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ON THE FRONT LINES: Curb your savior complex

Taking on a savior role, especially when it is unwanted and unneeded, is harmful for both the "savior" and the subject of their saving.  – Photo by Pixabay.com

We have all heard of the savior complex, and on paper, it sounds favorable. After all, in the media, those with savior complexes tend to be rewarded. They are the sexy Edward Cullens, the heroes, the alphas in the pack.

In films, they are the ones who manage to save everyone, even with six bullets lodged in their chests, or alternatively, the cool-headed masterminds who keep it together while everyone else succumbs to the “weakness” that is human emotion. 

But for the many of us who have suffered through psychological trauma in the real world, having a savior complex is anything but sexy. Rather, it is a way to tame our wounded inner child that felt helpless in the situations that hurt them.

Growing up, I had several friends who battled with depression and anxiety. I saw the way they suffered, and to me, this felt like the perfect opportunity to not be the forsaken “bystander” that did nothing, and rather be the reason someone's life is better.

In my mind, this meant putting on the cape and becoming the master of illness. I dedicated countless hours to studying mental illness, to understand the disorders of the mind and how they manifest. I became the quintessential “therapist” in the friend group and I was proud of it.

But the ego is a fragile thing. When you are young and especially when you are insecure, you crave any sort of validation and that is what being the therapist gave me. To be told I was “wise” and “trustworthy” only further motivated me to delve deeper into their issues.

After all, how can helping people ever be a bad thing, especially when they tell you that you made their lives better, that you give them a will to live? You saved them, you tell yourself. And if you can do it for one person, surely you can do it for others right? 

Wrong. Initially, you will find you grow more resilient and test the boundaries of what you can handle. You might even throw out your own emotions to make room for more “subjects,” feeding the narrative in your head that this is what you are made to do. 

But one day, you will come across someone, who, when you are standing there triumphantly brandished in your red cape, could not be any less impressed. In fact, they may resent you for thinking they need your help in the first place. To be the savior means even while another’s pain weighs you down, you must “be strong” because God forbid you crack under pressure and are no longer the savior. You are weak. And to be weak is unacceptable. 

Some people might call this natural inclination to want to help and understand others in pain a condition of being an empath, and they definitely do have their overlaps. But saviors stand out in how they attach their egos to the task of helping others. The idea that we could possibly be weak or any less of ourselves because others have told us we were not helpful or the one that they needed is no longer altruism, but ego-speak. 

As I got older, my savior tendencies became less appreciated and more so criticized, especially by my older peers who felt that I was overstepping boundaries.

Initially, you feel inclined to try harder, because after all, this is what you base your self-worth off of. But one day you will get tired. Grief after grief, loss after loss — a human can only handle so much. And it will affect you profoundly. 

You might develop hair-thin triggers or succumb to the anxiety of not being “hero enough.” Eventually, you become your worst nightmare: You become the one that needs to be “saved.” 

But here is the thing: The entire notion of heroes and saviorism lies on the pretense that someone else owns your autonomy, that someone else can change you, and that is completely false. As my favorite rockstar Courtney Love once said, “Nobody's gonna pull up in a limousine and say they are going to save you … You save yourself from drowning.” 

“You save yourself from drowning.” That line echoed in my head for years and years until I finally decided to go to therapy, and indeed, my therapist told me I had a massive savior complex that needed to be squashed. 

“Why? What is wrong with helping someone else?” I asked him. 

“Because Rania, you say you want to help the other person, but you are assuming that the solution is you. In reality, you might be the last thing they need to be helped,” he replied.

Although his statement hurt me initially, I understood what he meant. Altruism into validation. Empathy into ego-speak. Attempting to snatch someone’s destiny and control an outcome that you have no jurisdiction over. These are the real problems with having a savior complex and why we eventually have to give up the capes. 

To assume others are broken because we once felt that way is not only presumptuous, but also can be incredibly harmful in relationships. In a dynamic where two people are meant to be equals, acting as the “savior” ends up reading as you are unable to trust your friend or partner to do what is best for themselves. And without trust, there is nothing. 

Playing “hero” ultimately only harms yourself, and while it might be difficult to admit, doing so might just be what saves you and your relationships.

Rania Rizvi is the Inside Beat Editor at the Daily Targum.


*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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