How I broke free of the victim-rescuer cycle blocking me from healing

Emotional exertion can lead to post-exertional malaise in people with ME/CFS, yet isn’t talked about much. I break down the victim-rescuer-perpetrator trauma triangle and how I broke free.

Before I began writing this, I noticed myself worrying about my friend’s dogs’ emotional health. That the imagined sadness of the pups being separated was my burden to bear.

While my mind was consumed by “solving” someone else’s doggy custody situation, I was actually going through a personal experience that stirred up feelings of powerless. My fight-or-flight centers were in high alert.

I stopped the runaway train on the tracks. I remembered the “Trauma Triangle.”

Below, I explain what this is and include helpful questions to identify your own specific trauma loops and how to get out.

I write this post as a reminder for myself, and in case it’s helpful to any of you.

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For a long time, I carried around lots of frustration about my health situation. 

My mindset and NLP coach Lorie Solay showed me a picture of a triangle on a laminated sheet. On each point were the words “Victim, Rescuer, and Perpetrator.” The title was “Trauma Loops.”  Though I was open to learning, I nevertheless winced.

Here is the trauma triangle (I’ve included descriptions from my own understanding and things I’ve gathered from the Internet):

Trauma Triangle

Before seeing Lorie in early 2018, I had just discovered ME/CFS Twitter. I had wanted to gather user research for a CFS recovery health tips website before I actually healed myself.     

Here’s what happened: I got sucked into the controversy and the hurt other people experienced from doctors, loved ones, and the system. It stirred up wounds from my own experiences. I felt their pain and felt responsible to right the wrongs. 

Not only was I fighting my own battles in my mind, “If only they could feel the pain I was in for one minute” and “if only that doctor did X instead of Y, I wouldn’t be a useless barnacle,” thanks to ME/CFS Twitter, I was now also having imagined confrontations of what I’d say to certain people who promoted unhelpful treatment to the general public.  

Imagined confrontations consumed a lot of my headspace, perhaps 100s of hours. I’d later learn this kept my body in sympathetic “fight or flight” mode.

Lorie’s message planted a seed, and it really hit home when this all led to a health blip. 

It turns out that it’s not uncommon for people who feel victimized and powerless to try to rescue others, and in some cases end up being perpetrators themselves. However, I personally learned many times over these modes of interaction are not the best way to help others or regain personal power.

Questions to spot a rescuer trauma loop:

1. Do I feel responsible for taking away someone else’s pain?

2. Am I absorbing someone else’s hurt, anger, fear, or negative energy?

3. Am I trying to fix a problem that’s not under my control?

4. Am I trying to solve a world problem in my head?

5. Am I trying to please someone else?

6. Am I trying to show I’m Good enough?

7. Am I trying to mediate between two opposing parties to “keep the peace”? 

8. Do I feel a sense of urgency about needing to respond? 

9. Do I feel guilt at the thought of not responding?

10. Am I offering help to someone who has not asked for it?

11. Am I offering advice to someone who has not shown me they are open to receive it?

12. Am I going back to someone who has crossed my boundaries because I’m afraid of them not liking me, needing me, or approving of me?

Questions to spot a victim trauma loop:

1. Am I seeking validation from someone else?

2. Am I trying to prove my worth to someone else?

3. Am I taking in someone else’s negative opinion of me as the truth about me?

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Questions to spot a perpetrator trauma loop:

1. Am I trying to undermine someone else to prove they’re wrong and I’m right?

2. Am I compelled to get into a fight on the Internet?

3. Am I having an imagined confrontation in my head about how I would confront a wrong-doer I’ll never meet?

Many of these loops are our reactions to how we were conditioned to be by our parents or society, our modeling of our parents, or a determination to be different. But we’re adults now, and it’s time to take responsibility for our life and live in a way that helps us thrive (vs. reactive mode). 

CFS is a block in the healing cycle after illness, stress, or injury marked by a failure to properly recover from exertion. 

