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Do You Have a Saviour Complex? Here’s What to Do Next

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When helping others is hurting yourself, it’s time to ask what is really driving your need to step in. Understanding saviour complex can help you uncover the emotional pain or trauma that might be behind your desire to rescue others.

Do you give so much to others that you feel like you have nothing left for yourself? Are you measuring your own self-worth solely by how much others need you? Do you feel responsible for the lives or choices of others? Wanting to help others is an admirable trait, and part of what builds strong relationships and communities. However, understanding what motivates us to act in this way is extremely important, and can inform us whether the help we are offering is effective or even wanted by those we are trying to give it to. 

Saviour complex is a psychological pattern that involves an overriding need to help or save other people. It can play out in the work you do, your personal relationships, and even your love life. Because saviour complex often stems from trauma or dysfunction earlier in life, this compulsion to rescue others can manifest in problematic ways, and deteriorate rather than strengthen relationships. Knowing whether you are struggling with saviour complex is an important step in evaluating the help you are giving, and confronting whether the person you need to help most is actually yourself.

What is Saviour Complex?

Saviour complex, also known as saviour syndrome, describes a pattern of behavior generally motivated by a need for external validation that involves persistently putting the needs of others before one’s own. While it typically is rooted in empathy for others, the entanglement with a need for appreciation and recognition from those helped, along with the compulsion to help even if it is not needed, can create significant problems. Though saviour complex is not a formally diagnosed condition, mental health professionals use this term to help people understand their actions and what is causing them.

Some key signs of saviour complex include things like:

  • Consistently working past your own needs for rest or self-care
  • Being unable to say “no” when other people ask you for help
  • Feeling that your self-worth is defined by what others think about you
  • Challenges setting boundaries
  • Feeling burned out but unable to stop 
  • Feeling responsible for other people’s emotions or actions
  • Frequently being the rescuer in relationships
  • Feeling resentful or frustrated if someone rejects your help or advice

Understanding the Motives Behind Saviour Complex

People who struggle with a saviour complex are often seeking to fill a void created by guilt, grief or trauma, which may have been sustained during childhood. For example, some people with saviour complex were pushed into early caregiving roles due to absent or neglectful parents, creating a deeply-ingrained belief that their personal worth is defined by their support of others. This is especially true for adult children of alcoholics, who were often parentified from a young age and made responsible for the emotional and sometimes physical wellbeing of a parent. 

Others may have experienced a painful loss of a loved one, and are trying to regain control or manage guilt by becoming overly responsible for others. Low self-esteem can also result in saviour complex, with people searching for self-worth or value through praise or acknowledgement by others. 

For others, saviour complex stems from a belief that they know best how to solve a problem, and a need to find a purpose or cause. This can drive people to pursue a change even if one is not needed, or to push their beliefs onto others.

The Impacts of Saviour Complex on One’s Personal Well-Being

Saviour complex tends to result in complete self-sacrifice in order to meet the perceived needs of others. In the short term, people may feel good about their actions and be bolstered by society’s positive views on selflessness and giving to others. However, over an extended period of time, the regular denial of one’s own needs leads to burnout, anger, resentment, exhaustion, and can fuel mental health issues like depression and anxiety.  

As saviour complex drives rescuing behaviour in situations where this may not be wanted or needed, the potential for an adverse reaction to one’s help is greater. Because the desire for external validation often underlies saviour complex, when this is not achieved a person may experience this as a further blow to their self-esteem, and even question their worth or purpose in life.

Navigating Relationships with Saviour Syndrome

Putting oneself in the saviour role tends to create imbalance in personal relationships, where the saviour or rescuer is constantly putting themselves last, and the person being rescued believes that they can fully depend on the other for support. This can lead to unhealthy and even toxic ways of relating. 

For example, it is not uncommon for people with a saviour syndrome to have codependent relationships. This means that they regularly prioritise the needs of their partner over their own, and feel responsible for their moods. This leads to attempts to manage the choices or actions of that partner, regardless of whether this help is wanted or needed. This unhealthy dynamic often leaves both partners unsatisfied, with one resenting the attempts to be directed, and the other feeling that their efforts to help are unsuccessful. 

