The Savior Complex
Why good intentions may have negative outcomes
Posted February 6, 2017 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
At first, the term “Savior Complex” may have a positive connotation. However, when you learn more about it and the underlying motivations and impact on others, it is clear that this behavior pattern can be problematic.
According to the blog PeopleSkillsDecoded.com, the savior complex can be best defined as “A psychological construct which makes a person feel the need to save other people. This person has a strong tendency to seek people who desperately need help and to assist them, often sacrificing their own needs for these people.”
Many individuals who enter into caring professions such as mental health care, health care and even those who have loved ones with addictions may have some of these personality characteristics. They are drawn to those who need “saving” for a variety of reasons. However, their efforts to help others may be of an extreme nature that both deplete them and possibly enable the other individual.
The underlying belief of these individuals is: “It is the noble thing to do." They believe they are somehow better than others because they help people all the time without getting anything back. While motives may or may not be pure, their actions are not helpful to all involved. The problem is that trying to "save" someone does not allow the other individual to take responsibility for his or her own actions and to develop internal motivation. Therefore, the positive (or negative) changes may only be temporary.
The Second of The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz is “Don’t Take Anything Personally.” This book chapter and the following quotes teach key concepts that may provide helpful guidance for those struggling with savior complex tendencies:
“You are never responsible for the actions of others; you are only responsible for you.”
“Whatever you think, whatever you feel, I know is your problem and not my problem. It is the way you see the world. It is nothing personal, because you are dealing with yourself, not with me.”
“Humans are addicted to suffering at different levels and to different degrees, and we support each other in maintaining these addictions”
So what are solutions for avoiding the “savior” trap with relationships and clients?
- Process emotions with friends, family and/or other staff members.
- Set boundaries with other individuals that allow you to balance caring for them with trying to “save” them.
- Say “maybe” or “no” before saying yes in order to give yourself time to weigh options.
- Slow down enough to be mindful of choices.
- Reach out for support from a therapist or coach in order to receive an objective assessment of your interpersonal issue.
- Let your loved one, friend and/or client take responsibility for their actions.
- Do not work harder than your friend, loved one and/or client.
- Do the best that you can do to support the individual and then “let go” of the results.
- Redefining “helping” and “caring.”
What does “helping” mean to you and for this individual?
- Asking questions
- Backing off
- Simply listening
- Offering action steps and coping skills instead of doing the work for them
- Am I helping this person by avoiding natural consequences?
- Is this decision made to keep them “happy” or for their overall health?
- Is my action helping them to get better or me to feel better?
- Am I being invited to help?
- Do I “want” to or have to do this?
What are your fears about not helping, and can you challenge them?
- The family or others will not like me.
- People may complain or not be happy, or my job may be in jeopardy.
- I will feel like I am not being effective as a loved one or at my job.
- I feel like I am not able to help.
- I am not doing the best that I can.
- I am missing something obvious.
"Savior Complex Anyone?" PeopleSkillsDecoded.com blog
Ruiz, Miguel. The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom. Amber-Allen Publishing, 1997.