In my last post about destructive relationship patterns to avoid, we talked about dating anxiety, black and white thinking, and fear of commitment. Part one took us all the way through my adolescence, ending right before high school hit. In part two of the epic history of Clo Bare’s relationships saga, we enter high school and talk about the savior complex.
Savior Complex Genesis Story
When I entered high school, little time passed before I had my first “real” boyfriend. We’ll call him Calvin. He was the sweetest and most sensitive guy I’ve probably ever dated, and we loved each other in a near-obsessive, young-love kind of way.
Let’s be honest–he was probably the best first boyfriend a girl could ask for.
He’d show up to every one of my musical performances, scheduled an adorable scavenger hunt leading up to my first kiss, would bring me roses when he felt a random whim. He was the absolute sweetest. It felt good having someone obsessing over me and we had a great relationship for such young kids. Mutual interests. Great communication. Total openness.
At first, my fear of commitment hung in the shadows. It wasn’t concerned as the beginning of a new relationship can be so exciting. After all, I was equally crazy about my artsy boy who’d paint portraits of me and take me on bike rides along the river. He was romantic and creative, moody and brooding, a deep thinker and cynical.
The Commitment Anxiety
Even though I was abso-fucking-lutely in love with this guy from the very beginning, just a few months in- I started feeling that “OH MY GOD WHY DID I MEET YOU NOW THIS WILL NEVER WORK WE WILL NEVER WORK FOREVER ISN’T REAL, THIS WILL END” type of anxiety. I kept thinking I could be happier somehow and wondering if being with him was the right move.
And he must’ve been able to tell I felt this way because as the relationship progressed, his insecurities and worries deepened. He never felt good enough for me. And me being young and dumb, I thought I could fix that.
What I failed to recognize at the time, being young, dumb, and full of cruel self-entitlement, is that Calvin needed no fixing. We were just young and dumb and in love before we had a chance to know and grow in our own identities. But I took his insecurities as a thing for me to fix.
“I could fix that.”
I thought I could help show him how lovable he was. Maybe I could help him overcome his dark outlook on the world. And I thought I could help make him more confident and more secure in our relationship if I spent extra time tending to his needs and ensuring him that we were in a good place.
Not long into our relationship, I started to realize how heavy the weight of his worries was.
He worried I’d find someone else, that we wouldn’t survive when he went off to college.
He was scared he wasn’t good enough and annoyed because I couldn’t show him love in the way he wanted.
And I was not good at comforting him, because it bothered me. His anxieties annoyed me and made me feel like there was something wrong with me.
Stepping Around Glass
For the first but not the last time in a relationship, I started watching everything I said and stepping around glass to avoid triggering him.
But he’d find little holes in our relationship to pick at until it bled. I started spending all my free time with him, neglecting my friendships because he’d interpret a weekend away from each other as a sign we were drifting apart.
As his insecurities mounted, my fear of long term commitment flared up again, deepening until our relationship felt like an endless charade push and pull.
Eventually, I started to resent how his insecurities controlled me, how responsible I felt for his feelings and self-worth. I felt like I made him miserable, which made me even angrier at him.
So, not knowing what else to do, after a year of lovey-dovey gooeyness (my journals would make you barf), I started slowly pushing him away.
I grew cold. Cared less about what he thought and started making new friends and hanging out with other people. I started growing in the opposite direction until I pushed him far enough away for him to move on without me.
We then spent several years breaking up, trying again, hurting each other, and breaking up again.
How the Savior Complex Pattern Continued
If only this had been the last time I took on a savior role in my relationship.
I thought I had learned my lesson at the time, but I didn’t.
It was the first time, but certainly not the worst and not the last time I let my savior complex get the best of me.
Read “Ignoring Relationship Red Flags” to see where my savior complex climaxed with my ex who believed he was God.
I don’t want to get too in-depth on the specific relationships where this flared up for me because I cover it quite a bit in future posts in this series, but here are a few examples of how the savior complex showed up for me:
1. Some of my closest friends in high school:
I subconsciously loved taking on friends who felt misunderstood. There was something powerful about understanding people who felt misunderstood. It made me feel special so I’d go to great lengths to be friends with people who felt like outcasts.
