to my mentors and internship coordinators. I would often come in early, leave later, and make sure that no matter what a student needed, or when they needed it, I was going to be their “go-to”. They knew there was nothing I wouldn’t do for them and felt great knowing I had made a difference in the lives of a student. But what later would emerge as a pattern is that I was spending nearly all of my free time doing work-related tasks. I simply did not want to let anyone down, especially students because subconsciously, I thought, “they NEED me. Without me, they would be lost.” Of course, they weren’t. In fact, they never truly needed ME. What they needed was someone to point them in the right direction, but let them take it from there. What I thought was helping behaviors, was really behaviors that were boosting my own sense of worth, because when I was working with them, I felt knowledgeable, superior, and competent. Without them, there could be no “me” in this relationship, so I did everything I could to sustain this type of relationship with students, thus putting in the long hours in order to feel the “rush” that comes with helping others. You’ve probably seen this referred to as the “Drama Triangle” or the “Rescue Triangle”, a phrase that was widely credited to Stephen Karpman.
Very quickly and in layman’s terms for Student Affairs practitioners:
- The helper may believe him/herself to “rescuing” those they see as needing assistance (a.k.a “the victim”)
- The helper becomes a “rescuer” if he/she comes to view the student as a “victim” if the “one-down” relationship needs to exist for there to any type of relationship at all.
- The rescuer’s sense of self-esteem or worth comes from reinforcing the one-down relationship. This is usually visible when the rescuer essentially becomes responsible for more than 50% of the “victim’s” success.
- The Rescuer may also become the “persecutor”, who is resentful that the victim is not taking responsibility for their own success.
- The Victim, tired of maintain their powerless status in this relationship becomes resentful of this dynamic and becomes the “persecutor” of the rescuer, who ironically becomes the new “victim”, who lacks power or status in the mind of the student.
- Sometimes, the rescuer (who is now a victim), continues to find people to “help” in order to maintain their power status.
There is considerably more to this, so to learn more, please visit http://www.karpmandramatriangle.com/. Students are smart, and become suspicious when the people they admire and respect appear to be helping only because it appears to fill a need somehow: a need to feel respected, a need to be admired, a need to feel valued. Ultimately, this type of relationship fills a very basic need to be needed. But the effect on students is a lack of trust that occurs when students question the motivations behind your helping behaviors, which can damage your own professional credibility, as well as create a barrier between the student and your department. So if you’re in a rescue triangle, how do you break free? Here’s some tips:
- Unplug. There seems to be no consensus about the use of social media, but it doesn’t mean you have to constantly see the news feeds of the students who have friended you on Facebook or followed you on Twitter. Yes, Facebook can help students feel connected to someone at the institution, but you can easily hide their feeds. This can prevent becoming too invested in the lives of students.
- Seek social outlets away from your work. It is important to develop a social network that (gasp) doesn’t know or care what you do for a living. Jobs and students come and go. Your relationships with people in your communities will not nearly be as transient and provide a sense of perspective about how life is lived beyond academia.
- Permit students to succeed . . . without you. Students won’t be able to find out what they’re capable of if they aren’t given the opportunity. Maybe you’ve told yourself that students can’t possibly hold an off-campus informal meeting without you, but have you ever given them the chance? Somehow, they self-organized before college; I’m sure they can do it again.
- Seek professional development and networking opportunities. Committing to your development, on your own time, provides you with the support and guidance of a professional community. Lean on them for your sense of direction and worth. Attend a conference or a training, in order to fully understand the value of your work, without relying solely on the opinion of students.
Student Affairs, at its best, is a helping profession. As professionals, we are at our best when the students we serve grown and develop as a result of our work. However, knowing when to let go of your support is just as much a developmental task for students as it is for those in the field and is particularly important for those prone to rescuing behaviors.
> BONUS <
Podcast With Darcy Kemp on Advising Student Groups