Savior Complex Anyone?

Here’s a fairytale gone badly, as it sometimes happens in real life: There was once a little girl who believed that all good things will come to her if she is really nice and always helps other people.

She was always there for her aging parents; she even refused a dream job because it was in another town and she didn’t want to move too far from her parents. She would always help her friends, lend them money, give them advice and get them out of trouble.

Her colleagues at work could always rely on her and she would often get behind on her projects to give them a hand with theirs. She also had this affinity towards guys with serious problems (jobless, alcohol abusing, emotionally imbalanced), the kind of guys that desperately needed help.

After about ten years of doing this, she felt miserably. She wasn’t getting the love, appreciation and recognition she wanted, most people had started taking all her help for granted, her life did not look the way she’d hoped it would.

When I discussed with her in our first communication coaching session, focused on identifying the key social skills to improve, after about 15 minutes of conversation, bells started ringing in my head going: “Savior complex full throttle!”

What Is The Savior Complex?

The savior complex is 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.

There are many sides to a savior complex and it has many roots. One of its fundamental roots, in my experience, consists in a limiting belief the savior person has that goes something like this:

“If I always help people in need, I will get their love and approval, and have a happy life.”

This is of course, a nice sounding fairytale.

Houston We Have a Problem

Often, in real life, a savior will have such an unassertive way of helping others that instead of becoming grateful, they get used to it and they expect it. They feel entitled to receive help from this person, simply because they need it and they’ve always got it.

On top of this, always putting other people’s needs first makes a savior not take care of their own needs. So while they may feel happy because they are helping others, at some level, they feel bitter and frustrated at the same time.

Reframing Nobility

Here’s where things get worse: many people with a savior complex I’ve met, although they realize at some point that they have a savior complex and it is not worth it for them, they will not try to combat it.

They’re not masochistic; they have another belief that even if being a savior will not get them the recognition they want and will not make them happy, 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.

Do you have any idea how dim-witted this is? There is nothing noble in sacrificing yourself for others while you are starving at a psychological level. If our ancestors would have willingly done so 50.000 years ago, our species would be extinct.

If you think you have a savior complex or at least something close to it, I believe the best thing you can do is to face up to the practical consequences in has in your life. Being a savior is neither noble nor practical.

Learn to give and to ask for what you want, to help and to be helped. This is the healthy way to use your people skills and to interact with others.

Image courtesy of Eneas


  1. I’m guilty of this one Eddie.

    But I know that it comes at a price and that it won’t bring me the really happiness I want.

  2. Hi Eduard.

    This sure is a topic of concern. “Am I helping someone at the expense of my own health?” This is a valid topic, because if you are helping someone, who then relies upon you for it, and then lose your own health/energy in the process, the help is not sustainable, and then later when they want your help, you will not be able to provide it, so the initial help was actually damaging. This is why people generally like those who are tough and direct, because they may not seem so friendly at first, but they are not making someone attached to them, and still help along the process.

    It isn’t easy to be tough and direct, though.

    • Well pointed out Armen. It’s not sustainable in the long term to help others at the expense of your own needs. I think it’s always best to (relatively) balance the two.

  3. Oh man is this true! Some people give and give until it hurts, and if it doesn’t hurt they don’t think they are doing enough. They are habitual self-sacrificers.

    “There is nothing noble in sacrificing yourself for others while you are starving at a psychological level.”

    Exactly! It’s like during airplane safety instructions. They tell you to put your oxygen mask on first, and THEN help others put their masks on. If you don’t save yourself, if you can’t find happiness, then you can only do so much for other people. Real charity comes first from being charitable and loving to yourself.

    “You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love.” – Buddha

    And the ironic thing is… when we can stand on our own two feet and be strong, we serve as an inspiration to those who can’t yet do it. Sometimes that is the BEST way we can help others.

  4. We can help everyone. What we can do is teach them to help themselves. Give him the pole and tell them to fish for themselves. Just show them.

  5. Interesting points. I think you hit the nail in the head when you say these people are looking for acceptance. I used to be like this myself.. I used to want to help others as much as possible and got bitter when they just ignored me, and didn’t give me appreciation.

