Skipping the Savior Complex
My adventure in youth work started about 20 years ago. Youth work for me wasn’t a “starting” job or a time filler until something else came along. Youth work was a career choice and I was certain I was going to make a difference. I wanted to be that youth worker who people talked about. The one who would have stories told about their amazing gifts of working with youth. But most of all I wanted to be there for those youth on the edge. I was going to be their savior. Now, I never actually said those words, but in my mind, I would be the one to answer all of their questions (correctly, I might add). I would be the one to support them the during their toughest times. I would be the one to fix all of their problems and make sure life was easier.
The problem is that it’s just not possible. And it took me a bit to realize this, but when I finally understood that I can’t be a savior for youth, my work and my life got a whole lot better. You see, there is a reason why we have the phrase “Savior Complex”, and it isn’t a good reason. The web article “Savior Complex Anyone?”, had one of the best definitions I found, stating that the savior complex is “a psychological construct which makes a person feel the need to save other people. This person has a strong tendency to seek people who desperately need help and to assist them, often sacrificing their own needs for these people.” Not good, right? But the more I look at youth workers, I hear phrases that lean this way. And it isn’t that we are bad people, most of us do it for all the right reasons. Our hearts are broken when we see youth hurting or struggling and we want to make it stop. The problem is that we aren’t careful, trying to be that savior can do more damage than good because…
It can cause us to look for a problem.
If I need to be a savior then that means I need to fix a problem. This can lead me to try to find the issue with every youth I encounter rather than looking for the positives. In the worst-case scenarios, it may mean that I place issues onto youth that aren’t really there, just so I can have something to fix. But even in the best-case scenarios, it can lead me to focus on a youth’s “problem” rather than affirming and encouraging the positives in their life. This doesn’t mean I’m not on the lookout for signs of issues in a youth’s life, this awareness is still extremely critical. But let’s not forget that many youth need to hear how awesome they are and to know that they are valued more for their strengths than their issues.
It can force us, as youth workers, into unhealthy self-evaluation.
Being able to evaluate my own skills and abilities as a youth worker is important and necessary for my professional development. However, unrealistic expectations can have some very unhealthy consequences for my self-awareness. A Healthline article listed the potential effects of a savior complex as burnout, disrupted relationships, and a sense of failure. When I create lofty expectations that are not only unrealistic but, in many situations, completely unattainable, I will ultimately fail. For example, when I see a youth that I had extremely high hopes for make a mistake, I will internalize that as my own failure. This can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed or even questions of whether I believe I should even be working with youth in the first place. This isn’t fair for yourself, nor is it fair to the many youth that you might walk out on out of fear of letting them down.
Unhealthy social development for youth.
Can we please stop using the phrase, “If you need anything, just let me know!” (Full disclosure, I used this phrase as recently, so I still have some work to do). What’s so bad about this phrase, you might ask. Nothing in itself, however, the potential danger is that I may be setting myself up as the singular source of support for a youth. In reality, we as humans need to find a large support network for all of our many needs and the same is for youth. They need peers for relational needs, medical professionals for physical needs, family and friends for emotional needs, and mentors and advocates for social development needs. One person can’t fill all those roles, nor should they. For example, if you are the sole person that a youth trusts and you can no longer be a part of their world because you switch jobs or move out of the area, they are back at square 1 in terms of having no other support systems to lean on.
So what should we do?
Well, basically, we need to do a better job of helping youth create larger support networks. The Simple Interactions framework refers to this as Inclusion. Strong inclusion practices happen when we are “inviting and involving the least likely or least able to engage”. It means helping youth feel included in appropriate peer social networks that will ultimately allow them to feel a strong sense of belonging and community. Working at inclusion can also mean helping youth find strong adult support and resources beyond yourself. Here are three easy ways that you can work on your inclusion practices in regards to youth you connect with.
- Help a youth learn how to socialize with others or make connections with peers who have similar interests. This may mean connecting a youth with another youth you know or it may mean jumping online and doing a little research on a passion they may have so you can find other youth organizations or influencers who they may be able to connect with.
- Find ways to connect youth to individuals in your community who work in areas of interest. For example, if they love motorcycles, find a local mechanic or shop that they can tour and ask questions to further develop their interest.
- Finally, if you know of a struggle they have or an issue they are dealing with, do a little searching for support communities that can connect them with other youth who have struggled with the same issues. Encourage them to build healthy community with others who have gone through what they have gone through.
Whatever you do, don’t give up! You may not be a savior, but that is not what our youth need. They need strong adult relationships that will help them create the skills to develop, grow, and thrive in this world on their own. You are a part of that.
Ben Rheinheimer, Self-Efficacy Curator at ULEAD