The Savior Complex – Drawing the lines in social justice work

When you begin your journey in the sphere of social justice work, you begin with copious amounts of zeal, passion and enthusiasm that you believe can shake the world. Of course, you are told that if you showed up with the idea of wanting to save and rescue people, you might have shown up with the wrong idea; and that is not entirely the goal and how the goal is to help people and facilitate change. Unfortunately, it is made to sound so easy, that for a good minute or till you burnout, you do not realize that the lines between wanting to help, save, or rescue people are all blurred. Because no one talks about the savior complex that creeps in slowly, while doing social justice work and how with each passing day, we become the biggest threat to the work of justice.

Image Credit : Alamy

Maybe let’s first talk about the savior complex. Also known as the white knight syndrome, the savior complex occurs when individuals feel good about themselves only when helping someone, believing that their job or purpose is to help those is pain and suffering, while at the same time, sacrificing their own interests or well-being in the effort to aid another human being. And while this fairytale kind of behavior is often applauded, it is unhealthy and ultimately does more harm than good.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind, and I speak from experience when I say this, helping or coming to the aid of those in need induces a sense of validation in us, helping us feel better about our own lives and resulting in an obsessive need to fix things or people, in order to retain this good feeling. My observations regarding this are that people with the savior complex tend to seek out people or situations that desperately need help in order to avoid dealing with their own needs. The same people are identified as “nice people” but the truth is, emotionally healthy people know their boundaries and will never have a compelling need to seek that kind of validation. 

No one in the social development sector admits to ever having this complex. “Who me? I have never had such a complex, I am here for the people! But we are here to serve people!” Best one I have personally heard is “But this is God’s calling, how can I say no?”

And when unhealthy people, armor up and go on a crusade to save people without knowing how to draw the lines, it is heartbreaking when the aid and assistance that we offer is rejected. Because we do not know when to dissociate ourselves from our work. And because we directly attach our self-worth to the “helping, saving, rescuing” aspect of our work, any rejection of our assistance is taken personally. Heartbreak 1- Self Worth-0.

So much of the energy in a scenario such as this is spent in trying to help others. Of course, for people for whom social justice work is a profession, we are paid to do the work of justice and aid the vulnerable, oppressed and the hurting. Unfortunately, I have found very few conversations about identifying the savior complex and what one can do instead of reaching a point of complete burn out-emotionally and professionally. 

The good news is, whether we want to openly admit or unabashedly deny it, we can take measures towards our self-preservation while doing what we want to, which is to passionately help people.

  1. Listening first: One of the first reactions when we see people in pain and hurt, is to immediately jump in and offer solutions, in order to fix the problem or to fix the person. What we should be doing first is to simply listen. Being heard is often the key to not just understanding people, but also gaining their trust. And more often than not, hurting people often just want to be heard and seen. 

You cannot change the lightbulb if the lightbulb does not want to be changed or fixed in the first place.

  1. Offering help without pressure: Against all our instincts of stepping in and offering solutions which according to us seem legitimate, what I have found to be more helpful is giving the person or survivor a choice by offering them options they may have for their situation. This not only gives them an agency to make an informed decision but also enables the person who has been sought out for assistance to view the situation objectively and from afar. Maybe we do know what is best based on our professional and practical experiences, but sometimes we tend to forget that it is not our case, or our problem to fix. 

Respect begets respect. And when empowered with the correct options available, people tend to have a higher level of participation in their matter.

  1. Letting go of control: When we are passionate about changing the lives of people, and creating a better world, it is natural for us to want to offer immediate solutions and support. But when we do not know our boundaries, we tend to fixate on the problem which was not even ours to begin with. Does this make us bad people? Of course not. It makes us human. It also makes the other person in distress human, even when they reject our solutions and help. Does this mean we stop helping people completely? Definitely not. We can, however, change the nature of our assistance by giving the other person space to reflect on, address their trauma, be supportive of their process of grief and shock.

Essentially, we can still help people by aiding them from afar even if they reject our options. The ultimate goal of social work is the people, not our crusade to control how they respond to the situation.

  1. Taking time to reflect: Sometimes, we do not realize that this innate need to fix a problem or a person obsessively often stems because most of us do not know how to address our own trauma or pain. And somehow, we try to compensate for it by looking outwards instead of doing the healing for ourselves first. So instead of using people and distressing situations to live out changes we need to make for ourselves, how about we step back for a moment and consider how to channelize all that energy, and create changes in our own lives?

In my close to seven years of experience working as a human rights lawyer, there were some hard lessons learned – whether it was seeking professional help from a therapist, dissociating from the cases of sexual violence I have been working on or taking time off from work to focus on my emotional and physical being once a year amongst friends and family. However, one of the lessons which stands out the most is that you cannot pour from an empty cup.

Our clients, survivors and the people we work with deserve better. And when we are at our best, we can do our best for those who need us.

By Joanna Shireen Sarkar

Joanna Shireen Sarkar, is an Advocate of the High Court at Calcutta and has been practicing as a human rights lawyer specializing on anti human trafficking issues in West Bengal with focus on victim compensation, fair and proper investigation of trafficking cases, State accountability and perpetrator liability in such cases. In her professional capacity, Joanna has served as a legal consultant for various human rights organizations in the State. At present, she serves as a Senior Legal Consultant for Justice Ventures International.

Along with authoring law related publications, Joanna also writes on mental health and socio-political issues on platforms such Medium and Youth Ki Awaz.

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