- There's a difference between being naturally helpful and having a savior complex.
- It's important to actively listen to others and wait to be asked before stepping in.
- Oftentimes, people will come up with their own solutions if given the chance.
Many people come to therapy troubled by their inability to help someone in need. They may say things like:
- "Why do I always feel attracted to people who have had lots of troubles in life?"
- "I make every sacrifice possible to help him, but he still doesn't change."
- "If I'm constantly trying to change my significant other for the better, does that mean I'm not accepting of them?"
If you relate to any of these questions, you may have a savior complex. At first glance, your behaviors might point to your helpful nature. But, when examined more closely, your savior complex can be psychologically unhealthy as it can give you an external outlet to focus on instead of addressing your own problems.
Helpfulness is a valued and pro-social trait, but there is a difference between helping and saving. A savior complex goes beyond our ability to help people, crossing into the realm of trying to be a hero in someone else's life for your benefit more than theirs.
Here I'll talk about three ways you can manage your instinct to want to "save" people.
1. Practice active listening.
When people confide in you, they are often looking for an outlet to let out pent-up emotions instead of wanting to "be fixed." A big problem for many "saviors" is the mistaken assumption that people are incapable of solving their own issues. If you take up the practice of listening more actively, you may learn that this person is perhaps just looking for a supportive shoulder and someone who will listen.
A study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology finds that listening carefully and attentively increases the level of humility in any conversation, resulting in a positive feedback loop of increased humility and better listening.
Here are two ways to up your listening skills, according to the researchers:
- Don't be afraid of silence. Silent moments are essential for building a good conversation. Allow yourself to be silent to enable the other person to speak. For instance, when a friend comes to you with a problem, aim to understand rather than immediately reply. Instead, watch for their body language, which speaks volumes (e.g., tensed shoulders may express fear or hesitation).
- Believe in the benefits of listening. Familiarize yourself with the benefits of listening. This will motivate you to become a better listener.
2. Wait it out before stepping in.
Aside from practicing active listening, resist your urge to intervene. You may find that people can often come to their own aid when helping themselves is the only real way out.
If you try to be the fixer of all their problems, you run the risk of unintentionally pushing them towards a sense of learned helplessness, where they lose the perspective to be able to diagnose and address their own issues.
When a loved one comes to you with an issue, refrain from offering assistance or suggestions right off the bat. Remind yourself that you can be present for someone without having to rescue them. Instead, you can offer validation that shows that you understand and empathize with them and are there for them whenever they need to vent.
3. Hold in your urge to help until you are asked for it.
One key aspect of the savior complex is the ingrained desire to help even when it's not wanted or requested. Assuming that the other person is incapable of helping themselves may reflect or be perceived as a superiority complex on your end.
Instead, you can offer assistance in low-pressure ways that keeps the ball in their court. For instance, ask the other person questions like, "This situation seems quite tough. Is there any way I can help?"
Follow their guidance if they ask you to help in a certain way instead of assuming that you know what's best.
Managing your savior instincts may seem difficult at first, but it's a learnable skill. Even though you may believe you are doing someone a favor, saving someone who doesn't want to be saved may backfire. Wait until this person asks for your assistance since it's likely that someone who truly needs it will ask you for it directly.
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