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What Is a Savior Complex?

savior complex

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There are times where we might associate the term savior complex (aka christ complex or messiah complex) with something positive. For example, if you want to help other people because you’re caring and empathetic, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, right?

It is important to be aware of when it can become harmful, however. Some of the behavior patterns associated with always wanting to be a savior can become toxic for the person showing those behaviors and even for the people they’re attempting to help.

Always wanting to save other people, for example, can do more harm than good and creates codependent and unhealthy relationships. Codependency is a dysfunction that we often see in relationships involving substance abuse. These patterns can occur in an intimate relationship, but other types as well. 

Savior Complex Meaning

It’s normal to want to help people we care about when in a challenging situation in any healthy relationship. It would be abnormal to feel otherwise. 

These can be signs of a savior complex or white knight syndrome.

You want to save people and fix their problems sometimes for the wrong reasons. Signs this is something you might struggle with include:

  • You only feel good about yourself and have a sense of self-worth when you’re helping other people
  • You’re spending most of your energy trying to fix other people, to the detriment of your own physical or mental well-being.
  • You think helping other people is a higher calling or purpose for you

It can be challenging to assess your thoughts and behaviors and realize that maybe your desire to help others isn’t healthy for you or them. We see the desire to help others as an inherently positive trait. 

White Knight Red Flags

Red flags that maybe you see in yourself, or perhaps others if you’re concerned someone around you has the white knight complex include:

  • An attraction to vulnerability. Maybe you’re always seeking romantic relationships with people you feel are vulnerable and need some kind of “fixing” or help. You might choose to be in relationships or spend time with people who have many problems—probably more than you would typically encounter in everyday life. Your attraction to vulnerability can come from the hurt you’ve experienced in your own life. 
  • Trying to change people: With the desire to be a savior, you might believe it’s within your power to fix or change people. You think you can improve their lives by changing their behavior. This strong tendency to want to change people can be toxic in and of itself because you’re not getting to know other people.
  • You’re always searching for a solution: This is another area where having the desire to be a savior can be tricky. Being a problem solver is a good thing, but you could have a hard time realizing that sometimes there isn’t a solution, or at least not one that’s in your power to enact. You may worry more about the problem than the person who’s experiencing it does.
  • Martyrdom: With savior mindsets, you’re constantly making personal sacrifices. You become a martyr in your quest to help or save other people. For example, you might sacrifice your own physical or emotional well-being to help someone who doesn’t even want the help.
  • Thinking you’re the only person who can help: You may believe that you’re the only person who can help someone or create a solution for them. You might not realize it, but this can stem from a sense of superiority, leading you to treat people around you like children or take on a parent-like role.

The Effects of Being a Savior

If you’re always striving to save other people and fix their problems for them, there are going to be adverse effects on you, including:

  • Emotional burnout: You’re always putting your physical and mental energy toward other people, meaning you don’t have the energy to care for yourself. You’re more likely to feel tired and drained because you have complex tendencies leading to a sense of responsibility for everyone but yourself. 
  • Relationship problems: When you’re constantly putting yourself in a position of saving the people around you, whether it’s a romantic partner, family members, or friends, it’s going to cause these relationships to fail. You’re unlikely to succeed in fixing anyone else. It’s also upsetting to other people when you behave like there’s constantly something wrong with them. Trying to save people also leads to codependency.
  • Feelings of failure: There’s no way you can fix other people’s problems; it’s not within your power, but chasing something unrealistic will eventually lead you to feel like you’re a failure; you may feel frustrated and guilty.
  • Mood-related symptoms: It’s common for people with white knight syndrome to experience their own mood-related and mental health symptoms like depression and resentment when people refuse your help.

Savior Complex and Codependence

So many of the signs of white knight syndrome overlap with the psychological construct of codependency. Codependency is a situation when there’s a reliance on a partner, family member, or friend. The dependence can be physical, mental, emotional, or physical in these complex relationships. 

With codependent people, there’s an imbalance in a relationship. You might take on the responsibility to meet someone else’s needs. You do so while neglecting your own needs. The other person in a codependent relationship is an enabler, while you’re the giver.

A key sign of codependence is often trying to change someone, even when what they’re experiencing is well beyond your control. For example, if you have a loved one with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, you might try to fix their addiction. Simultaneously, you might find yourself trying to remove the consequences of that person’s actions.

None of these things are going to result in benefits for you or the person with the addiction.

What Can You Do?

If you see savior-like tendencies in yourself, realizing it is an excellent first step. You can take care of people in healthy ways, like ordinary people do, without replicating toxic patterns and unhealthy behaviors. 

There are also steps you can take to stop these patterns of behavior, for example, you can become an active listener. When someone tells you something, you don’t automatically have to offer a solution. When people share what’s going on in their life, they don’t want you to provide any type of advice; they just want you to listen. 

You can always leave the offer open that you’ll help if needed, but don’t volunteer help without someone asking for it. It can take time to learn this, but you’ll have to work on the concept that you only have control over yourself.

When you notice savior tendencies in yourself, you might also want to explore what’s leading you to be that way. Do some uncovering of things in your life that may have led you to enact these patterns in relationships. There are often a variety of reasons that people begin to show signs of white knight syndrome. 

Take Action!

Working with a therapist can be a great place to start. Call 858-465-7722 and the therapists at The Mental Health Center of San Diego can help you identify and address the emotional pain that might lead you to try and save others. When you work with a therapist, you can build on the idea of self-worth that doesn’t come from saving anyone else.