Most of us are probably familiar with the stereotypical image of the caring, nurturing obese person who likes to give advice to those around them.
There is a term for people who invest a lot of time and energy in responding to the needs and wants of others, often at the expense of themselves. Psychologists often refer to them as ‘rescuers’.
Rescuers are typically found in the caring professions. They might be a therapist, childminder, midwife, teacher or nurse – someone whose own natural tendency to help others translates into their work.
The link between the rescuer personality and obesity is more tenuous, though there is certainly plenty of anecdotal evidence.
We know that there are around 700,000 obese workers in the NHS, which is potentially embarrassing for an industry created to prioritise the country’s health. But the character traits of rescuers and a deeper understanding of what shapes them in childhood have been studied.
While rescuers might seem kind, selfless creatures, their behaviour can sometimes become problematic. In some cases they may be perceived as controlling and overwhelming. Plus, when their help and advice is rejected, conflict can erupt and feelings of being snubbed or slighted.
Psychotherapist Noel McDermott says: “The health and caring professions attract a lot of people who come from difficult or dysfunctional childhoods. They are often playing out the patterns or relationships they learned in their childhoods – particularly if they remain unconscious of those patterns.
“This sort of behaviour is generally frowned on in the health and caring professions during training and supervision, and individuals are asked to maintain professional boundaries. But that’s not to say it doesn’t happen – often in some cases.”
Rescuers and obesity
The question still remains, why is it so many overweight and obese people seems to be rescuers?
Noel says it all comes down to the role food plays in filling the emptiness of unmet needs and wants which form the narrative for so many rescuers:
“Food can become a substitute or an additional crutch to the rescuing behaviours that are now so often frowned upon in caring professions. Many rescuers will not countenance for example using drugs or drink to excess but are unaware that their eating might be serving the same purpose.
“Another perceived benefit from overeating is to keep others away in the sense of intimacy. In general we understand that obesity acts as a ‘desexualising’ strategy which is desired (often unconsciously) those who have an impaired sense of self.
“Often the rescuer will avoid intimacy as it was manipulated, abused and shamed growing up. It’s too painful to approach so it’s easier to keep people away.
“If you want to tackle rescuing behaviour then it’s important to first recognise it and then look at ways of challenging it. I’d really encourage people to consider therapy if they feel it’s significantly impacting their lives.”