Transforming a codependent relationship is difficult, especially when you are struggling with the patterns of behavior found in saviour syndrome.  Getting some personal space to take care of your needs, recharge your energy and reflect on what’s working and not working in your relationship is a good place to start bringing balance into your relationship. 

Moving Past Saviour Complex and Towards Personal Growth

The unfortunate reality for people with saviour complex is that until the issues driving their behaviour are addressed, the help that they so want to give to others may not be effective, appropriate or sustainable. Taking care of one’s own needs, and being clear on the motivations for providing help to others is critical in giving the right kind of support in a way that is not destructive to the giver. Some key actions in moving past saviour syndrome and towards healthy personal growth include the following:

Making space for reflection

When we give ourselves time to reflect on our actions, we allow ourselves the opportunity to cultivate awareness of our actions and the true intentions behind them. Important questions to ask yourself during these periods of reflection include things like:

  • Was this the right time to involve myself? Why or why not?
  • Did I push myself past my limits in order to do what I felt I needed to? Why?
  • Did I take opportunities to work as a team with others? Were there others who may have been better placed to provide help? 
  • Was I an active listener? Did I follow cues or instructions from those I was supporting, or did I make my own decisions about how to help? Why?
  • Was I able to say “no” when I needed to, or set boundaries? If not, what do I need to do to help set these limits in the future?

Identifying triggers and boundaries

Understanding what switches you into a rescue mode is a critical step in learning how to pause and think constructively about if someone really needs your help, if you’re the right person to provide it at that time, and what way is best to support them. Getting to know your triggers can be done by being aware of when you experience feelings of stress, anxiety or panic, and making a note of what has caused that feeling.

Setting boundaries is also important in overcoming saviour complex, as a lack of boundaries is a typical hallmark of this syndrome. Start this by thinking about what you need, whether it’s personal time or space, emotional support, or a healthier daily schedule, and expand this into what you need to do to achieve these things. Learning how to say no is an integral piece of setting boundaries, and you may want to explore different ways to comfortably decline a request.

Developing healthier coping mechanisms

For people with a saviour complex, rescuing others is a way to cope with the discomfort of unresolved personal issues. While addressing these issues should be a priority in unraveling saviour complex, finding healthier ways to cope with stress is key in breaking out of problematic patterns. This can include regular exercise or time outside, exploring new hobbies, meditating or journaling, or even scheduling weekly connections with supportive friends or family. Exploring healthy outlets for turbulent emotions promotes calm and relaxation, allowing you to make better decisions about how you engage with other people and the world around you.

Seeking professional support

For many people with saviour complex, professional therapeutic support is a valuable resource in identifying the root causes of saviour syndrome, understanding triggers, setting boundaries, and building healthy coping tools. Joining a support group may also be helpful in sharing experiences and connecting with others also looking to heal and move forward from trauma and hardship. Therapy helps move people forward in a conscious, intentional way as they grow into their best selves.

The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab in Thailand: A Path to Healing and Transformation

A Path to Healing and Transformation at The Dawn Rehab

The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab is a unique rehabilitation and wellness facility that has been created to foster an environment of personal growth and healing for people who want to change their lives and overcome addiction or mental health issues. At The Dawn, we specialise in treating a range of mental health concerns, including stress, anxiety, trauma, depression and burnout – common issues for those with saviour syndrome.

Internationally accredited by the American Accreditation Commission International (AACI), The Dawn offers tailormade programmes that cater to each individual’s needs by using a comprehensive, holistic treatment method and modern techniques with proven results. 

Mental Health Treatment in Thailand

Our centre is conveniently located just outside the beautiful city of Chiang Mai, Thailand, a one-hour flight from the country’s capital of Bangkok. At our tranquil riverfront property, you are completely removed from your triggers and immersed in a safe, soothing environment where you can focus completely on your needs. 

Call The Dawn today to learn more about our healing mental health retreats.

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