A podcast for new atheists, lifetime atheists, ex-evangelicals, truth-seekers, and free-thinkers
You jump, I jump... they're my friends I've gotta help them... fuck the prime directive, these people are going to die! Come with me if you want to live! Pop culture really grooms us for what we're talking about tonight, as does evangelical thought.
And tonight, I'm tackling a subject that I've toyed with for a few months now at least, so no matter who is listening and already thinking this episode is about them based on the title alone (and there is more potential for this than any of them could possibly individually think), I assure you and the rest of the listeners that this episode isn't directly about anyone outside the room we are recording in. I thought it was a good place to insert the topic because I think it flows well on the heels of last week's conversation.
I think of the average pastor when I think of this concept because many members of the clergy have some or all of the traits associated with this. I do, however want to steer away from the spiritual side of this and talk more about how it affects everyday people living everyday lives and how to at least start steering away from the more harmful, self-deprecating, and destructive aspects of this.
The savior complex is something I've lived with since at least my teen years and I want to explain what it looks like, how it manifests, and why it's important for all of us to progressively learn how to channel those tendencies into more productive actions and behaviors.
For once, we aren't going to point fingers at evangelicals beyond referencing a little bit how this subject relates to evangelical thought. This is about you as an individual. It probably relates to you more as an ex-evangelical, but this is, on its face, a secular concept that needs to be looked at from the standpoint of how we become better as people while living with and properly managing these personality traits.
What is a savior complex? Wikipedia gives two definitions:
We're going to focus on the second interpretation as the basis for this conversation. In extreme cases, savior complexes manifest in things like cult leaders and vigilantes. In most cases, it involves an individual who is driven to help others they perceive to be both in some kind of distress and in a position to be saved. These interactions are typically one-on-one and can involve both romantic and platonic feelings and motivations.
If there was anything about me that put me within the realm of a good candidate for full-time ministry, it's this. This kind of mindset has been part of my make-up for a long while. As long as I can remember, really. For me, it has always revolved around one of two things: someone I cared about being in distress, or a personal vendetta that involved removing negative influences, behaviors, or circumstances from a person's life.
I can think back to my teenage years with this and there were probably instances before. If that tendency existed in me as a child, it was overshadowed by my constant need for care and help. I have had seven surgeries to correct clubbed feet and spent so much time as a child being seen-to by others, I didn't have time to overload on empathy for other people. When did that start changing? On August 4, 1985. The day I got “saved.”
After that it became all about not letting people go to hell. I wasn't exactly a world-class evangelist but I was vocal about what I believed and it gave me a huge rush when people were receptive to what I had to say about my faith and how it could... help them. I started looking at families that were clearly (or at least perceptibly) unchurched and my mind would go into places where I saw this happy, functional family screaming and burning in hell together and those kinds of images started getting more common and more vivid in my mind. I couldn't possibly sit back and let that happen.
So, of course, when it was suggested to me that I consider going into full-time ministry, that part of me kicked in instantly and it drove every decision I made about my future from age 15 forward. I stayed at that sad, sorry excuse for a college for four years – and in case it's still unclear, I was fucking miserable there – because that was where I was going to learn how to literally, eternally SAVE people. I was going to help people fix all the problems in their lives with Jesus, praise gawd! I finally had a way and a means and I intended to use it.
But before I delve too deeply into my own story (and I will have lots more to say about this on a personal level), this is far from an evangelical thing. It's just that, like with anything else, it's a personality trait that they like to exploit. As youth pastors in the Assemblies of God, it is expected that we (and I'm being inclusive here because I was, in fact, one of them for a little while) motivate young people to pursue full-time ministry. And again, I don't know about most churches but I do know that my youth pastor didn't treat this as a blanket goal in his ministry. He didn't try to get everyone to go into the ministry, but when he saw specific traits in people, he zeroed in on us and started aggressively cultivating these thoughts inside out heads.
But savior complexes are such points of relatability for so many, they are actually a huge and often embraced theme in popular media, especially in movies. It took me decades to figure it out, but some of the most beloved characters out there had MAJOR savior complexes that manifested mostly out of conflict. That's where it starts. We see trouble brewing and all of a sudden it's “where's my cape?” Here are just a few examples:
The Karate Kid
Rick Grimes (TWD)
John McClane (Die Hard)
Harry Potter – Triwizard Tournament and Saving Sirius Black “you got a bit carried away.” Sirius may have lived if Harry had butted out.
And that, right there is the biggest downfall of the savior complex: you get carried away with the notion of saving people. For me, that started with my alleged “ministry calling.” And I got VERY carried away. I got carried away from a real college, from law school, and from any semblance of a normal adolescence and college experience and that was just the tip of the iceberg. My own “saving people thing” has gotten me in trouble more than once as an adult, too.