When fight-or-flight mode is constantly activated, healing can’t easily happen. 

It’s a vicious cycle. When you have multiple debilitating symptoms and it feels like your life isn’t in your control, it’s almost automatic to run trauma loops.

To pile on top of that, when we’re operating in a trauma loop, it fires up the limbic system, the part of our brain and nervous system that scans our body and environment for danger. When these pathways are continuously fired up, our brain’s control centers can have over-or-under-reactions to perceived internal and external stress. 

This can trigger more symptoms, and lead to more emotional trauma loops.

Many people on the road to recovery from ME/CFS and Long Covid focus on avoiding physical over-exertion. It seems a lot less people recognize that avoidable emotional stress can be blocking them from healing.

That’s a big mistake in my humble opinion. Let me say it loud and clear:

Stress is stress is stress, no matter the source. 

Sometimes a little stress can be a good thing. But prolonged stress is not our friend! Studies show acute stress activation can boost the immune system, while chronic stress can suppress it.

I fully recognize that real life comes with stress (especially parents with little ones). That’s why it’s all the more helpful to avoid taking on extra emotional burdens.

Healing happens when we’re in a calm and harmonious state, not when we’re constantly fighting battles. 

It’s only then, when we’re out of the fight, can we begin to heal and build resilience.

Questions to ask yourself to break the rescuer cycle and get on the right path for healing:

1. When you have extra energy, do you use it on other people? Is this helpful for your body’s healing process?  (Credit: my friend Anaya)

2. Is the main reason you want to get better your fear of being a “bad” Mom/Mum, Dad, child, student, friend, partner? To not be a “burden?” Is this helpful for your mind and body? Or is this creating a trap for you on any “good” day? 

Where does this come from? Is the fear of “not being good enough” (and similar) helping you now as an adult? 

What are more joyful and uplifting reasons to heal?

3. Are you saying you must do X, Y, and Z first (things that might involve other people – like being needed at home or work) before you can take action to put your health first? How many times have you put it off? How has that worked out for ya? 

You ultimately know what’s best for you.

4. Do you try to rescue others before you’ve strengthened your own boat? Going deeper: Do you take on others’ problems and feel responsible because it gives you a feeling of more control? Have you ever even had control of someone else’s situation? When in your life have you not felt like you were in control? Is that feeling a part of your life now, only more amplified because of your health situation?

5. Are you taking on others’ problems and problems of the world — because you are afraid to invest in your own healing for fear of “failure”?

6. Are you taking on others’ problems because you are afraid to pursue what you really want to do, out of fear of criticism if it goes less than perfect? Is this fear preventing you from even getting started?

7. Do you visit places of the Internet where there are pleas for help from people who are suffering? Do you actively follow people who are rescuers and victims who often share the wrongs of their life and the wrongs of the world? How does this affect your energy? Is this keeping you in fight-or-flight mode or is it helpful to healing?

8. Does your energy spent focused about what’s wrong with the system change the system for the better and change your life? How does it make you feel? Maybe it’s not black and white. Have you found a balance that works for you?

9. Do you carry the emotional weight on your shoulders for fixing injustice in the world similar to which you’ve experienced?

Would directing your energy to your health/happiness help you better become a shining beacon to the world on all that you deserve? 

10. Are you showing up for yourself the way you do others? Would showing up for yourself today allow you to give more to others and the world in the future?

11. Is the person you’re trying to help open to receiving your message? Did they even ask for your help? Would being an example and letting them figure it out on their own serve you both better?

12. Is someone continuing to ask more from you without any reciprocity (this one is not meant to apply to young kids)? Is it because this is the relationship you created by not being clear about what you want from them?

13. Are you going back to someone who has crossed your boundaries because you’re afraid of them not liking you, needing you, or approving of you?

14. Are you following your own advice? (…Liz)

Boom. I said this was a reminder for myself, especially that last one.

