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?