Psychology Today, I think, provides a more comprehensive description of this as it relates to how it manifests in “normal” people. I put normal in quotes because while it might not be a personality disorder, a savior complex can, and often does, manifest as at least a sort of self-perception disruptor. You voluntarily set aside your own needs to see to those of others... like the average pastor.
The Savior Complex - Why good intentions may have negative outcomes by Sarah A. Benton
At a first glance, the term “Savior Complex” can appear have a positive connotation. Things like selflessness and self-sacrifice for the good of others sounds great on the surface. However, there are plenty of negatives that emerge, and when you examine the underlying motivations behind it and the impact it can have on others, it becomes clear that this “saving people thing” some possess can be problematic. Of course it sometimes manifests in things like... podcasts, too, so there is good and bad that comes from this.
Today, though, I really want to emphasize the dangers and help you understand that there are both healthy and unhealthy ways that a savior complex can manifest. In far too many cases, it becomes unhealthy and reaching a point of acceptance that you aren't the Superman, Luke Skywalker, or Harry Potter in someone else's life is not just a good idea, it's a necessary thing with which those of us who have these tendencies need to come to grips.
“According to the blog PeopleSkillsDecoded.com, the savior complex can be best defined as “A psychological construct which makes a person feel the need to save other people. This person has a strong tendency to seek people who desperately need help and to assist them, often sacrificing their own needs for these people.
“Many individuals who enter into caring professions such as mental health care, health care and even those who have loved ones with addictions may have some of these personality characteristics. They are drawn to those who need “saving” for a variety of reasons. However, their efforts to help others may be of an extreme nature that both deplete them and possibly enable the other individual.”
In some of the examples above, I do think we see the positives of this kind of personality, particularly in the areas of physical and mental health (my kidney stone, my fall on Cadillac Mountain...). But I also think of how many health care workers wound up infected with COVID and how many even lost their lives (leaving behind families with young children in some cases) in the name of helping strangers and it's in those examples that I see the kind of price there is to be paid with fueling, nurturing, and acting upon a savior complex.
“Look for the helpers...” - there is a difference between a helper and a savior figure. Healthcare workers fall under the former category most of the time. Do they all have savior complexes? No, but some of the personality traits are definitely there. They've just figured out a constructive way to channel those tendencies and get paid for using them appropriately – getting functionally, but not emotionally, involved in the process of solving people's problems.
Some people flex their savior complexes because “It's the noble thing to do...” Others do it for selfless reasons while others do it for personal glory and empowerment. Not all motives that drive that “saving people thing” are pure, and here is one of the most toxic outgrowths of trying too hard to save someone else:
“The problem is that trying to "save" someone does not allow the other individual to take responsibility for his or her own actions and to develop internal motivation. Therefore, the positive (or negative) changes may only be temporary.”
Don Michael Ruiz is the author of a book called The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom and in it he makes some observations that people with savior complexes need to learn. Here are just a couple quotes, with commentary:
“You are never responsible for the actions of others; you are only responsible for you.” - “But my influence matters.” Does it, though? *Two pictures
“Whatever you think, whatever you feel, I know is your problem and not my problem. It is the way you see the world. It is nothing personal, because you are dealing with yourself, not with me.” - This is one of the toughest ones for me because I immediately start blaming myself when a person fails to become better, well, more focused, or happier as a result of my influence. I reach a point where I convince myself that the other person's problems are very, “you jump, I jump...” in nature.
I start telling myself I can get this person to start seeing a better picture of people or of the world by just providing a good example. I do take it personally when they fail to get better or when they lapse back into old patterns and I do take how they deal with me very personally. I'm getting better and gravitating away from these things, but they still exist in my head.
“Humans are addicted to suffering at different levels and to different degrees, and we support each other in maintaining these addictions” - and here is another one that I relate to a lot. I've even said it out loud, “It's as though this person wants to be miserable. She keeps complaining that no one loves her but lashes out at anyone who tries.
So often, the things that people complain about in their lives are the very things that they will pour every fiber of their being into perpetuating. They live in a perpetual state of self-sabotage and they do whatever they can to keep the would-be savior figure in their lives close, just so they have an outlet for all the frustration they heap on themselves. And this actually impedes their healing because now they have a scapegoat. Now you are the source of all their problems. You are just trying to find something wrong with them. You are forcing them to see themselves through a glass of love, empowerment, and compassion... and they feel threatened by it.
They respond to love with hate. They respond to support with abuse. They complain that no one loves them and then drive wedges between themselves and anyone who dares to try. Here's the problem: people with acute savior complexes will keep plugging away. They'll keep trying to chisel away at that wall. They'll keep telling themselves that it doesn't matter how any of this makes them feel just as long as the other person has a chance at getting better.