Part of my healing involved realizing how my desire to get validation from others on how hard things were to show I wasn’t just complaining, seeking attention, or “playing the victim” – actually was me victimizing myself

Here are questions to ask yourself to:

Step into your power as the Strong, Amazing Person you are and the Creator of Your Life.

1. Do you clearly communicate to others up front what would help you thrive, or do you focus on what you don’t want, or do you not say anything at all (just try to push through or hope for the best) and get frustrated, sad, or mad when things go wrong?

2. Have you set clear boundaries in your life with consequences for those who break them? Or do you keep going back to the same situation and getting sad/mad about it?  

Maybe sending boundaries wasn’t okay for you to do as a child. But is that fear around setting boundaries working for you now as an adult? Or maybe you just don’t know how to set boundaries, because you never tried. Here’s a longer post I wrote about setting healthy boundaries.


3. Do you surround yourself with joy/hope/happiness, or do you frequent news and social media that triggers your feelings of anger and fear? 

4. Do you hang out with people with victim mindsets or growth mindsets (online or in person)?

5. Have you allowed yourself to really feel your feelings fully, and for them to flow through you – in and then out – of you? Or do you bottle them in, and then break down and cry or explode and yell? 

6. Have your feelings of hurt now become repetitive psychological programming? Are you stuck on the Story of what went wrong? Is the program in your mind saying you are a wronged victim? Thinking what you’d say to this person who wronged you in an imaginary confrontation?

Can you write a note to yourself as your best friend? If your best friend was hung up on someone who’s wronged them, what would you say to them?

7. Is your main focus for others to validate your struggles? Do you fantasize “if only they could feel what I’m feeling for one day or one second?” Is your desire for others’ approval helping your heal? 

Do you expect people to change their own limited view of the world? Can what they think change the way you feel in this moment? 

What if you told yourself, “I am the strongest person in the world”?

8. Do you share on social media how bad things are in your life and keep checking to see if the hearts come in? Does this help you heal? 

Can you give yourself this love? Or can you ask someone, “hey I could use some support today” without proving why?

9. Do you have limited beliefs about healing because you are afraid to try a new approach, fail (perhaps again), and be judged by others? Or are you most afraid to be judged by yourself (your own harsh inner-critic)? 

10. Do you feel investing time and resources towards your health is a waste because you’ll only “let people down” if it doesn’t work?

11. Are you letting past failures dictate your present moment and your future?

12. Are you creating your ideal life through your thoughts and choices – or are you just reacting to it? 

What do you have control over right now? Can you make little positive changes in certain areas?

13. Are you stuck in comparison mode? Do you tell yourself there is no hope for you because you have more symptoms or perhaps less symptoms that someone else had who healed (and something must be wrong with you for not healing from them)? Do you tell yourself that your struggles are more uniquely challenging than others and insurmountable? 

Or do you see your personal challenges as special resilience building opportunities that will make your recovery story more powerful? 

14. Do you let others define what’s possible in your life? Do you tell yourself healing isn’t possible because of what someone in a white coat told you or what you read somewhere on the Internet? 

15. Is the “right way” to do something determined by someone else who “knows better”? Did you get criticized as a child for not doing something someone else’s way? Do you tell yourself someone else needs to give you a perfect plan to fix you (you just need to google harder for it)? 

Or are you ready to trust yourself in the driver seat of your life?

16. Does your body, mind, and spirit want to go back to the life you were living before you got ill in the way you were living it?

17. Are you ready to take full responsibility for your healing and believe it is possible for you to improve and heal?

Think how inspiring your transformation will be to others when they hear you story one day. (Please let me feature it.)

18. Are you looking for a magic cure outside of you as your only option? Or are you open to ways in which you can support your body’s ability to heal?

I realize, just like all of these didn’t apply to me, they might not all apply to you either. But I hope it made you think.

In a future post, I’ll share how to get the support you need in a healthy way and maintain healthy, joyful relationships with people who are worth it, so please subscribe to my blog if you aren’t already because it’s gonna be good. 