    However, it’s a dilemma because we feel you can’t have much meaning in life unless you have a positive effect on others (ie Mother Theresa). So what are we supposed to do? Just care of our needs, and focus on just ourselves? I think that leads to depression too. Dun get me wrong – we need to love ourselves, but if we have noone to help, that causes problems too, no?

    That’s why I think so many ppl look to creating a family for meaning in life. It just leads to an easy way to help others (your wife, your kids). VS helping friends who could care less about you. Your wife/kids are genetically linked to you, so they’ll reciprocate your caring.

    • Hi Henway,

      I find that many patterns of behavior emerge from a huge need for acceptance. And many apparently constructive behaviors are in fact destructive. We just need to look at them in perspective to realize this.

      The point is not to not help others at all. Helping others is one important part of life. However, I think we need to balance taking care of our needs with taking care of other people’s needs.

      • PAULO CASTRO says:

        I loved that comment. I was teached by priests in a Catholic School in Brazil and I think that uncounsciously I was born to give and now I realize that I am so tired of it and want to change. This articles plus the comments have opened new venues in my mind. Thank you.

  6. Hi there Eddie. I’m all too familiar with codependency, the savior complex. People who come from dysfunctional families in which they are parentified at an early age are known for becoming codependent. That was me! It is extremely exhausting to constantly hold yourself responsible for fixing everything and saving everyone. However, it is important to know that codependency doesn’t just go away. In addition to awareness, there is so much healing work that goes into overcoming this. The work may take years but it is worth it. Great post!

    • Hey Nea,

      I’ve noticed the same thing about people who come from dysfunctional families. The interesting thing is that I’ve also met people with a Savior Complex who came from what you might call a normal family.

      This idea of always sacrificing yourself for others can (and often does) sneak into your head in all sort of growing conditions. Your average, typical family sometimes promotes this idea as well.

      • Ya i agree with that Eduard. While my parents are divorced, they still both loved me very much and didnt let their seperation get in the way of how they raised me. So far ive helped out 4 girls and i was their boyfriend. 3 out of the 4 times they ended up leaving me for some other guy when they were done with me. The other one i just realized that i was hurting myself too much to stay.

        My last relationship was with a girl who came from a pretty dysfunctional family. Luckily i was able to keep her off drugs before she started. It lasted my last 2 years in high school and i’m now in college. She ended up cheating on me with a guy from school and leaving me for him. But after all that i try to be there for her. It sounds crazy as im writing it but its just who i am. She at least aknowledged that i helped her move on with her life and get over her depression somewhat. In the end i’m pretty sure i would do it again.

  7. I am not sure if I have a savior complex but I believe that I have something along those lines, and I am beginning to realize how badly I need to find a way to change the way I respond now that I am an adult. When someone in my life is going through a hard time, like making bad relationship choices, or have problems with their parents, or making dangerous choices (drugs, excessive drinking) my identity becomes so wrapped in helping them and feeling their pain, that I lose myself. It actually started when I was very little, but my parents always just told me I was sensitive. But in reality, I believe it is getting out of hand. I will cry for weeks and be really truly depressed and spend all my time praying or trying to help that person. And in situations where I simply can’t do anything, it is the same but even worse. I stayed in a horrible relationship because I so badly wanted him to stop doing drugs (learned that lesson) but I was just so sad for him. For example, my friend came out of the closet and he got kicked out of his house and is going through some really hard things right now, and I honestly haven’t even been able to eat and I’ve cried every night this week. I worry that people take advantage of the fact that they can affect me so much, many people have emotionally manipulated me by making themselves appear as victims, or telling me that they are suicidal/going to kill themselves and then later I find that it was more of a tool to get to me emotionally and that the hole ordeal made me depressed while they were hanging out with their friends. I know I sound absolutely crazy but I really just need some advice.

    just brain storming on some possible causes or links:
    I have control issues in my own life, like I am extremely clausterphobic in situations where I don’t think I can escape. I came from a very loving family, but they are immigrants who came from a different culture so they are very so they are a little over protective so maybe that is just how I was taught to express love? But still, doesn’t explain how sad it makes me..

