The Saviour Syndrome

do-good_help-othersApparently my life is full of “themes” that seem to haunt me until I’ve understood the message or learned the lesson. Lately, the theme is the saviour syndrome. This is a name I invented for it, inspired by one of my favorite models in psychology, the drama triangle“. 

What do I mean when I say I’m “haunted” by a theme?

It’s as if life really wants me to get that idea and keeps sending me people and situations that confront me with that particular topic, forcing me to wrap my mind (and heart) around it in as many ways as I need in order to really get the message.

Lately, the topic of “saving” others has kept popping up in my life quite a lot. The “saviour syndrome” as I call it, is not about that altruistic impulse of saving someone’s life when they’re in danger, nor is it about helping others in general. When being helpful turns into a “syndrome”, it’s clear that you’ve started falling into a potentially harmful habit.

In a world most of us consider full of selfishness and self-centeredness it’s amazing how many people fall under the other extreme – that of obsessing about helping all those close to them, making themselves responsible for everything and everybody and blaming themselves for everybody else’s misfortune or failure. I know a lot of people who have taken it upon themselves to help their children, spouse, friends, to guide them (even against those people’s will), to always do “what’s best” for them – even at the expense of their own happiness and, sometimes, even at the expense of the happiness of the very own people they are so hard trying to help.

If you are still not sure of what I’m talking about, just think of yourself and all those close to you. You might just discover that you have at least one person around you who is manifesting symptoms of the “saviour syndrome”. Such symptoms may include:

  • Excessive involvement in other people’s lives
  • A relentless desire to offer advice (quite often unrequested)
  • Incessant worrying about others
  • Constant offer for help and support (again, even when their help is not required, nor asked for)
  • An exaggerated sense of responsibility for other’s wellbeing (you might well hear this person saying something like – “It’s my fault my daughter has made bad choices in life” or “I need to support my family come what may, they would never be able to carry on without my help”)
  • A strong sense of knowing what’s “best” for others (for example – “My son wanted to study art, but I knew that would never make him any money, so I convinced him to study economics instead, which is best for his future”)
  • An over the top sense of personal indispensability ( for example – “If I’m not here to take care of things, nothing will get done”)

Of course, the “saviour syndrome” may take all other kinds of forms, but the above “symptoms” are some of the most frequent I’ve encountered.

As you may have guessed, I am a recovering “patient” – I’ve struggled with “saviour syndrome” for a long long time. Most of which I didn’t even realize I was struggling. I just felt I knew best what others around me needed to do with their lives and I was convinced I could help them be happier – if only they listened to my advice.

Lately, as I became more and more aware of the huge difference between being altruistic and helpful and being a “saviour”, I started encountering more and more people with “saviour syndrome”. Most of these people concentrate their “saving” efforts towards their families – especially spouses and children. They are always animated by the best of intentions – not wanting their children to repeat the same mistakes that they made or hoping their spouses will change and lead better, happier lives.

What I didn’t see before, and what many of the people with “saviour syndrome” don’t realize is that you cannot force your help on others. It’s as if you were seeing an old lady in front of a cross-walk, assumed she was afraid of crossing, grabbed her hand and dragged her across the street. You might be surprised, when you reach the other side of the street, to be confronted by a very angry old lady who scolds you for forcing her to cross, when in fact she had just stopped to admire the scenery.

Help is only valuable when requested and when the final responsibility stays with the person being helped, NOT with the helper.

Too often, in our desire to make ourselves valuable and useful to others, we fail to realize that we are, in fact, tampering with their life experience. People need to live their experiences, be they good or bad, they need to make their own choices, learn their own lessons. By making those choices for them we, in fact, choose what life experiences others need to live – we limit their freedom, we deprive them of valuable life lessons under the excuse of keeping them out of harm’s way. 

In the meantime, “saviour syndrome” people take all responsibility on their shoulders. They drive themselves to exhaustion trying to shelter everyone else from all possible perils in this life. They end up, sometimes literally, carrying their families or friends on their shoulders, forgetting they are only human and there is a limit to how much responsibility one can carry. They also forget that the only person in the world we can truly be responsible for is us.

I am, by no means, suggesting we stop helping people around us. I’m merely explaining my realization that there are many degrees of help we can offer, and sometimes too much is just that – simply too much. It is one thing to lend a hand, offer a shoulder, be there for those you love, and an entirely different thing to feel responsible for them and make choices in their stead.

By falling pray to the “saviour syndrome” we might end up doing more harm than good. Those we are so hard trying to help might simply feel suffocated by our helpfulness or might end up feeling dependent upon us and lose all sense of personal responsibility and courage to venture out in the world on their own. We, on the other hand, although might fall into a false sense of usefulness, might end up carrying much more on our shoulders that we should and neglect our own needs and dreams at the expense of the needs and dreams of others.

So, have you ever felt as if you were under the spell of the “saviour syndrome”? Or have you ever been a “subject” of the help of a person “suffering” from this “syndrome”? What was that like? What did you do? What lessons did you learn?



