The Trap of Over-Rescuing Animals: Saying ‘No’ When Your Heart Says Yes

Delilah, a mostly-blind dog the author rescued from her chain

Most in the animal rescue movement are here because they have a strong love for animals, and a desire to take action on their behalf—this action usually manifesting itself as fostering or adopting.

Sometimes, though, somewhere along the way, an inability to say “No” paired with deep subconscious psychological drives can get a rescuer into trouble…ending with a spiraling disaster and a filthy home full of animals that aren’t getting the care they need and the living situation they deserve.

There’s no doubt that rescuing FEELS GOOD. When I used to pull a dog off a chain, there was no greater joy than having the power to bring him/her FREEDOM. None.

Delilah took to life after chaining like a duck to water

And watching that very same dog, inside of a week, curl up on the couch or a dog bed inside like he/she’d been doing it his/her whole life? Truly PRICELESS.

Yet I soon recognized there was a limit to the number of dogs I could handle, and my personal upper limit was six. When I exceeded that number (which happened more often than I care to remember), not only would all hell usually break loose in my home, but I would feel so psychologically overburdened that I had a hard time putting one foot in front of the other.

While I understand that we are all different, and one person’s tolerance level for filling their home with animals is higher than another’s, it’s crucial that you ascertain what your level is and find a way to stick to your maximum. If you don’t, you’re doing no one any favors, most certainly not the animals you’ve committed to.

From Foster Doggie Insanity: Tips & Tales to Keep your Kool as a Doggie Foster Parent:

Foster Doggie Insanity

Foster Doggie Insanity: Tips & Tales to Keep your Kool as a Doggie Foster Parent

But, even IF you said YES to every single dog that came your way looking for a foster home, trust me, you’d do it forever and never be done.

One year Dogs Deserve Better tried to do just that. We were saying YES to every dog we could handle (or THOUGHT we could handle), and they were coming in droves. We spent over $100,000 in vet care, but nothing stemmed the flow.

Instead, we succeeded in making ourselves miserable and destroying our area rep program by letting in irresponsible people who only made us look bad. It was a brutal lesson.

So you have to find some boundaries for yourself. If being Super-Saving-Dog-Woman will not make it go away, then why are you killing yourself? Because trust me, for the naysayers and the never-ending line of dogs in trouble, it will never be enough, no matter what you do…

I swear to you, if I knew for a fact that if we each fostered five additional dogs this year that the rescue crisis would be over, I’d be the first to say “Let’s do it!”

I could suck it up for another year.

But it won’t. The need will stay the same as long as our addiction to being needed remains in place…never-ending.

So now you, theoretically, have a house full of dogs and you’re miserable. You feel like you have no life of your own, no happiness, everything revolves around the needs of these dogs and getting through each day caring for them.

The need to feel needed, to feel important, to fill the gaping hole in our gut or our heart is psychological, and many of us come into this world with it or we develop it early in life due to our environmental stressors.

Some people fill the hole with shopping, some with sex. Some with food.

Some of us fill ours with rescue. (And then maybe shopping, sex, and food.) My subconscious belief has been that rescuing the next critter will somehow save my soul, make me feel good about myself, earn me a spot in heaven. I don’t wish to speak for you, but I suspect I’m not alone in this.

Soon it’s just another mouth to feed, another dog to train, another needy soul sucking your life energy away. There’s no time for you, because—guess what—you planned it that way; you planned, subconsciously, to fill your life with taking care of others so you didn’t have to think about what would REALLY make you happy.

But you’re not happy. And though you’re overwhelmed and giving 200%, there’s still just as much need out there as ever. You’re putting your finger in a tiny dam hole; sooner or later it overflows the top or bursts the entire structure.

The crucial problem with using animals to fill your love tank and meet underlying emotional needs is that each one is a LIVING BEING with needs of his/her own, needs that YOU must fulfill. Yet, the more you take on, the less you are able to fulfill the needs of each animal, and the more you are weighed down by the never-ending burden.

Denial of the ongoing issues can quickly spiral to a state of emergency, one where animals are dying and a hoarding situation has developed.

Please, don’t let this happen to yourself AND the animals you set out to help. If you see yourself in some of the patterns discussed above, take a look at these five possibilities for underlying emotional issues, and make an honest evaluation of yourself and your own needs with regards to rescuing animals.

1. I am taking in too many animals in order to fulfill an emotional need.

Let’s be honest, most of us had a less than idyllic childhood. But for many in the animal rescue movement, our childhoods were fraught with animal abuse and neglect. Maybe of us lived with chained or penned dogs, saw or participated in animal deaths, and suffered physical or emotional abuse in the home environment. If you bear a love for animals deep in your soul, any of these possibilities can throw you into a frenzied attempt to make up for childhood pain surrounding animals by diving headfirst into a prolonged burst of animal rescue that’s bound to go haywire if the pace isn’t slowed and realizations aren’t embraced.

