It’s understandable to want to help a loved one in a bind. But what if they didn’t want help?
Would you accept their refusal? Or would you insist on helping, believing you know exactly how to handle their problem, regardless of their desire to work it out themselves?
A savior complex, or white knight syndrome, describes this need to “save” people by fixing their problems.
If you have a savior complex, you might:
- only feel good about yourself when helping someone
- believe helping others is your purpose
- expend so much energy trying to fix others that you end up burning out
Here’s a look at how to recognize this kind of behavior and why it can do more harm than good.
In general, people consider helpfulness a positive trait, so you might not see anything wrong with trying to save others. But there’s a difference between helping and saving.
According to Dr. Maury Joseph, a psychologist in Washington, D.C., savior tendencies can involve fantasies of omnipotence. In other words, you believe someone out there is capable of single-handedly making everything better, and that person happens to be you.
Here are some other signs that point toward savior tendencies.
Vulnerability attracts you
“White knighting” in relationships involves trying to rescue partners from distress. You might feel particularly drawn to people who’ve had more than their fair share of troubles in life.
This can happen because you’ve experienced pain and distress yourself. You have a lot of empathy for others who are suffering, so you want to take that pain away from them.
You try to change people
Joseph suggests many saviors “believe in their total power to impact others.” You might think you know what’s best for those you’re trying to help.
For example, you just know they can improve their life by:
- taking up a new hobby
- changing their career
- changing a specific behavior
For someone to change, they have to want it themselves. You can’t force it, so your efforts may eventually lead your partner to resent you.
What’s more, if you focus primarily on trying to change them, you probably aren’t learning much about who they really are or appreciating them for themselves.
You always need to find a solution
Not every problem has an immediate solution, especially big issues like illness, trauma, or grief. Saviors generally believe they have to fix everything. They often care more about fixing the problem than the person actually dealing with the problem does.
Sure, offering advice isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s also important to let others simply vent about difficult things they’re going through.
You make excessive personal sacrifices
“A savior complex can involve a sense of moral masochism, or self-sabotage for moral purposes,” Joseph says.
You might sacrifice personal needs and overextend yourself in order to take care of people who may not actually want help.
These sacrifices can involve things like:
- emotional space
You think you’re the only one who can help
Saviors often feel driven to save others because they believe no one else can. This ties back to fantasies of omnipotence.
Maybe you don’t really believe you’re all-powerful. But believing you have the ability to rescue someone or improve their life comes from a similar place.
This belief can also imply a sense of superiority. Even if you don’t have a conscious awareness of this, it can come across in the way you treat your partner. For example, maybe you take on a parental role by patronizing or correcting them.
You help for the wrong reasons
With savior tendencies, you don’t just help out when you have the time and resources. Instead, you bend over backward because “it’s the right thing to do,” Joseph explains.
You try to save other people because you feel you must, regardless of your own needs. You might also believe your needs matter less.
Some people might focus on helping others when:
- they feel unable to manage their own struggles
- they have unresolved trauma or difficulties in their own pasts
Attempting to rescue someone from their problems often doesn’t have the desired result. Even if someone does change as a result of your efforts, these effects may not last long, unless they really wanted to change for themselves.
Savior tendencies can also have a negative impact on you, especially if you can’t curb them.
Using all your time and energy on helping others leaves you with little energy for yourself.
“Saviors might see symptoms similar to those in people taking care of ailing family members,” Joseph explains. “They might feel fatigued, drained, depleted in various ways.”
If you think of your romantic partner (or brother, or best friend, or anyone else) as a tough repair project with great potential, your relationship probably isn’t going to succeed.
Treating loved ones like broken things in need of repair can make them frustrated and resentful.
“People don’t like being made to feel as if we don’t like them as they are,” Joseph says. No one wants to feel incapable, and when you push someone aside to handle their issues, that’s often how you make them feel.
Plus, this can lead to other issues, such as codependence, down the line.