  1. Buna Alis
    Ma numesc tot Alis. si iti scriu pentru ca am citit despre 5 lucruri pe care trebuie sa le faci pina la 30 de ani. E interesant si e in fapt si filozofia singurului meu fiu, care acum la 20 de ani a descoperit ca nu vrea sa mai invete si sa-si mai piarada timpul in scoli. E considerat ghiftid dar el insusi nu isi spune niciodata ca este ghiftid, este deosebit de inteligent dar a descoperit el ca nu e nevoie sa muncesti prin scoli ca sa poti trai o viaqta satisfacatoare..Eu si sotul amindoi incercam sa il convingem sa continue studiile , sa mearga mai departe si sa atinga telurile pe care le exprimase el singur, despre el insusi:neuroscience, genetics..Acum insa Internetul il sufoca cu sudo science si constat ca nu mai face nici o deosebire intre stiinta si ceva ce vorbeste despre stiinta..Sint consternata si nu cred ca pot sa il mai ridic la nivelul unei intelegeri decente. E deosebit de retras si ii este jena si sa mearga la universitate…nu merge la cursuri…a pierdut primul an—e pe cale sa piarda totul. Mai are un credit de biologie- inainte de examenul final si calculus, examenul final …si nu vrea sa mai faca nimic. Noi nu sintem parinti prea tineri- eu am deja 58 de an i si sotul la fel; am facut sacrificii enorme ca el sa aiba tot ce ii trtebuie pentru primul an dar el disconsidera totul. Imi spune ca nu are energie, ca nu e motivat, ca se va descurca si fara un degree…Nu e obisnuit cu o viata grea, l-am rasfatat mult, dar altceva decit aceste surprize nu face…nici nu fumeaza, nu bea cafea, nu alearga dupa fete …caci il ingheata…Nu stiu ce sa fac. Nu e vorba de saviour system , ci este vorba de copilul meu care va ramine pe strazi…aici sintem singuri iar el nu realizeaza …as spune ca e in Peter Pan syndrome. Am nevoie d3e ajutor ca sa il conving sa isi continue sutdiile…Apoi sa faca ce vrea….dar nu vreau sa mor inainte de a sti ca are o calificare, e ceva. Da, am avut visuri mari- ca orice parinte cu un singur copil- si acela inteligent la un nive inalt- dar …lipsit de incredere si se autiosufoca coborind in mediocritate…la un nivel care nu ii va permite sa se intretina de unul singur. Viata aici e grea si riscanta..Ti-as mai scrie dar mi-a placut deloc mesajul -poate totusi partial real=- al sidromului de care vorbeai.
    As dori sa stu cum ai reactiona tu in acest caz. Vad insa ca esti o persoana cu inalte calificari…deci nu poti sa imi ceri sa il las sa faca ce vrea…caci se pare ca un sprijin in momentul potrivit conteaza…si chiar daca nu e din acelasi singe cu tine…Sincer
    Alis Tatulea

    • alisanagnostakis /

      Buna, Alis,

      M-a impresionat mesajul tau. Bineinteles ca nu am vreo idee sau solutie pentru dilema cu care te confrunti. Ma tem ca esti pusa in fata situatiei in care fiul tau face niste alegeri pentru viata lui pe care tu le vezi a fi gresite, insa, din pacate, e foarte greu sa schimbi ceva pana cand el insusi nu constientizeaza acest lucru. Despre asta era vorba in sindromul salvatorului – despre nevoia noastra de a ajuta pe cei dragi chiar impotriva vointei lor. Nimeni nu spune ca, de multe ori, salvatorul nu vede situatia mult mai clar decat cel “salvat”, intelege cum ar fi mai bine sa se petreaca lucrurile. Insa cu totii avem din pacate sau din fericire, acel ceva care se numeste liber arbitru. E al fiecaruia liberul arbitru, si chiar atunci cand ni-l exercitam impotriva propriilor interese, tot e foarte greu ca cineva din afara sa ni-l influenteze cu adevarat.
      M-ai intrebat cum as reactiona eu. Sunt convinsa ca n-o sa-ti spun ceva la care nu te-ai gandit deja, dar totusi iti impartasesc perspectiva mea. Daca as fi in situatia ta m-as intreba ce a generat atitudinea fiului meu. M-as intreba cum pot sa il sustin pe drumul pe care el si l-a ales. Daca vrea sa se descurce fara diploma, ce vrea sa faca? Are vreun vis, vreo dorinta? De fapt tu iti doresti sa fie fericit si independent, nu neaparat sa aiba o calificare, nu-i asa? Daca da, eu m-as intreba in ce fel il pot sustine ca sa-si gaseasca acea fericire si independenta, chiar daca nu o va face pe drumul cel mai scurt, sau pe drumul pe care eu il consider cel mai bun.
      E doar o perspectiva – departe de mine sa pretind ca ar fi cea corecta. Sper totusi sa iti fie de folos catusi de putin. Eu sunt convinsa ca tu, in inima ta, stii care este raspunsul corect si ca iubirea pentru copilul tau te va ajuta sa-l gasesti. Cum ai putea sa il sprijini fara sa iti propui sa il salvezi?

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