2. I have a need to be seen as a savior.

From Savior Complex Anyone? (and switching out “people” for “animals” is on me) a savior complex is defined as the following:

The savior complex is a psychological construct which makes a person feel the need to save animals. This person has a strong tendency to seek animals who desperately need help and to assist them, often sacrificing their own needs for these animals.

There are many sides to a savior complex and it has many roots. One of its fundamental roots, in my experience, consists in a limiting belief the savior person has that goes something like this:

“If I always help animals in need, I will get OTHER PEOPLE’S love and approval, and have a happy life.”

This is, of course, a nice sounding fairytale…

On top of this, always putting rescued animals’ needs first makes a savior not take care of their own needs. So while they may feel happy because they are helping others, at some level, they feel bitter and frustrated at the same time.

When I took a good, healthy look at my own rescuing habits, I had to admit I had a dose of savior complex at work within myself. Odds are good you do, too, because I doubt too many of us would rescue animals without this underlying drive pushing us to act. However, once you recognize the savior complex within yourself, you can take steps to understand where the need comes from and put your rescue efforts into safe limits that allows you time to nurture yourself, too.

3. I was made to feel bad about myself as a child.

The need to be seen as “good” vs. “bad” most likely stems from a childhood in which you’ve been told over and over—in ways both verbal and non-verbal—that you are a bad person.

For those who’ve grown up with a parent exhibiting an extreme personality disorder such as narcissism, they will have been pummeled from an early age with cues that tell them they are worthless—yet all the while their inner soul screams that they are ARE worthwhile. Hence many of their actions in adulthood are subconsciously based on proving this worth.

For those sensitive souls who bear a love for animals, this kind of childhood trauma can bring with it a desire to prove you are good by rescuing those in need. As long as this desire and the actions to fulfill it are kept within the realm of manageable, rescue work can indeed be a way of bringing yourself some much-needed sense of self-worth and self-esteem.

It’s only when the desire blows out of proportion that hoarding can take over and deep trauma is again inflicted on both the person doing the hoarding and the animals she seeks to help.

4. I feel too guilty if I say “No.”

Guilt is a powerful motivator, and the very real possibility exists that an animal could suffer and die if you aren’t the one to take him/her into your home. When you have a need to be seen as Super-Saving-Dog-Woman, any time you say “No” and someone criticizes you for it, it will cut you to the depths of your soul.

But if you’re overwhelmed, it’s time to say “No.” Yes, there is always a temporary wave of guilt, but in the end it’s better because you’re not putting yourself last anymore. And guess what? Without scapegoats to pile all the work on, others will start to step up and do their share. We must stop enabling them by swooping in and causing ourselves further harm.

5. If I say “No” and the animal dies, it’s all my fault.

This is really the crux of the issue, and the last thing you want as an animal lover is to bear the emotional responsibility for animal deaths, even if you didn’t physically cause it. But you simply have to give yourself the gift of not carrying all the blame if you are full and can’t take anymore. If you’re doing your share as an active rescuer, you’re DOING YOUR VERY BEST. Did you breed the animal and cause him/her to be thrown into the shelter? No! Did you have room and said no just to be spiteful? No!

If you are full, stay off social media sites where you are pummeled with requests for help until you have room to take in one more. Like an alcoholic avoiding the bars, don’t go to where you are most tempted to put yourself and your animals in a position of overreach.

In the end, each of us must come to a realization for ourselves that we are not Super-Saving-Dog-Women (and Men.) We are simply humans doing our best, and as such we have limits and needs of our own to attend to. When you are able to reach this point, you have indeed made considerable progress on working through issues you’ve dragged along since childhood. Well done.

For a simple tapping exercise to help you release some of these negative emotions associated with the desire to over-rescue, tap along with the below video. To teach yourself tapping as a way to work through childhood trauma and reach a happier frame of mind, visit http://www.emofree.com.

 Tamira Thayne is the founder of Who Chains You Books and Spiritual Mentoring, and the pioneer of the anti-chaining movement in America. She spent 13 years on the front lines of chained-dog activism and rescue as founder and CEO of Dogs Deserve Better. She is the author of Foster Doggie Insanity: Tips and Tales to Keep your Kool as a Doggie Foster Parent, and Capitol in Chains: 54 Days of the Doghouse Blues. To book a one-on-one session with Mr. Thayne, visit the website at http://www.whochainsyou.com/activism.html.

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