Learning to shift from a Rescuer to an Empowerer.

I was once a person frequently in rescue mode. I proudly called myself an “empath.” 

I was feeling all the feelings of others, but was I feeling any of the good ones? 

Did I actually rescue anyone? Or did I just have a very righteous sense of my own Goodness? And did me trying to solve world problems in my mind since age 8 (like how to solve world hunger, how I’d kill this evil person in history – the rules of physics didn’t stop my rescue attempts!) ever solve any of them? No. Did I just lose sleep? Yes.

And let’s be brutally honest. Were my rescue attempts even empowering to others?

Except in cases of donations to non-profits that have tangible results, probably none of emotional and mental energy I have expended on “rescue missions” has ever really helped a single person.

I’ve learned in life that helping others doesn’t mean you have to jump into the water and offer yourself as a floatation device.

It can instead mean throwing a rope from off your boat. And when that person is ready, they will pull themselves up. 

Shifting from a Prosecutor of What’s Wrong to a Promoter of What’s Good

And on a similar note, have my “prosecution” attempts of wrong-doers ever lead to lasting change? Or did it just leave me exasperated and getting blocked by random people on the Internet? 

I am now focused on promoting what’s good, without feeling responsible for changing what other people think. I try to find common ground, without feeling personally responsible for resolving conflict between opposing parties.

Though I’m aware of all that’s wrong, I’m focused on promoting the things can help people heal from ME/CFS, while appreciating our individual uniqueness. 

I’ve also learned to go beyond thinking “how can I stop suffering of people who’ve been hurt?” and consider “how I can I support people’s joy and thriving?”. This can be as small as “who am a buying stuff from?” and being aware of “who’s great content am I sharing?” I am always open and grateful for input on how I can do more of this.

My rescuer ways sometimes resurface, which is why I’m writing this post as a refresher.

Shifting from a Reactor to a Creator of My Life.

Today I’m re-commiting to being a creator and not a reactor.

This means avoiding distractions, avoiding trauma loops (in my head, in the content I consume, or what I respond to), sticking to my healthy routines, and doing things to support my own continued thriving.

This means working one step at a time to create scalable materials to inspire others that healing is possible, sharing my truth and all I’ve learned with love.

1. Twitter  

Twitter while it’s a good place for research news, is also a place with many people stuck in fight-or-flight mode.

I recommend everyone consider deactivating it during recovery and limit it (or continue to have it deactivated) post-recovery. Just say no to drugs, my friends.

2. The News

I was a former news junky until I gave it up for my good health. 

I found I’m not missing anything post-recovery. I no longer really watch TV news, Internet news, celebrity news, and even limit Wikipedia. I’ve found going to check one small thing, one can get exposed to a bunch of other negative stuff.

I caved and watched Oprah’s Meghan & Harry interview. I’m only human. It was a reminder for me how I enjoy having friends or my husband recap things for me, in a funny way, rather than me getting sucked into solving the drama as someone who has “mediator” tendencies to try to “keep the peace.” Because y’all, I had a dream about Meghan Markle that night.

The Queen apparently had her aides summarize the interview because it would have been too much for her. 

You don’t have to be the Queen to ask a friend or loved one to summarize something that you’re curious about (i.e. election results), but don’t want to get sucked into an over-stimulating Internet click hole. 

3. Following People on Instagram who Trigger Your Trauma Loops.

I wasn’t on Instagram much during my recovery and never followed any people with ME/CFS during that time. I’ve since connected with many amazing recoverers. Instagram does contain lots of good inspiration and self-care reminders. I often feel a lot of synchronicity with others who are on my same vibe.

During recovery, if you do chose to go on Instagram, I recommend following accounts who inspire you, who make you laugh, who make you smile, and who are on your vibe. 