On top of it, I felt a DEEP responsibility for these friends’ happiness and this resulted in some very intense friendships and some very codependent friendships that eventually fizzled out in the same way a romance where one person is trying to “save” someone would.
It’s not healthy– trying to take on someone’s problem so you can be their savior and it doesn’t work. In the same way, someone grows to resent someone for trying to change them, the targets of the wanna-be-savior aren’t blind to the incessant attempts of the savior to change or improve their life as they see fit.
How loving can that possibly feel? Friends are supposed to accept you as you are and love you in the state you’re in– not save you or by association change you.
2. One of my bosses in high school
I grew close to one of my bosses in high school. She was 26 and an odd person but lovable and sweet and eccentric to the extreme. She also suffered from debilitating depression and would often call me in the middle of the night while I was in high school to talk to me about her suicidal thoughts. I’d talk to her for hours sometimes, talking her off a ledge and making sure she was okay before falling asleep.
One night when I was sixteen I didn’t answer because I was out with friends, and she ended up taking a bunch of pills. The cops found her the next day in a cornfield.
She recovered, but ten years later succeeded.
I remember when I found out all those years ago, I was pissed. She hadn’t felt better? I had been there all this time for her, why wasn’t she better? How could she do this to me after all our talks and hanging out and being friends?
My narcissistic savior complex took her suicide attempt as an insult, and attack on my abilities to rescue her.
3. My Relationship with My Mom
From the time I was a little kid, I wanted to be my mom’s best friend. She’d had a tough childhood and I felt like it was my responsibility to make sure she’d never be hurt in the same way she was growing up.
I don’t remember much from this time in my life, but I wanted nothing more than to make her happy for as long as I can remember. I felt responsible for her and my dad’s happiness and would feel extreme guilt anytime I disappointed either of them.
Although I don’t remember the specifics of how I tried to take on the task of making her happy, I do remember I was her go-to girl for everything I could be.
4. Almost every Relationship I’ve Been in Since
As I started to write specific examples of when I entered the “savior complex” in a romantic relationship, I realized it’d be EASIER to tell you how many relationships I didn’t enter into the savior complex with.
How embarrassing to admit.
I could probably count on one hand how many relationships I’ve had where I didn’t try to help someone become a better version of themselves in some way.
It’s muted over the years and I’m much more aware of it now, but damn.
Every relationship? That’s a bigger pattern than I realized.
Let’s give you a few examples, yeah?
Scenario 1: “Please keep me from drinking.”
I dated a man suffering from PTSD who told me I had to prevent him from drinking or doing drugs at all costs.
How’d that work out? Not well.
He’d hate me every time I tried to prevent him from drinking or partying and then tell me I was controlling just like every one of his past relationships.
How’d I cope?
Also not well.
Instead of saying “fuck this” and getting out, I told myself I was strong enough to put up with it. I could handle the gaslighting because I was built for this type of manipulation unlike anyone else.
I think that’s another sign of someone with a narcissistic savior complex– we feel like we’re so special that we can be the ones to help someone change when no one else could. Combine that with low self-esteem– shoot. It’s no wonder I’ve been single most my life.
Scenario 2: “You have to help me.”
A man who suffered from a mood disorder that made him believe he was a god.
I dive DEEP into this relationship in a future post (read “Ignoring Relationship Red Flags” to get the full story) but to make a long story short, I thought I was responsible because I hadn’t MADE him sleep or MADE him eat or MADE him drink. I thought his loss with reality was 100% my fault and I spent months trying to remedy the situation.
A very bad situation in case you were wondering.
Scenario 3: “I never asked you to save me.”
A kind man who made many bad decisions early in his life and ended up losing his license and getting put on probation.
He continued to drive on his suspended license and I tried to change him every month of the five months we dated. Whether it was me trying to get him to get a better job or me telling his mom that he was driving on a suspended license and needed help to get his license back– I savior complex’d hard on him in the few months we dated.
I didn’t see it then, but I see now how unfair it was of me to be in that relationship.
Being in a relationship with anyone with the condition that they change is wrong. Period.
Truth be told, I was a shitty person at that time in my life. I was hurting and he helped me heal. But people shouldn’t date people for their potential. He was a wonderful man as he was and content in his own ways. I was not okay with him and his decisions, and that’s on me, not on him.