People, it just doesn't work. Talk about decreasing so someone else can increase... I've totally lost my sense of self trying to “save” other people and the biggest and most important lesson that I've learned is that it's a fruitless effort unless and until the other person reaches a point where he or she wants the same changes, fixes, and healings in their life that you want for them. Unless and until they get there, nothing – and I mean nothing – you try to do for them will have any measurable or worthwhile effect. They will remain broken and they'll break you right along with them if you insist on toughing it out long enough.
If you're in this kind of position and you think you're doing what you're doing for another in the name of love, let me present a new idea to you: if you love them, walk away. If you love them, give them the space and the means to start fixing themselves and see what happens. They might, but it's not likely.
If you love that person, get out of their way, let them deal with themselves, and remove from the equation any means they might have to scapegoat someone else as the source of their problems, namely you. Your effort to “fix” them is destined to keep them broken. If you love them, step aside and give them the opportunity to heal absent of your influence.
Note, I said your influence, not your love. It's perfectly OK to go on loving them. It's not ok for you to use your love for them to keep them in the place they are right now. You won't fix them by loving them harder. Period. They have to learn to love themselves enough to want better and there is nothing... you hear that? NOTHING you can do to make that happen. They don't love you back because they can't. They would need to be able to love themselves first to even have a chance.
And this is another trap I've fallen into. “I know she would love me if she could.” All right. Fine. Maybe that's true. Here's the problem: she can't so it doesn't matter. See, that's where we need to eventually get in the thought process here. Most people with savior complexes stop at part A, but part B matters and we need to learn to let our thoughts create that kind of rational balance. Part A is emotion, part B is intellect and both need to have an equal say.
So how do we go about making this happen? The Psychology Today article lends some excellent advice that I'm going to put my own spin on for you now.
1. Use your intellect to process and assess your emotions (“use your head to guard your heart”) - how is maintaining this relationship making you feel? If you aren't happy, that's a red flag. If you feel disrespected, that's one too. If it feels like you're putting in all the effort and the other person is just siphoning love off of you, you're right. Left to emotion alone, none of this will matter. You WILL keep plugging away, watching the other person hurt, and making excuses for how they treat you. Let your intellect have its say.
2. Set boundaries that allow you to care but not become immersed in the other person's problems. It's at that point that “saving” them becomes a priority. Know when to say when. Offer moral support, but don't take the spotlight as the source of help. As soon as that person becomes your “project” you're trapped. Now, their happiness affects yours. They're unhappy, you're unhappy. When they fail, it's your fault. Stay out of it. “Let me know how that works out,” demonstrates care without allowing the other person to look to you for support. Show interest, avoid immersion. This is one I really need to learn how to do better.
3. Add the word “no” to your vocabulary. Stop automatically saying yes whenever someone wants your help or involvement. Don't like coming back with an immediate “no?” Ask your therapist if “maybe” is right for you. “Maybe” gives yourself the time to assess whether what is being asked of you is reasonable or not. Should this person even be asking you for this? Is it appropriate to get involved? Sometimes the answers to these questions are obvious. For the rest, there's “maybe.”
4. Take your time deciding how to proceed – this covers how involved you get in someone's life or problems. Don't be impulsive. Don't make decisions on the basis of emotion alone. “Sleep on it” is good policy. It gives the brain the chance to process things.
5. Have your own competent, consistent support base – in other words, find a therapist and bounce everything off of them. Keep in mind what I've said before: good therapists don't offer advice or tell you what to do. They guide YOUR thoughts in appropriate directions so you can find answers and make decisions that are right for you.
6. Have the guts to let people you love crash and burn. It's ok to give advice when it's asked for. It's fine to care what happens to someone when they make bad choices. It's not OK to become their scapegoat when they make bad choices and it's never good to find yourself stuck in the middle. Get comfortable with the idea of letting people make mistakes.
7. “Let go” of the results or consequences. If you don't get too immersed, there is no way you, or anyone else, can point a finger of blame at you. A toxic will try, but you will know the truth. “You could have done X for me and kept me from getting hurt and you didn't!!!” Maybe, but you did something far better though – you gave that person the opportunity to learn and grow whether they choose to do so as a result of the experience or not. What they learn and how they react are not your problem. Take your cues from Elsa and let it go.
8. Never love someone more than they are willing to love you. Never be more supportive of another person than they are of you. Never care more about someone else's success than they do (I struggle with this one every day at work). Demand balance and back off when you don't get it.
9. Develop clear personal definitions of what help and care are, what they look like, and how they manifest. Dial back your response long before you're ever in the situation. Knowing your own boundaries and sticking to them (there's the tricky bit – ALWAYS sticking to them) will keep you from getting hurt and enabling certain behaviors and attitudes in the people who look to you for help and support.
