unBecoming a Savior

I find power dynamics fascinating; the ones we create within ourselves, and the ones that worm their ways into all variations of our interpersonal relationships: close ties or spheres of influence, all the way up to our governments, our sense of identities (the many ways we slice ourselves into Us vs Them), and the ways that media introduces and reinforces those labels are all simultaneously vying for our attention. Somehow, we manage to tune them out, to stop actively participating in their roles in our lives. But that doesn’t mean these things aren’t constantly affecting us.

I wrote recently about unBecoming a Victim,  and I would like to address the other end of the spectrum in this posting: Savior Complexes. In the previous post, I addressed the Victim as someone that was not the Reader, and listed what, in my opinion, was decent enough advice for the Reader to implement should they encounter and identify someone who was struggling or causes strife for others because that Other Person had embraced their own victim status to the degree that they were experiencing a negative effect or affecting others similarly.

I did not address what to do if you, the Reader, were identifying as a Victim. It was not intentionally avoided, but after some careful thought I have decided to leave that angle on the topic unaddressed in the original blog posting. After all, this is a blog fueled solely by coffee and overthinking, the result of what my mind connects and what my fingers regurgitate into the inter-webs and onto the computer screen. If you are a Victim, but don’t know it, I hypothesize that the post addressing that would not be well received. We all have a tendency to be a little of everything now and then, but if you are so fully a Victim that there is little room for anything else, my thoughts are most likely dismissed as criticism instead of observation. But it’s ok; it’s not your fault. You legitimately have no control over what I think or say, so don’t take it personally. Of course, there are always legitimate reasons to identify with the Victim, the largest being the capacity to experience compassion. As Martha Nussbaum writes:

Compassion requires the judgment that there are serious bad things that happen to others through no fault of their own. In its classic tragic form, it imagines that a person possessed of basic human dignity has been injured by life on a grand scale. So it adopts a thoroughly anti-Stoic picture of the world, according to which human beings are both dignified and needy, and in which dignity and neediness interact in complex ways… The basic worth of a human being remains, even when the world has done its worst. But this does not mean that the human being has not been profoundly damaged, both outwardly and inwardly.

The society that incorporates the perspective of tragic compassion into its basic design thus begins with a general insight: people are dignified agents, but they are also, frequently, victims. Agency and victimhood are not incompatible: indeed, only the capacity for agency makes victimhood tragic. In American society today, by contrast, we often hear that we have a stark and binary choice, between regarding people as agents and regarding them as victims. We encounter this contrast when social welfare programs are debated: it is said that to give people various forms of social support is to treat them as victims of life’s ills, rather than to respect them as agents, capable of working to better their own lot.

Now, swinging the pendulum to another word for the other extreme she warns of in that stark binary choice: agents who exhibit The Savior Complex.

buddy christ

If being categorized as a Victim is marked by a total lack of personal responsibility for their involvement in a situation (i.e Being taken advantage of in some way), then being a Savior is defined as taking on substantially more responsibility than is appropriate. It has its own set of substantial issues.

On a personal note, for the year I taught abroad in Burma, living among people whose lives are so drastically more financially impoverished than what I had come to understand as Normal (as defined by being Midwestern, small town, American, middle class, white, privileged, etc) really cranked up my capacity to experience a Savior complex, because I lost perspective for what I was doing. What was meant to be an opportunity to see the world, experience different cultures, and to just help in some ambiguous, ethereal, substantial Margaret Mead-ish way, turned into a really negative experience by  feeling responsible for fixing everything and thus being overwhelmed at the multitude of things that needed to be addressed. Without a realistic scope and direction, it isn’t difficult to start feeling responsible for trying to fix everything, and if all your sensors get overwhelmed, you shut down.

teach for america

There’s a fine line, and a balance must be struck.

As a Victim, some things are within your control. It is your responsibility to note and address them appropriately. As a Savior, there are many things that are not within your control; it is not up to you to micromanage reality and flip all the switches. In each case, we must find a middle ground where we are not overwhelmed by how vast the world is and how insignificant it can make us feel.

It’s a tough balance to strike, and it has tricky interpersonal details, even a Catch-22: You can’t be a Victim without depending on other people, and you can’t be a Savior without people who depend on you. We’re all in this together, so there is responsibility and dependency on all sides; these two archetypes exist when our balance goes out of whack and we spiral toward one pole or another.

Victims are necessary in systems that are designed to be unfair, corrupt, and highly imbalanced. Yes Men, Sheep, Lemmings, Robots, whatever you want to call them, they are Victims who have embraced a false Safe Status of invisibility, with the assurance that as long as they do what they’re told, and as long as they let their Saviors take care of them, then everything will be alright. A reassuring lie is preferred over an inconvenient truth. It is a comforting lie, but a lie, regardless. It is a formula for people to engage in behavior, largely unchecked.

Saviors exist to fix problems, to save people from danger, harm, failure… but what they profess to do really depends on the judgement available to the people around them. Without significant dependency, good or bad, there is no room for Saviors to exist.


As much as we all love our Khaleesi, in becoming Daenerys bit off more than she could chew…but not more than her dragons could. There is much praise to be had for being Breaker of Chains and Mhysa, but she overlooked her people’s needs and abilities to take care of themselves. 

In addition to the pitfalls outlined in the linked blog above which lists all the ways that taking care of others before oneself can be harmful to the Savior, there can be, serious dangerous consequences to others.

In the same way that Victimization is utilized to obtain empathy, the status of being a Savior elicits praise for being selfless, despite the carefully crafted narrative existing solely to fuel that kind of praise.

Munchausens by Proxy is one severe example, where a caregiver “fabricates, exaggerates, or induces mental or physical health problems in those who are in their care, usually to gain attention or sympathy from others,” as illustrated in this clip from the 1999 film “The Sixth Sense.” The clip is of a child’s wake, where a father is given a video of the mother secretly poisoning her child to keep the child sick, feeble, and dependent, in order for the mother to maintain a constant stream of praise from those around her for being such a good, vigilant, attentive caretaker through it all.

Creating a dependency is key.

The common American belief that a college degree is necessary to succeed is one example.
You have to take out loans to pay for college.
You are then saddled with an immense amount of debt in pursuit of what was meant to be safe existence/normal social expectation.
Some jobs are more highly rewarded than others (tech jobs vs teachers, etc), and base take home pay reflects this.
If you didn’t study something that is monetarily valued at this level, you will struggle to pay for what is now retrospectively a 4 year vacation from a very specific reality.

Food is another dependency. During the Great Depression, the American government called on the people to step up and take care of themselves, more or less. Today, food is a trademarked commodity, and those who attempt to be self-sufficient are frequently fined, jailed, or robbed of their land and possessions because in many ways self-sufficiency has become illegal. Simple things, like keeping chickensutilizing rainwater, or having a garden  in place of a lawn, are verboten, because taking care of yourself doesn’t create a monetary benefit for your Corporate Saviors.


On a more extreme note, Hitler was also seen as a Savior by (some of) the German peoples, for identifying the cause of all their problems, and by creating a means to lead them out of it.

Perspective is everything.

So, who are you saving? And from what, exactly?

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