Why People With a Savior Complex Sacrifice Their Own Needs to Help Others
If 2020 was anything, it was a year when people needed help. A sudden vulnerability and helplessness blanketed the world, laying bare systemic inadequacies and prompting individuals to band together, supporting each other where institutions had failed. But while lending others a helping hand is typically a good thing, for those with savior complex, it becomes an unhealthy means of coping or validation.
Also known as white knight syndrome, savior complex occurs when individuals feel good about themselves only when helping someone, believe their job or purpose is to help those around them, and sacrifice their own interests and well-being in the effort to aid another.
Although this knight in shining armor, straight-out-of-a-fairy-tale behavior might sound too good to be true, it’s an unhealthy coping mechanism that can do more harm than good.
People with savior complex try to feel in control by fixing the lives of others — often in order to distract themselves from their own anxiety or powerlessness, Cynthia Catchings, a therapist, told Thrive Global. Helping others also induces a sense of validation in such people, helping them feel better about their own lives — resulting in an obsessive need to fix in order to maintain this good feeling.
Predispositions to the savior complex can sometimes be traced back to dysfunctional family dynamics in childhood — resulting in the unhealthy coping mechanism that continues into adulthood.
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People with savior complex often believe they are somehow better than others because they help people all the time, leading to feelings of being morally superior. In addition, experts note that savior complex can induce feelings of omnipotence, making people who experience it prone to believing no one else can save others they way they can.
Because people with savior complex tend to “seek people who desperately need help and to assist them, often sacrificing their own needs,” they are often “identified as ‘nice guys,’ but the truth is emotionally healthy [people] will never have a compelling need to seek that kind of validation. That itself should be an alerting sign,” notes Sara Benson, PsyD, a psychologist.
While helping people out generally isn’t harmful, an individual with savior complex can actually harm more than they help, by trying to fix something they don’t have the skills to fix, rather than entrusting the job to someone who does. “If your partner has a drug or alcohol problem and you refuse to leave them because they ‘need’ you — this is also enabling behavior. They have a serious health problem that your presence alone cannot fix,” Julie Williamson, a counselor, notes as an example.
Savior complex behavior can also hinder the growth of the individual being aided and constant attempts to fix their lives and can lead to codependency, they neither learn to take responsibility for their own actions nor develop independent, internal motivation.
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Because of these effects, savior complex can, in fact, add an unhealthy and often toxic dynamic to romantic relationships, as the individual with savior complex treats the relationship more like a parent-child or teacher-student relationship in a constant endeavor to fix their adult partners. Being “made to feel as if [they aren’t liked] as they are” and need fixing can make the partner frustrated and resentful, Maury Joseph, PsyD, a psychologist, explains.
“Relationships are supposed to be mutually enjoyable and give-take, not charity cases. … You should enter into relationships because you share common values and have a connection. If you are entering a committed relationship with the goal of changing your partner then [they’re a] project, not a partner,” David Bennett, a counselor, explains.
The savior complex harms the fixer as well as their people-projects. Constant helping and sacrificing for others can cause them to feel they are taken for granted when those around them get used to their helpfulness. It can also cause them to experience burnout due to the amount of energy they expend in trying to help others. “Saviors might see symptoms similar to those in people taking care of ailing family members. … They might feel fatigued, drained, depleted in various ways,” Joseph adds.
Experts note that to overcome the complex, recognizing the fact that one is experiencing it could act as the stepping stone to stopping the behavior. Additionally, talking to a therapist, especially to uncover experiences from one’s past that may have led to the complex, could be helpful too.