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Overcoming Savior Behavior

As a therapist working with clients who express having codependent tendencies, as well as being a recovering Type A workaholic and codependent who entered treatment in 1993, I am well aware of the dynamic of savior behavior. I attempted to fix, heal and kiss all the boo-boos of the people in my life to make them all better. I had a mother who modeled that for me and did it so well.

While I know that kisses have medicinal properties, much like chicken soup, a.k.a. Jewish penicillin, I have come to accept that all the love in the world may not completely obliterate the scars left by traumas that some experience throughout their lives. I do have hope when I sit with clients who share stories of pain and redemption that they can find healing. One such is someone whose career puts her in a position to be of service and provide education. She needed to leave a volunteer position in another field, since she found herself taking on too much of the suffering involved. A more compelling situation is related to family dynamics. To her credit, she has begun to step back there as well, as guilt-inducing as it may be. 

I shared with her recently that as a lifeguard many decades ago, I learned this simple order of rescue tactics: “Reach, throw, row, go.” Translated, it means that you attempt to assist from a safe distance first if the situation warrants it, rather than diving in if the person is able to get to safety with lesser means of intervention. We were also taught to wait until the person stops struggling before diving in after them. Such is so in relationships, as doing too much for someone else might dis-empower them. If they continue to attempt to pull us under with them, we have a choice to either drown or swim away. How many times have you, with all good intentions, dove in head-first, not knowing how deep or shallow the water is, whether there were rocks, snakes or sharks beneath the surface? I certainly have done more than my share of high-risk rescue maneuvers.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to allow myself the freedom to leave the Mighty Mouse (“Here I come to save the day!”) facade behind. I attended a retreat called Woman Within which is an event I have been encouraged to experience for many years. Several of my friends have taken it and had marvelous breakthroughs. I was reluctant initially since I erroneously believed I had explored the issues that I imagined would come up such as family dynamics, assertiveness, romantic relationship patterns, and self-worth. What additional value could I possibly glean? What ultimately tipped the scales in favor of enrolling was my son who told the friend who was the most vocal in encouragement to be there, “Oh, she’ll never go.” When my friend related his message, of course I had no choice but to prove him wrong. Never underestimate the power of a dare, especially from one’s child.

Had I known then what I know now, I could have avoided years of emotional pain, however, the timing wasn’t right…until it was. My mother had died a few years earlier and my father 2 ½ years prior to her passing. I had submerged my feelings as those with co-dependency are wont to do, in the service of keeping on keeping on. My head and heart were a bit cluttered with the residue of grief left unfelt.

I welcomed relief and was delighted that when all was said and done, my transition from where I was to where I am, took all kinds of leaps; some of faith that I would safely land. I was determined to savor the time at the retreat just for myself; rare indeed for this woman who feels that nothing I do is for me alone. My healing heals the planet… all that stuff which may be true AND I really am permitted to have personal joy. Prior to the training, I filled out an extensive application and I told the organizers that if they saw me attempting to fix, save, heal or otherwise exhibit savior behavior, they were to call me on it. I was off duty. Within very short order, an opportunity arose to test my mettle. I was asked to take on a leadership role and as my ego chirped, “How cool! They know you are a natural born leader.” and my Sally Field Academy Award speech persona chimed in “And I can’t deny the fact that you like me. Right now, you like me!” My inner knowing creature, looked at me with kind and compassionate eyes, wagging finger and loving smile and said, “Don’t you dare.”  Saying no has not always come easily to me. It felt really good this time. Saying no to the request made of me, was actually saying yes to myself and my own needs.

Throughout the weekend, I faced multiple challenges to my resolve. Each woman there had her own particular story that had me wishing I could offer answers, wanting to charge in there to fix the situation. Knowing that I couldn’t do it, even had I not made the promise to myself since it was not my role, was painful, literally, head throbbingly so. I needed to sit with my emotional discomfort, and it wasn’t until I acknowledged my own loss, pain and sadness; my real human vulnerability that the headache dissolved, and I saw clearly that my help was not requested or required. One particular exercise had me coming face to face with the multiple losses in my life that opened to door to my own healing.

This poem by one of my favorite writers could have been written for me.

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The Journey by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Overcoming Savior Behavior


Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW is a journalist and interviewer, licensed social worker, interfaith minister, radio host and best-selling author. www.opti-mystical.com

APA Reference
Weinstein, E. (2019). Overcoming Savior Behavior. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 27, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/overcoming-savior-behavior/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 24 Dec 2019 (Originally: 25 Dec 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 24 Dec 2019
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.