Do You Practice Savior Behavior?
A few years ago, I had a delusion that I was Wonder Woman incarnate and penned these words:
“I am thrilled to say that my invisible Wonder Woman cape and tights are in the Jeep (along with my faerie wings, which are tangible and colorful) and I don them less often these days. Once upon a time, they were standard wear for this recovering codependent, caregiver, people pleaser, feeling like Mighty Mouse singing ‘Here I come to save the day!’ Not sure if I come by it genetically or by example since my parents were the go-to people among their circles, who could be counted on to be there in times of crisis. My career path led me to become Ms. Fixit and in my personal relationships, my Social Worker’s ‘rolodex’ brain cards have been thumbed through so many times that they are dog eared. The truth is, no one needs rescuing and while I have information and experience that are helpful, I am no expert on anyone else’s life and needs. I am a willing guide along the way. I rest my cape.”
Or so I thought. In the interceding turns of the calendar page, I have donned it and taken it off so many times, that it has become threadbare. In my therapy practice, I sit with clients who unpack their baggage before me; some so heavy that I wonder how they have managed to tote it along for decades. My temptation is to pull them into a maternal embrace, rocking them and drying their tears. As a professional, I need to do that symbolically, by leaning in, holding them instead, with a compassionate gaze, reminding them that tissues are available if they want to use them, but I am not attempting to shut down their emotional expression. I tell them that my office is a safe haven in which they can feel free to express whatever is on their minds or in their hearts.
This was a long time coming. In the past nearly four decades in practice, I have at times felt I had to have the answers or I would have failed them. It seemed like it was my job to have them leave my office smiling, instead of being cloaked in sadness and bewildered by life circumstances. My goal these days is to empower people to find their own solutions since they live in the world, not my office.
A poignant reminder is the person who saw a butterfly struggling to break out of the chrysalis. No matter how they tried, the little critter remained trapped in his temporary home. The person took pity and broke open the shell. The butterfly emerged, but not with wings spread. What they didn’t know is that the butterfly body is filled with fluid and in order for the fluid to disperse into the wings, they need the pressure of the chrysalis to squeeze life into them. Instead of gloriously expanding wings and taking off into the wild blue yonder, it limped away and soon died.
Love dictates a desire to support people in need. How often do we cripple those in our lives by attempting to “help”? Can we trust that they really can run their own show without extreme intervention on our part?
What are the dynamics of savior behavior?
According to the website People Skills Decoded, “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.”
As a recovering codependent, I have often referred back to the Patterns and Characteristics that describe such behaviors as:
- Believe people are incapable of taking care of themselves.
- Attempt to convince others what to think, do, or feel.
- Freely offer advice and direction without being asked.
- Have to feel needed in order to have a relationship with others.
A telling dream provided insights into the distance I have travelled since identifying the personal and professional pitfalls I have encountered and how far I still need to progress.
I was on a ship that was taking on water and sinking, although not like the Titanic, which capsized after impact with an iceberg, in one fell swoop but over a period of time that felt like weeks. The people on board hailed from all over the world cloaked in colorful garments. I knew some and others were strangers. We couldn’t get off the floating village even if we wanted to. They all seemed not to want to. Some had even set up shop in a marketplace area and were selling their wares to anyone who would purchase them. It felt like “business as usual.” I was doing my taking care of others thing that I usually do in my daily life. I found myself reassuring people that we wouldn’t drown and at some points in the dream I was bailing water. I didn’t notice anyone else with buckets in hand, so it felt like I was all alone in my endeavor to keep us afloat.
I kept hearing the song White Flag by Dido as the soundscape throughout which made me chuckle.
“I will go down with this ship
And I won’t put my hands up and surrender
There will be no white flag above my door”
In another part of the dream, I was running on top of the water and singing about being loved. It felt reassuring that I didn’t sink beneath the surface into the frigid depths. There was a sense of trust that God had my back.
A few questions that kept coming to me: if we were not out at sea, but close enough to shore to send out reinforcements, how come no one came to rescue us? Weren’t there any lifeboats so we could abandon ship? No one could answer why. I got the feeling that we needed to save ourselves. The irony was that no else seemed to notice a problem with our circumstances except for me. As usual, I felt responsible for finding solutions.
Some post dream thoughts: When I was speaking about it with a colleague, the intuitive therapist that she is, she pointed out that I was walking on water in the manner of Jesus, as a way of putting my faith in Spirit. I volleyed back with the reminder that I was not only walking on water, but rather dancing and running to keep pace.
I was clear that this dream was telling me that I sometimes feel as if I am in over my head, have a fear of collapsing under the weight of expectations, feel awash in emotion, and as if I am obligated to perform miracles. It seems to reflect the state of the world, this sense of the importance of pulling together to rescue ourselves from peril. I need not do it all alone. Although I am not ready to retire the cape completely, I am, once again, ready to share it.
Weinstein, E. (2018). Do You Practice Savior Behavior?. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 29, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/do-you-practice-savior-behavior/