Unlearning: Savior complex

Unlearning savior complex

You need to save the world (not really). As a Christian, I was taught to save my friends from hell by converting them. As a man, I was taught that I need to take care of women because they can’t take care of themselves. As a citizen of the United States of America, I was taught that our military must protect the world from violence. Who were you taught to save?

The desire to “save” works its way into all social change movements. Save poor people from hunger, saves developing nations from lack of water, save souls from hell.

When making a movement, you will feel the itch to build your movement upon saving the world. Resist this temptation. You can’t change the world.

Why unlearn the savior complex?

The notion that we, that I, that you, need to save anyone from anything rests on two unproven assumptions:

  1. Those people cannot save themselves
  2. What we do is actually helpful

There is a saying, “I speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.” Have you said that? I have. Nonsense. Everyone can communicate. Maybe we are not listening. Maybe there is too much noise for others to be heard. Maybe you have grabbed the microphone away and won’t let go.

Poor people can, and do, create solutions to eliminate poverty. Slaves can, and do, free themselves from slavery. Queer people can, and do, love themselves, create faith communities, and form families. Women can, and do, vote and educate themselves. Instead of saving, stop oppressing.

The best solutions come from the people directly affected by the issue at hand. If you really do have a heart for the poor, terrific! Work with poor people rather than trying to save them. If you really do want to love gay people, great! Support gay people and their organizations rather than trying to speak for them.

What happens when we don’t unlearn the savior complex? Most of the time we end up doing more harm than good. We re-victimize victims. We reinforce power imbalances. We manage symptoms rather than develop solutions. We foster a lack of conflict rather than lean into a productive tension. Friends Of Toms, the charitable arm of TOMS Shoes, is one example of misplaced generosity: a desire to save (and to create good PR) trumping real, lasting change. Search “Day Without Dignity” for more information.

I unlearned the savior complex so that I could be part of real, meaningful, sustainable change. It means taking a support role in causes which don’t directly affect me, taking the lead on issues which do, and always working to change myself.

How to unlearn the savior complex

Listen to others.

Really listen. Listen with an open heart and mind. Listen without being defensive, without needing to be right. Trust their experiences. Listen without speaking.

Educate yourself.

Don’t rely on others to do the heavy lifting for you. Research; read books (non-fiction and fiction); watch movies; attend meetings and rallies; attend musical and cultural events; surf blogs and YouTube. There is a wealth of information out there by the people living and organizing around all sorts of issues. Don’t read about “Africans”; instead, seek out materials by activists in Egypt, by gay people in Uganda, by mothers in Somalia.

Don’t make it about you.

Remember that “issues” you are “learning about” or “thinking through” are lived realities for other people. It’s OK to be quiet and just listen. It’s OK to be uncomfortable. Contemporary American Christianity talks a lot about “serving” people, you are the one serving. Let go of that model. Instead, work in solidarity. Keep the other centered and central. Hand the microphone. Pass along the interview request, speaking gig, or book deal.


I use social media to supplement my “in real life” unlearning practices. On Google+ and Twitter, I can listen to others and educate myself. I think Google+ is a revolutionary tool for activists. Harness its power to educate yourself. Free invite from me here if you aren’t already on.

Replacing the savior complex with solidarity

As I unlearn the savior complex, I learn to work in solidarity. Before, when I “served,” I came with a pre-existing notion of what I would do, regardless of whether the people I was “serving” wanted or needed what I have to offer. Working in solidarity means listening, educating myself, and taking a supporting role. It means doing things which make me uncomfortable. It means risking being wrong and messing up. It also comes with immense reward. When I work in solidarity, I push myself to grow. I evolve. I see the power and impact of solidarity work. The solutions created are meaningful and lasting. The process is an end to itself.

At first, solidarity is difficult: it requires unlearning an approach we’ve been taught. Then, solidarity becomes easy. I ask myself some basic questions.

  1. Who is most effected?
  2. Who is most invested?
  3. What solutions are those people proposing?
  4. What do they require of me?

And then I simply act upon the answers.

Why unlearning the savior complex will improve your movement

When you replace the savior complex with solidarity work, your movement will become stronger. The savior complex is a false foundation. We are told it is strong and solid, but it is useless and ineffective. Solidarity work is tough and durable, it is proven, and it bears fruit immediately (and more in the future).

This is the third article in a series on unlearning to build better movements. Subscribe below to receive each update by email.

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