I recommend avoiding people who trigger your fight-or-flight centers or your rescuer tendencies. Maybe for you this is people who seek validation from their family because you’re working on that yourself. Maybe for you it’s people who detail current symptoms or medical pictures because it gives you PTSD about yours. Maybe people with manic energy raise the hair on your arms. Maybe beautiful young ladies who post about their disease struggles with photos of them in bed triggers your “I must rescue the princess” energy. Maybe people who post things that don’t support the idea that recovery is possible make you lose hope about yours. 

It doesn’t make you a bad person for acknowledging this.

Some people find peace in hearing other people’s struggles so they know they’re not alone and venting helps them take the edge off. That’s cool. 

I support you doing whatever feels good to YOU. 

I know amazing people who do post pics of the tears, because that’s part of the healing and resilience building process for them. And I know people who recovered who wish they documented more of their lows (at least privately) so they had more “before” content to show for inspiring others.

At the end of the day though, we all must heal ourselves. Below is a metaphor a good friend shared with me.

For a butterfly to grow strong, resilient wings, it must break out of its cocoon on its own. 

You can’t help someone in their butterfly cocoon break free. And they can’t help you break free if you want to fly. #ILoveMetaphors.

Friendly note: If I don’t follow you back on Instagram it’s not because I thought you were in a trauma loop. Who am I anyway? It’s more likely because you have a private account and I assumed you just wanted to observe my account, or because I wasn’t checking my phone around the time you followed me, because when you followed me I got other notifications and missed it, or because I’m starting to follow less people so it’s a bit more manageable to follow. 

Other friendly note: Just because someone has joy or #DNRS in their profile, doesn’t guarantee they will post growth-minded and uplifting content. Without judging anyone (I support everyone doing what they feel is right for them), it’s okay to mute someone if you personally find content they share not supportive of your healing or wellbeing right now. (The mute option appears for posts in your home feed if you click on the three dots in the top right corner of the post.) 

4. Following People on Facebook who are Angry Most of the Time.

This includes people who argue about politics, constantly write about injustice, conspiracies, or who constantly share scary disease news.

I once shared political diatribes on Facebook on a regular basis. I still love justice. But was my Facebook activity solving any world problems? No. Did I get blocked by random people I hadn’t seen in 10 years, yes! 

Today, I would unfollow myself 5 years ago.

I’ve unfollow people on Facebook who are in fight-or-flight mode for my own sanity. I don’t want to be drawn back there myself. 

Facebook has an option where you can unfollow someone’s content but still remain friends. It’s similar to the Instagram mute feature.

Post-recovery I unfollow less Facebook friends though, because it doesn’t affect me like it used to. I can shrug it off more easily. (Or maybe because the worst offenders have already been unfollowed, ha.)

5.  Hosting or Going Home for the Holidays if it’s Not Easy.

Family dynamics can set off emotional stress, particularly around the pressures of the Holidays. If you’re not feeling 100%, if you haven’t set have clear preferences about what would help you thrive, and if your family isn’t receptive to how they can support you, traveling home to visit family might not be the best idea right now

It doesn’t make you a bad person if you chose what’s easier for you.

This was written about well-intentioned family who may blunder. If you have a toxic family, I recommend checking out content by Vera Wilhelmsen (she has a YouTube channel) on how to break free.

It is possible to have happy holidays in your future.

6. Watching TV Shows and Movies that Trigger Fight-or-Flight Chemicals.

This includes shows that are heavy on violence, conspiracy theories, shows about suffering, medical drama, family strifes, must-escape-the-bad-guy action shows, and reality TV where people are fighting all the time. If I want to get the scoop on any reality show, I ask my friend Erica to fill me in without exposing myself to that negative drama. It’s much funnier that way (and it’s good to chat with a friend).

I hope this gave you some ideas to consider of what could be adding extra stress to your life and how to reduce it.

If you’d like practical and uplifting health recovery information, please sign up for our newsletter below. This blog is not medical advice nor meant to contradict what you have discovered yourself to be true. 

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