A sense of failure
With a savior mindset, you believe you canfix other people’s problems. Realistically, you can’t — no one has the power.
“This preconception leads you to keep chasing an experience that doesn’t exist but provides you with consistent opportunities for disappointment,” Joseph explains.
You end up facing failure after failure as you keep living out the same pattern. This can lead to chronic feelings of self-criticism, inadequacy, guilt, and frustration.
Unwanted mood symptoms
A sense of failure can lead to plenty of unpleasant emotional experiences, including:
- resentment or anger toward people who don’t want your help
- frustration with yourself and others
- a sense of losing control
There’s a lot you can do to address savior tendencies. Just identifying this mindset is a good start.
Listen instead of act
By working on active listening skills, you can resist the urge to help.
You might think your loved one brought up the problem because they want your help. But they may have only wanted to tell someone about it, since talking through issues can help provide insight and clarity.
Avoid that urge to cut them off with solutions and advice and listen empathically instead.
Offer assistance in low-pressure ways
It’s best to avoid stepping in until someone asks for help. There’s nothing wrong with wanting loved ones to know you’re there for them.
Instead of taking control of the situation or pressuring them to accept your help, try putting the ball in their court with phrases like:
- “Let me know if you need help.”
- “I’m here if you need me.”
If they do ask, follow their guidance (or ask what you can do) instead of assuming you know what’s best.
Remember: You only control yourself
Everyone faces distress sometimes. That’s part of life. Other people’s problems are just that — their problems.
Of course, you can still help them. You also have to remember that no matter how close you are to someone, you aren’t responsible for their choices.
If you love someone, it’s natural to want to offer support. Truly supporting someone involves giving them space to learn and grow from their actions.
Someone might not have all the answers right away, and that’s OK. They’re still the best judge of what’s right for them.
Do some self-exploration
Whether they realize it or not, some people may try to help others because they don’t know how to address their own trauma or emotional pain.
You can overcome this by taking some time to identify the things that cause you distress and thinking about how they might feed harmful patterns (like helping others because it builds up your sense of self-worth).
Instead of using others to live out changes you want to make for yourself, consider how you can create change in your own life.
Talk to a therapist
Working with a therapist is never a bad idea when it comes to getting a better handle on what drives your behavior.
It can be especially helpful if:
- you want to uncover and work through painful events from the past
- savior tendencies affect your relationship
- you feel empty or worthless unless someone needs you
Even if you aren’t sure how to deal with savior tendencies on your own, a therapist can offer guidance and support.
If all of this sounds like it applies to someone in your life, these tips can help you respond to their efforts without causing unneeded stress.
Point out why their behavior doesn’t help
Saviors might mean well, but that doesn’t mean you have to welcome their attempts to save you.
They may not take you at your word when you say, “No, thank you, I’ve got this under control.”
- “I know you want to help because you care. I’d rather try to work through this on my own so I can learn from what happened.”
- “When you don’t give me the chance to deal with problems myself, I feel like you don’t respect me.”
Set a good example
People with savior tendencies often use helping behavior to cope with personal challenges.
You can demonstrate helpful ways to deal with distress by:
- taking productive steps to manage challenges
- practicing self-compassion for failures or mistakes
- actively listening and offering help when asked
“When we model a more realistic way of treating the self and others, when they see us being kind to ourselves and forgiving of our inability to fix others, they might learn from our example,” Joseph says.
Encourage them to get help
When a loved one’s savior tendencies affect your relationship, therapy can help.
You can’t make them see a therapist, but you can offer support and validation. People sometimes avoid going to therapy because they worry about how others will react, so your encouragement may mean a lot. If they’re willing, you can even talk to a counselor together.
If you have a persistent need to step in and save loved ones from their problems, or themselves, you may have savior tendencies.
You might think you’re helping, but trying to save people, especially when they don’t want saving, often backfires. Chances are, someone who really needs help will ask for it, so it’s wise to wait until you’re asked.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.