Toxic heroism and the Saviour Complex


'In the event of a sudden loss of pressure, panels above your seat will open and oxygen masks will drop down. If this happens, first place your own mask over your nose and mouth and adjust as necessary, before helping those seated next to you'.

We've all heard instructions like these and the logic is irrefutable: if we don't take responsibility for our safety first, we risk becoming a liability. The problem with heroes-in-training is that we can be so 'other regarding' that we fail to prioritise self-care, and the results can be disastrous.

As a 20 year veteran of the education system, with friends and family who are also teachers or operate in the care sector as doctors, nurses, social workers, I know all too well the cost of neglecting our own needs. I've spent countless weekends wrestling with piles of marking, only to jump into another week, having spent no time with my family and failing to recharge my batteries. The result? I tend to limp my way towards the end of each term, before falling ill with a cold or chest infection!

I console myself with the knowledge that I am making a difference by helping to shape the future of the young people in my care, but festering in my peripheral vision has been a growing resentment towards my profession and a self-loathing that I'm not resilient or 'tough enough' to handle the demands of the job.

There is a name for people like me and it is not 'hero' - I am one of the growing number of men and women who may be afflicted with a 'Saviour Complex'. A working definition: 'One who feels compelled to fix or save other people'. Sound familiar? Sometimes referred to as 'White Knight Syndrome', this personality trait can be easily justified. After all, our world has never been more in need of heroes, and pro-social behaviour is celebrated as virtuous. Rather than join the ranks of the narcissists, good people with the best of intentions can find themselves ever depleted as the calls for help swell, and their reserves dwindle.

To make matters worse, a little research into the motivations that underly White Knight behaviour makes for unpalatable reading. Psychologists suggest that those so afflicted are playing out an unconscious narrative: 'A life of giving is a happy life because, if I serve others, I will receive love and approval in exchange'.

The shadows cast by such a story are troubling. Messianic do-gooders tend to have so little faith in others' ability to self-rescue that they charge in like helicopter parents, infantalizing those they purport to 'save'. Their service is a thinly-veiled form of manipulation, leading others to depend on them, rather than encouraging them to grow into their own power. And as if this were not bad enough, along the way these would-be paragons of virtue may secretly revel in their self-righteous martyrdom. Not a pretty picture, is it?

If you are squirming in your seat as you read this description, fear not. Let me offer you a lifeline (irony intended!). First and foremost, we must retrain our instinct to 'save' others and choose instead to be present and bear witness, before we act. Obviously I'm not talking about situations demanding immediate action; if someone is drowning or suffering a cardiac arrest, they will not thank you for your compassionate non-intervention! Most of the time, however, when we feel the urge to provide advice or fix people and situations, our first choice should be to become fully present.

Often people just need a chance to vent or to be heard - they are resourceful and will likely find their way towards an effective solution to their woes. We need to gut-check ourselves when we think, or treat others, as anything other than sovereign beings who are responsible for their own choices and journey. Unless we are asked directly for help or advice, we should assume that it is not required!

Next, when we are asked to take action, we should do so skilfully. Strategy and careful planning will nearly always prove more productive then a knee-jerk response; this is particularly true in complex or nuanced situations. Whenever possible, we need to behave in ways that support and empower others, rather than leave dependency and learned helplessness in our wake. Give a man a fish, feed him for a know the rest.

At the same time, we would do well to learn to detach ourselves from 'outcome'. All we can do is offer support, act congruently and then let go. The people we help may choose not to act on our advice or run headlong into the same problems all over again. Unforeseen forces may scupper our best-laid plans. If we are still mid-mission then by all means we can adapt and 'have at it' again, but if we have passed the baton, we need to accept that there are limits to our influence and impact. I have no idea whether there is a benevolent deity out there with a master plan, but I sure as hell know it isn't me - and the chances are, it isn't you either! Sometimes you just have to walk on.

Finally, we need to take a long hard look at ourselves and consider that our desire to save the world may be serving as a smokescreen so that we can ignore the inner work we should be attending to. If serving others is no longer a mindful choice but a compulsion, we must look at how we have set-up and maintained our boundaries. The chances are, we have issues around self-care and worthiness; if we only feel deserving of love and respect when we suffer or sacrifice ourselves, then we may be the ones who need rescuing!

Andy Fisher