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What Is a Savior (or Messiah) Complex?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on September 21, 2022

Wanting to help others can be good for your health. But if you feel like you have to do it and put aside your own well-being to do so, it can be problematic. This is known as a messiah complex, savior complex, or white knight syndrome. In some cases, it may not be a big deal, but it can be more serious in others.

If you have a messiah complex, you may feel like you are destined or called to save others. You may feel responsible for helping others. You may have good intentions if you try to come to the rescue (at your expense). Or you may try to play savior for more self-serving reasons such as a desire for praise, power, or a sense of self-worth.

The savior complex is a state of mind, so it’s not an official medical diagnosis. But people with mental conditions such as bipolar disorder, delusional disorder, and schizophrenia may get it.

Why Is a Savior Complex So Complicated?

People who have a messiah complex can have either good or bad intentions for trying to save others. They can get positive and negative outcomes from trying to save others (as can the people they try to help).

If you’re genuinely trying to help others, you may want to pay attention to overdoing it. Even the kindest actions can be harmful to mental and physical health. If you’re helping because you feel superior or are craving power, or if your actions harm others, it can be a sign to get help. In some cases, a person with a messiah complex may treat others poorly and demand obedience. Some people with a savior complex have messianic delusions and actually think they are a savior as taught in the Bible.

If your good intentions go off the rails -- whether you mean for them to or not -- that’s known as pathological altruism. It can be a result of having a savior complex.

There are some gender differences in people who help others. Oftentimes, men may be more likely to help when others need their physical strength (like carrying boxes or building houses) while women help with people who need nurturing (like offering counseling or supportive conversation).

What Are the Symptoms of a Savior Complex?

You may have a messiah complex if you:

Want to help other people. If you like helping others, you may volunteer a lot or even try to save others in an extreme situation that may harm you. There are benefits of helping others, of course. When the time put in starts interfering with your well-being, it can become a problem for yourself, those in your life, and others you’re trying to help. For example, you may think that sacrificing sleep to do a good deed isn’t too damaging. But over time, the physical and mental effects can be toxic.

Want better self-esteem or self-worth. Self-esteem is based on what you do (while self-worth is more about who you are). You may crave either or both, which is why you may set out to help others and neglect yourself. While wanting to feel a sense of self-worth or self-esteem isn’t necessarily a negative thing, it can become damaging to you or others.

People with megalomania can set out to help people (and have a messiah complex), too. A person with megalomania has an exaggerated sense of self-worth – they think they’re more important than they actually are. (This is different from narcissism because narcissists have an inflated sense of self-love and need for attention and admiration.) In some cases, people with a messiah complex may have megalomania, which is part of delusional disorder.

Havecodependency. If you feel responsible for another person’s needs -- and enable them to fill those needs, even if they’re negative -- you may be more prone to experience a messiah complex or pathological altruism. If you are already looking to save others you know (that’s the case with codependency), you may look to save others you don’t know, too.

Have an eating disorder. People with eating disorders often want to help others instead of themselves. Some experts believe that people with eating disorders may be more likely to have pathological altruism, which is linked to having a messiah complex.

Hoard animals. If you have a lot of animals and cannot fully care for them, you are not be doing what’s in their best interest. Some experts associate people who hoard animals with pathologic altruism.

Think you know what’s better for others. You may be prone to a messiah complex if you believe you know what’s best for others. That can lead to an irrational impression that you’re helping others. In other words, your good deed could backfire on the person you’re trying to help.

Crave power over others or self-worth. You may start out genuinely wanting to help others and find that you crave the power that it gives you. Then you may stop wanting to help others but only do it for the power or feelings of self-worth. In other cases, people may help others and have a savior complex solely because they want power and self-worth.

Feel superior to others based on race. Beliefs on race can be a driver for a person to feel obligated to help others, too. This is known as white savior complex (more on that below).

Have delusional disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or other mental disorder. People with megalomania (who have delusions of needing to be praised or feel they’re more important than they are) may be more prone to having a messiah complex. Other mental disorders may be linked to it, but there’s not much evidence showing that having any of those disorders means you have a messiah complex (or vice versa).

How Can a Messiah Complex Harm Me?

Even if you truly want to help others (that’s called altruism), feeling like you have to help others can:

  • Put you in danger physically if you try to save someone in a dangerous situation
  • Affect your mental state, especially if you aren’t able to save the other person
  • Cause you to neglect your own physical needs, which could lead to illness
  • Lead you to get burned out
  • Affect your personal relationships
  • Negatively affect the person or people you’re trying to help

Is a Savior Complex a Mental Disorder?

No, but people with mental disorders may get a messiah complex. It’s compared to grandiosity, or grandiose ideas about themselves. That’s when someone has an exaggerated sense of their importance, power, or identity. It’s common in people with bipolar disorder. The messiah complex has also been linked to schizophrenia and delusional disorder.

You don’t have to have a mental disorder to experience a savior complex. You may start helping others with good intentions and continue that way, or develop a messiah complex over time. Some people help others at their own expense because they want to feel good about themselves or they want to feel like they’re in control of others. Just because you experience a savior complex doesn’t mean that it goes on to hurt others, but it can be harmful to your general health or theirs.

Is the Savior Complex the Same as the White Savior Complex?

They’re related. White savior complex is when a white person believes their race automatically gives them the tools to help a person of color (or community of color). Experts say that efforts to help people often leave out the question of whether the need for help was caused by white people.

White savior complex is also known as white saviorism or white savior industrial complex.

What Should You Do If You Have a Savior Complex?

Helping others isn’t bad. It can have plenty of health perks. But sometimes when you do good things for others, you may not take care of yourself. Even the best of intentions can have negative outcomes.

There’s no diagnostic test for a savior complex, but a therapist or counselor can help you identify it.

Getting support may help you work out your feelings so you can still meet your desire to help others without overdoing it. If your messiah complex seems rooted in a desire for power over others -- or you believe that you are actually a savior -- therapy may help you work through how your beliefs are impacting your life and those around you.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

American Psychological Association: “Altruism May Be Universally and Uniquely Human.”

Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science: “Problem of Altruism.”

International Bipolar Foundation: “Messiah Complex.”

British Columbia Ministry of Advanced Education, Skills & Training: “Principles of Social Psychology.”

Journal of Critical Thought and Praxis: “The White Savior Industrial Complex: A Cultural Studies Analysis of a Teacher Educator, Savior Film, and Future Teachers.”

Journal of Sustainable Tourism: “Volunteer Tourism and ‘The White Man’s Burden”: Globalization of Suffering, White Savior Complex, Religion, and Modernity.”

Joseph, S., et al. Delusional Disorder, StatPearls, 2022.

Mental Health and Society: “The messianic idea and messianic delusion.”

Oakley, B., et al. Pathologic Altruism, Oxford University Press, 2012.

PNAS: “Concepts and implications of altruism bias and pathological altruism.”

Psychiatry: “Psychotic Grandiosity.”

Psychological Reports: “The Messiah-Complex in Schizophrenia.”

World Applied Sciences Journal: “The Relationship between Collective Self-Esteem and Volunteer Engagement: The Mediating Role of Basic Psychological Need Satisfaction.”

Mayo Clinic: “Narcissistic personality disorder.”

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