There's no doubt that when Fred Rogers told the story of “the helpers” on his show, he was referring to people who took appropriate and selfless action when they saw others in distress. Being a helper is a good thing. It's when you cross the line between helping and fixing where things get hairy. The last part of the article addresses what “helping” looks like and what the boundaries are. Again, here is my take on some of these bullet points...
What helping means to the individual:
Showing concern – asking questions and listening; empathizing and demonstrating care
Knowing when to back off
Listening (actively, and with the goal of understanding not responding)
Offering advice when asked for but not doing the actual work for people
You need to determine whether or not the extent of your involvement in someone's life and in their problems is appropriate. Ask yourself:
Am I helping them because I genuinely care about them or because helping will make me feel better about myself?
Is this even about someone else getting better or is it all about me feeling better about myself?
Is my help wanted and invited?
Do I have to do this?
Do I want to do this?
But what about when you start learning how to say no or when to back off and you've got the reputation for being the Harry Potter of the group pursuing your saving people thing? You might be afraid that people won't like you as much. Keep in mind that if people like you based solely on what you can do for them, they don't care about you in the first place.
You may not feel like you are loving effectively if you aren't immersing yourself in saving people. Remember that sometimes you have to love people enough to let them crash and burn. In many, many instances, it is more kind to let people make mistakes than to try to protect them from themselves and in so doing deny them the privilege of learning and growing as individuals.
Lastly, you may not feel like you are doing your best if you aren't all-in with the emotions and actions. In those instances, keep in mind that your best and your all are not necessarily the same thing. There's a lot to be said for being able to respond appropriately when you want to let your emotions run the show. That, my friend, is you at your best. It's in this place when you can truly trust your own judgment and act on it with a clear conscience.
So that was somewhat of a humorous interlude but I wanted to make the point that if some or all of what I said tonight relates to you, it's time to start thinking a bit more about you and a bit less about how the people in your life perceive your level of care, devotion, and even love for them.
For evangelicals (and ex-evangelicals) in particular, this is tough territory to navigate. The religion does nothing to help us manage that part of us. On the contrary – it feeds it, cultivates it, and nurtures it. It tells us that this is the kind of emotion we should be pouring into people. It teaches us that we matter less than we do. It sells us on the notion of “decreasing” so that when we are hurt, abused, and taken advantage of, it leaves us questioning what it was that WE did wrong.
Here's your answer: if you ever so much as took interest in another person and provided them with support and comfort with no thought of reward (that's the key part of this), and you can say that you never did anything to intentionally harm them, manipulate them, or attempt to get something out of them by being there and seeing to their needs, you did nothing wrong on the surface.
Below the surface, however, being too involved, pouring emotion into someone to the point where you start forgetting who you are, is wrong. It marginalizes you as a person and leaves the door wide open for you to be abused and taken advantage of. Even worse, it does nothing to help the person you care about. It leaves them stuck in a place of dependence and fuels never-ending cycles of mistreatment and abuse as they project and transfer all the things they dislike about themselves onto you. That's scapegoating in a nutshell. It's also the function of a savior.
Never, ever try to be someone's therapist but do encourage clinical, professional help when you know it's warranted. Never neglect your own self-care to see to the needs of someone else. Take a good look in the mirror and remember that you still exist and that you don't exist to solve every problem or meet every need in every person you meet or decide to love. You aren't a superhero and you aren't anyone's savior, even if they tell you as much, and sometimes they do. That doesn't mean you're doing something right. That means you're now stuck always living up to that person's image of you and the instant you drop the ball in their eyes, all kinds of problems will ensue.
Don't put yourself in that position. It is possible to love while maintaining established boundaries. It is possible to care about someone without sacrificing your self-image to build them up. Don't use rewards like affection, praise or “I love yous” as proof that you're doing the right thing. These things are momentary. You need to think long-term.
Lastly, it's time to forgive yourself for playing the fools rush in card so often in your relationships. It's time to shift the focus back onto you where it belongs. It's time to start using these very noble but potentially harmful tendencies in ways that actually bring about healthy results, even if that means being determined enough to just stand back and watch bad things happen to people you care about as a result of their own bad choices and behaviors.
It may seem weird, but that demonstrates love and care in ways running into burning buildings all the time with them never will, and by striking that balance in your relationships, you might just save two people in the process: you from the burdens that you heap on yourself trying to care about someone to unhealthy degrees, and them when they're finally forced to deal with their shit in ways that don't provide them with a scapegoat when they engage in self-limiting and self-destructive behaviors. For ex-evangelicals, it's one more thing we can do to shake off some of the old ways of thinking – ways that keep us from being the people we want to be, forgive ourselves for not being super-human, and in every way that matters start getting and staying unbound.