When You Have to Save Everyone: The Warning Signs of Hero-Savior-Martyr Syndrome

Anonymous asked a question:

Hi Pastor Park! Over the years of following your blog, i’ve heard you mention that people are not “projects” and I recently saw the same phrase. I was wondering if you could explain more of what you mean by that, or some practical things to look out for so we could recognize if we’re falling into that mindset? A part of me worries i’m thinking of other people that way, so if you have more insight, i’d love to know. Thanks, and have a blessed week with your wife and dog!

Hey dear friend, thank you.

You may be referring to one of these posts:

– No One Is a Charity Case

– One of the Most Important Things I’ve Learned

While this is not a new thought, many of us are at risk of falling into a “Hero-Savior-Martyr Syndrome.” This was most classically demonstrated by the Karpman Triangle, in which interactions tend to fall into a triangle of Rescuer, Victim, and Persecutor.

Since I truly believe that many of us are good people who care about others, we want to help as many as we can. This is a good thing; it’s a good motive. But left unchecked, we fall into a Rescuer mode in which all people and situations become a “Heroic Drama” in which we are the Protagonist, rescuing someone from their poverty or trauma or sadness or villain. Then it no longer becomes about actually helping the person, but rather boosting our own ego and getting high off dopamine and adrenaline.

Of course, you can feel good about helping people. It’s okay to get the little dopamine surge when you encourage someone or alleviate someone’s suffering. The problem is that when you commodify people into subhuman secondary props for your catharsis, you end up doing the very thing you least wanted: dehumanizing them as mere objects who are only vehicles for your hero-story.

Here are some ways you know you’ve fallen into this:

– You resent other people who do not help your cause or mission, or who are not doing the same “rescue work” that you’re doing.

– You resent other people who are better at the work you’re doing, instead of trying to learn from them or celebrating their work. You downplay their achievements or constantly compare theirs to yours.

– Your “rescue work” is largely one-hit wonders, like visiting an impoverished place once a year or sending a check to a place you’ve never visited.

– You get disproportionately angry or disillusioned when you try to help and it doesn’t work out. Rather than learning from your mistakes, you either blame others for impeding your work or you give up instantly.

– You constantly need recognition for your work in front of your peers, and/or you refuse to do behind-the-scenes work. Your social media is filled with self-promotion.

– You surround yourself with yes-men and those who must rely on you to do the work, and you do not pass on your knowledge to others.

– You fantasize and daydream about being recognized for your work. There’s a healthy level of daydreaming, by the way, but not when it disproportionately takes up your brain-space.

– You love speaking about issues and villains and “what’s wrong with the world,” but you don’t speak about the people who are affected.

I think the most egregious example of the Hero-Savior stuff is this very infamous post, where a missionary expected that Nairobi would be more impoverished and destitute with kids covered in bug bites, but finds a typical American-ish city. She describes herself as “discouraged” when she finds out they’re not more poor.

Here’s the thing. If you’re worried about being a Hero-Savior-Martyr, chances are that you’re far from falling into it. The very fact that you’re self-aware about it already shows you’re taking steps to check yourself. That’s a great start.

As a Christian, this is why my faith is so important to me. I recognize I’m not the Author. I’m not the Protagonist. I’m a cameo in God’s story. I’m a cheerleader, a sidekick, a minor role. And I’m fine with that. My hope is always to elevate the goodness of God and to elevate others. I am not the hero of my story. My hope is that I help others become the hero of theirs.

I’ll leave you with this quote by Stephen Colbert:

After I graduated from here, I moved down to Chicago and did improv. Now there are very few rules to improvisation, but one of the things I was taught early on is that you are not the most important person in the scene. Everybody else is. And if they are the most important people in the scene, you will naturally pay attention to them and serve them. But the good news is you’re in the scene too. So hopefully to them you’re the most important person, and they will serve you. No one is leading, you’re all following the follower, serving the servant. You cannot win improv … So no more winning. Instead, try to love others and serve others, and hopefully find those who love and serve you in return.

Photo from Unsplash

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