  8. My girlfriend and I are crazy in love going 6 years. We’re late 40’s and no kids to think of. We are both saviour complex cases. Every relationship I was in (close to 12) was out of need to fix some problem they had. Married twice for even more saviour reasons. I survived being poisoned by my last wife before I found out she was having an affair. Took everything I had in the divorce and put me in debt. ($1M total loss.) I was 34. I became interested in psychology and brain (dis)orders. With research, I now look back at the ex’s and can see similar personality traits that link them all towards bi-polar or similar disorders. Was I seeking out relationships like these trying to fix these poor innocent women? Most likely, and unaware of it at the same time. I wish I could say now, I HAD a saviour complex. As I became more aware of my own issues, I created healthier habits and took chances on ‘not’ giving assistance. I was lucky enough to become aware on my own, but I went through hell to do so.
    My amazing girlfriend also suffers from Saviour Complex. And it’s her family that is destroying her. She’s an angel and I can’t stand how her family treats her. I’ve done my share of introducing her to the concepts of Saviour Complex. She is aware now too that she has and suffers from this issue. So, I ended up becoming aware of my own saviour complex, just to find out i’m still in full Saviour mode with no end in sight. changing my habits and controlling my urge to help is not enough.
    I came from a loving family. Although my father was a reclusive basket case, we went fishing and threw the ball.
    He taught me to fish and i’m forever grateful, because what he taught me was how to learn and do for myself.

    Today, we both feel like we’re in love and we can’t imagine our lives apart. But, is that feeling not just a result of the complexity of the saviour complex? I like to think not.

    When does it get better?

  9. I seem to resonate with this type of behavior, and am present to the ways its affecting my life. I think the reason was the missing attention and security from dad, whom I found indifferent to my life. Even though he was a good and responsible person. To cope up with that I guess somewhere long back in my childhood I formulated a way to take decisions in my life based on achieving ‘Maximum Profit’ irrespective of whose profit it is going to be. Ever since I have pulled myself in situations, where I could act as savior and I grabbed at those opportunities, and kept on giving …till no juice left. Most of times, this kind of relationship ended either when the other person didn’t further require my help, or he didn’t reciprocate in terms of acknowledgement even after a long shot. And in most of this situation I have found myself totally helpless and a victim. Thanks to all those experiences, I have got an awareness towards this issue of mine, and am working on it. To me looks like, I need to connect back with myself and focus my energies on recouping my health and other things i still want to do in life.

  10. Very IMPORTANT forum with information/construct that final broke through my reasoning and consciousness. I have been in therapy for more than a year. I have done much family of origin work. I have a relatively high IQ and advanced education. I have known for quite sometime that “my purpose in life is to fix things” a gift from my family of origin. Without engaging in voluminous detail, my savior complex has been to fix or save young prostitutes. This “mission” has FELT like a perfect fit for my sex addiction as well as love addiction as well as feeding my savior complex. All these attributes I learned very early. The intro passage that says “You have any idea how dim witted this is?” Is a logic based bulls eye. But, EMOTIONS are not logic based. I simply use logic to feed the emotions. The way the information is presented here has brought clarity to my dysfunction. Further, I feel a euphoria…..perhaps false, only time will tell….that I know how to “fix” my problem. My white knight mission will now be to SAVE ME! If, I cannot change the programming that was done early on, at least I can aim it at the correct defective object needing repair – ME. I overcame a number of other “numbing” addictions to alcohol, nicotine, etc. through transference from one substance or behavior to another. This is no different. My underlying need to be needed will be fed by saving myself. This raises an intellectual question within my mind. Are ANY addictions ever truly CURED? Step ONE will be to identify actions, activities, experiences, etc. that make ME FEEL GOOD, fulfilled, happy, etc. without involving helping others, and so it begins.

  11. I have the savior complex! I know I do.

    I am married, 24 years now. Three great children, a grandchild a wonderful wife and a great job.

    However, I still feel the need to save others. Why? I don’t have a clue why! I write this after a friend of the last 15 months sends me an email telling me that she no longer wants to communicate with me. I look back over those 15 months and I know that she was poison and was slowly tearing away at my marriage, but I still feel empty inside now.

    I hate this feeling. I am at a lost, how will I check up on her, how will I make sure she eats, that she takes care of herself. How? I know, not my issue and plenty of my friends have told me the same thing, but it is still an empty feeling that I am battling.