What is the Savior Complex
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the savior complex, you might be wondering “what’s so bad about wanting to help people? Isn’t that kind of a good thing?”
It’s easy to think that because on the surface– yeah! How wonderful–you want to help people, but the savior complex is different.
It’s this compulsion to “save” someone, ie. change someone, who the wanna-be-savior views as needing help.
Often it’s not even about the other person. It’s about the savior only feeing valuable if they’re needed. As they were put on this earth to save the broken souls (as they see it) because they’re more special than anyone else.
It’s part narcissistic, part low-self-worth, part using being valuable as a way to feel worthy of love, part feeling like it’s your life purpose to help people.
The Insidious Side of “Helping People”
As Psychology Today puts it:
“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.
The underlying belief of these individuals is: “It is the noble thing to do.” They believe they are somehow better than others because they help people all the time without getting anything back. While motives may or may not be pure, their actions are not helpful to all involved. 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.”
People who have a savior complex try to change something about their partner, can’t listen without giving advice (if you could only see me shrink in shame and knowing as I write this), interrogate instead of conversate, put in more work than their other half, exhaust themselves trying to “save” their person, and see themselves more as a teacher and less as a partner.
Why is this an issue?
Well, first of all, it’s not equality. It’s impossible to have an equal partnership if one person in the relationship wants to change or save the other.
Plus– it’s COMPLETELY impossible. The savior’s goal is to change or save someone and it is impossible to save or change anyone other than yourself. Period.
Another reason the “savior complex” is an issue is the wanna-be-savior is projecting what they think the other person needs.
They think they know what will solve whatever the perceived problem is when really (1.) It might only be a problem to them and (2.) they have no way of knowing what the actual solution may be.
Imagine the Savior Complex Approach
Think about it this way:
- Wanna be Savior targets next potential mate. Mate has one flaw– drinks too much. But no worries. Savior can fix.
- Mate does not mind his/her drinking. Has no intention of changing it in fact. Likes this savior person and they say they accept them for who they are! But why do they keep hiding all the booze and avoiding going out?
- Savior starts to hint at little things.. “You’re so great but…” “Maybe you wouldn’t feel so tired if you didn’t drink so much…” “Ever think your friends are a bad influence on you?” “Maybe you shouldn’t drink until you’re drunk…”
- Mate starts picking up on what the Savior is doing. It’s annoying. Why won’t they just let you be yourself? You were fine before the Savior came along trying to fix you. Is there something wrong with you? Why do they act like something is wrong with you?
- Savior starts getting annoyed that the Mate is putting up a fight. Can’t he/she see how you’re trying to HELP THEM?! Don’t they WANT to be a better person? You’re just trying to motivate him/her for fuck’s sake.
- Mate starts getting angry because the Savior wants to change them. Savior starts getting angry because the Mate doesn’t appreciate them and feels like they’re doing all the hard work themselves.
- Both start thinking something is wrong with the other and wrong with them.
Healthy, isn’t it?
Whether or not the drinking was really an issue, the Savior tries to swoop in and solve before there was ever an indication that something needed solving.
You know who would know what the problem is and what the solution is? Not the Savior. We are the only people who know what we need for ourselves, just like you are the only person who knows what you need for yourself. The Savior projecting and trying to solve problems that may or may not exist is not only detrimental to a relationship but could be damaging to one or both members of the relationship.
After all, how would it feel to be with someone who wants to change you?
Why I Want to Fix this and Why I Struggle with the Savior Complex
I’ve had a healthy dose of savior complex since I was a little kid. I tried to save my mom from the moments in her life that were hard by trying to be her best friend and adulting hard way before I should have ever tried adulting.
As the oldest female of five kids, my tendency has always been to fix things and solve problems. It’s how I feel valuable. It’s how I feel secure in my relationships– by making people need me (mwahahahaah).
But I don’t want to carry that anymore.
I don’t want to just be needed, I want to be wanted. I want to be appreciated for who I am, not all that I do for someone else based on this root fear that I’m not good enough unless I’m helping.