    I think the reason she got scared and ran was because her life was going to well. Maybe she couldn’t handle being on track, making a difference, maybe it got to hard for her. I don’t know the answer, and I doubt I will ever know the answer. I will make it without an issue, one day at a time.

    I do understand what all of you are saying, and I feel for each of you because I know the emptiness is real.

    Bucky J. Powers esq.

  12. How do you direct someone who you believe may have this complex and to recognize that they do? Any conversation as gently as it is approached results in a raging response from that person. Don’t know what to do anymore as this has had a hugely negative impact on our family.

  13. I have a saving complex and I just realized it after my marriage break up. I realized I married a person who was broken in every way a man can be, and I thought I could fix him. Turns out after some therapy, I needed to fix me! and as soon as I started to do so a lot of my daily anxiety and hurt began to ease. I also cut down on watching the news, which caused me to feel terrible pangs of emotions..It almost took me over the edge where I started to hate people. Then I turned my attention to animals, and well I am much better now..I am so glad I am aware of this condition because I was always cleaning up my parents messes and dysfuction was an understatement in my upbringing. I am still rescuing…but just not obssessed about it anymore.

  14. ADam j read says:

    Well, this is interesting, although after 2,000 years of telling people to be like Jesus, it’s not terribly surprising that some of us show up with a…shall we say…disorder(?) like this.

    I also read recently in an article debunking some of the myths of schizophrenia that despite what many people believe about them, they will often harm themselves instead of others. Here’s the connecting thoughts:

    In a world that is often filled with such tremendous competition, we often see our only choices as being either winners or losers. In order to win, we must often tap a very aggressive instinct in ourselves so that we can overpower and defeat our “enemies.” It feels very much like warfare, and quite honestly, many of us are trying to become less aggressive as part of our own mental health strategies rather than more aggressive.

    If forced to choose, many will choose to step away from the battle field and towards being more adaptive. Adaptation is often seen as noble, so, we go that way instead of drawing our swords.

    If we can find an environment that is not so competitive and prone to aggression, it is possible for the less dominant types to thrive. It’s just that if they/we are not vigilant, they/we become the ones that are most likely to be abused.

  15. I guess I’m a little bit like this, though I just do it because i love helping people and knowing there’s a difference in the world, for the better that is. It’s somewhat calming and I really enjoy it.

  16. I know this post ifs 5 years old, but thank God it came up in my Google search. That girl you described at the outset is ME
    ***She was always there for her aging parents; she even refused a dream job because it was in another town and she didn’t want to move too far from her parents. She would always help her friends, lend them money, give them advice and get them out of trouble.

    Her colleagues at work could always rely on her and she would often get behind on her projects to give them a hand with theirs. She also had this affinity towards guys with serious problems (jobless, alcohol abusing, emotionally imbalanced), the kind of guys that desperately needed help.***

    Since my early 20s, I have been in & out of relationships with guys who preyed on my type.. homeless guys, drug addicts, depressed, bipolar.. at my own expense – financially, emotionally & physically..
    I met a guy through a dating site in 2012 who was desperate for help. Winter was approaching, his father had recently died, so he inherited the house & he had no power or water in the house. Also, the property taxes were 2 yrs overdue & he was in danger of foreclosure. What else could I do but “save” him? I paid 2 year’s worth of property taxes, turned on water & electricity & over the next few months spent an indefinite amount of money in him for food, clothes, phones, accessories for the phone, etc etc….
    Then he disappeared for almost a year, then he came back needing more.. each time he did this I would tell myself “it is not your problem, it’s his…let him fix it” but he had a way of making me feel guilty for saying no.. Just a week ago I paid another year of property taxes & electricity & water. Then yesterday I told him this is my final goodbye. Don’t contact me ever again. But nonetheless I have this savor complex illness & wish there was a pill to cure it…there’s not. Thanks for the article Eduard.