The Enneagram, Control and Savior Complex
As I write this, I start to see how it relates back to being that Three Enneagram type. The achiever with a wing 2. I want to achieve at saving you so hard that you love me endlessly so that I WIN! I WIN AT BEING THE BEST CAREGIVER YOU EVER FUCKING HAD EVEN IF I’M NOT FUCKING HAPPY DOING IT. YOU WILL LOVE ME FOR IT!
Gross, right? SUUUUUPER healthy.
I’m working on it.
The achiever stuff and the savior crap.
In addition to all of this, the savior complex and how I emulate it sometimes is another mechanism I use to gain control in a world where I have little. It’s a control to want to change someone. The control to form someone’s view of me. Control over how someone needs me.
It’s a complex web to untangle but I’m getting better at not taking on people projects.
I want to savior complex myself, and stop acting on my savior complex tendencies as a way to feel valuable in a relationship. It’s a selfish tendency employed when I subconsciously want to earn love. I don’t think I can have a healthy relationship based on a need to save or change someone, which is why I’ve become hyper-aware of my tendencies to fall into the savior complex.
How I’ve Been Dealing with Savior Complex Lately
Anymore because of how I’ve been working on my boundaries, I think I’d call myself a reluctant empath. I feel an obligation to take care of people more than I feel the desire to. It’s incredibly hard for me to say “no” because it makes me feel like a failure and it also worries me that I’m letting people down in a huge way.
Regardless of whether or not I actually want to or have the time to help someone/be there for someone/support someone– I almost always end up doing it at the cost of my own desires, needs, time, etc. I don’t want to hurt people, and I avoid it at all costs, even if that means saying yes to something I’d rather say “no” to.
That’s not because I’m a nice person. I think it’s because I feel guilty if I don’t.
Is that empathy?
Maybe. It might just be residual Catholic guilt.
If it’s empathy, I can be empathetic to a fault. Although I sometimes see that as a superpower, I’ve also learned to put boundaries in place in order to protect my own sanity, time, and happiness.
Managing Savior Complex
In my last relationship, I was dating someone who due to extenuating life circumstances was having a really hard time. My immediate reaction to hearing how depressed he felt was to fix it, give him advice, tell him how he should approach his depression because I have dealt with depression for more than a decade.
But that would have been an unhelpful fuck-up on my part.
First of all, he had every right to feel depressed. There’s nothing wrong with feeling depressed, and me trying to “fix” it would indicate that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. Not helpful.
Secondly, I. COULDN’T. HELP. HIM. I COULDN’T DO ANYTHING FOR HIM.
All I could do was be there for him, give him space, and be available to listen when he wanted me to listen.
I couldn’t force him to get therapy.
I couldn’t make him meditate.
It’s impossible for me to make him do “opposite thought actions”.
All I could do was be there.
AND THAT’S SO HARD FOR ME.
The relationship is over now due to reasons beyond his recent depressive episode. But looking back I know I fucked up a few times in the process– taking his depression as a personal attack that he could no longer give me the emotional fulfillment I needed or believing that he no longer wanted to be in the relationship because of how he handled his depression.
I’m not proud of how I handled it at times, but I didn’t allow myself to become the “fix-it” savior even though my internal world screamed “HELP HIM SO HE WILL LOVE YOU.”
That’s progress. Not acting on my thoughts is progress.
Hard-Line to Walk
It’s a hard line to walk as someone who over empathizes, has a tendency to become a savior and also is keenly aware of red flags in a relationship like one-sidedness or distant communication.
But you know what else besides a lack of interest in a relationship makes people pull back, isolate, and focus on themselves? Depression. Anxiety. Healing. I have to respect that, give space, and give him the opportunity to do what’s best for him, whether that’s with me or not.
Sit with the Discomfort
Sometimes due to the trauma still at play in my brain, I become my own worst enemy and think something is a bad sign when in fact it has nothing to do with me. Perhaps it’s a sign that I’m still struggling with learning how to date again, but perhaps this is growing pains. Time will tell and I’ll continue to work on knowing the difference in the meantime.
I’m trying to sit with the discomfort for now, and listen to what it’s telling me. If I can’t tell, just sit.
And, as always, I’m working on it.
You and Savior Complex
Have you ever dealt with the savior complex either on the receiving end or performing end? What was that experience like for you? Did you recognize the tendency for what it was? Share in the comments below or drop me a line!