  17. Michelle says:

    Younger folks, if you recognize yourself as having this complex, extricate yourself from any relationships drawing you into this behavior & concentrate on getting help & healing. It doesn’t get any better as you get older otherwise. I’m 53 and pretty much feel like life is over for me. Not in a suicidal sense by any means, just that my lot in life now is to be chained to the hamster wheel of financial obligation to support my needy parents who for years drank up the money they should’ve been putting away for retirement. Now all they have is SSI which doesn’t cover much. And then I love my husband very much but he’s a manchild emotionally and he hates any responsibility regarding finances. So if I try to explain why we don’t have money to do X, Y or Z he immediately turns into a little pouting, sulking 10 year-old boy. He also regularly has crises at work that he has to be bailed out of. Both situations are just mind numbing because I just shutdown emotionally to keep from dealing with them. My parents have conveniently forgotten their bad behavior during their drinking days so to hear them tell it, they were saints during my teens & early adult years. It doesn’t help that mother is bitter about her lot in life, but takes no responsibility for her poor decisions in life, just blames Dad for everything. There is so much in this life I want to see & taste & experience but instead I am stuck here feeling like I’m trapped in the movie Groundhog Day, every day is pretty much a carbon copy of the day before. Young folks, run while you can & get help before the Savior Complex traps you into a life you can’t change.

  18. This is me all over. But when you’ve been brought up to be a carer for your disabled brother and sister and your good for nothing father walks away from the family leaving you to pick up the pieces… You know nothing different.
    I have no friends that respect me. I have so called friends that only call me when they want something or need advice. Thankfully I have a boyfriend that loves and cherishes me and I couldn’t be happier with him. But everyone needs a friend they can call when they have a problem or need advice.

  19. yeah i definitely have a savior complex. When people approach me for favors,i can never say ‘No’ or come up with some other excuse. So yeah i doomed myself to working overnight , for doing others work in addition to doing mine own.But that’s all in the past now, not because I started saying’No’ , coz I still can’t. But yeah i got smart and delegated my work to my VA( Habiliss).Shout out to rachel (VA) for coming to my rescue every single time!

  20. Good stuff, yeah I remember someone saying: Help yourself so you can help other,… comparing it to the airplane instructions. Where if the pressure drops, you first put on your own oxygenmask and then of the children/persons next to you. That hit home, so I won’t fall that easily for the Savior complex anymore.

  21. Naheed Kauser says:

    I started off at the second level …..learning to balance things now and yeah Timon already wrote that ….being cautious about falling for the Savior complex anymore

  22. Painful but very helpful article.would have loved to see ways no break the mentality though.

  23. Kimara Samuel says:

    I am in tears. I have finally figured out in depth what has been wrong with me all these years. Why I attract selfish and self centered people, why I stay in toxic and dysfunctional situations longer than I should, why letting go is equivalent to feeling like I have lost everything. The emotional damage. The hurt. The pain. The frustration. The anger. The bitterness. This need to always want to make people happy, to be approved of and accepted, to be loved and cherished. The imbalance in friendships and relationships. The neglect of myself. The manipulation from others. The mind crippling fear of leaving these friendships and relationships even though I know deep down inside they are no good for me. Wanting so badly to please others. Yearssss wasted. And so much more. 20+ years of this complex. 20+ years of this self abuse. 20+ years of unhappiness. God, I just want to be free!! What have I done!

  24. Thanks for that. It’s the first time i hear about the savior complex/being a people pleaser without the point being ‘just stop’. The solution is not simply saying no but learning to ask for things valid to you and being assertive when this giving, slaps us back with emotional or physical pain. I’ve worked in a drug and alkohol rehab for over a year some time ago and as I’m often a helpless people pleaser, my boss asked me to join an education class they conducted with the clients on that topic. People struggling with obsessive rescuing others were reacting really strongly against any suggestions to alter/quit their behaviour and to be honest i felt the same. It felt we’re being told to stop being good people (our brain taught us to comfort ourselves we are, when we feel frustrated), become selfish, egocentric etc. It’s not about erasing but ADDING (some other features to your social life, like recognizing your own needs and valuing them at least equally as the needs of others, waiting to be asked for help instead of always jumping in, which adds to us not being appreciated and noticed even by those we help. Helping AND asking for help is the way to do it). Took me 2 years of being a martyr and multiple addicts in my life I tried to take care of and save to more or less find that balance;)

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