How I Got Over My “Savior Complex” (And Why You Should Too)

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By Dr. Carol Morgan

Several years ago, I re-connected with (and started dating again) an old boyfriend from college. He was my first love, and back then, my world revolved around him. I’m sure you know the feeling – most of us have felt that way at least one time in our lives.

Back then, I was always trying to “motivate” him. You probably know what I’m talking about because you might have done the same thing to the men in your lives, right?! He was on the verge of flunking out of college (and eventually did), and I thought I could make him “see the light” and put more effort into going to class and studying for exams.

Well, that didn’t work.

And I actually thought I learned my lesson back then. Nope.

Why? Because I did it again when we re-connected, and I started the process all over again. Although he had gotten his life on track a bit, he still wasn’t where he wanted to be in his career – or his life. So once again, I thought I could “motivate” and “inspire” him to be the best he could be.


I have a confession: I have a “savior complex.” In other words, I want to save people from themselves. I know that sounds like I have some sort of God-complex, but I don’t think that’s true. I just like helping people. And teaching people. I am a teacher not only by profession, but also just at the core of my being.

I once had a friend ask me, “Do you think it’s possible to motivate other people?” And I responded with, “If you would have asked me 3 years ago, I would have said yes. But now…no way.”

I had to figure this out the hard way. Two rounds with the same man taught me that.

I almost saw my “motivational behavior” as virtually altruistic. I’m helping him (and/or other people), so how could that not be a good thing, right?

Well, it depends on how you look at it.

Motivate. Inspire. Improve. Really, the essence of all of these words implies “change.” So while I chose to use the word “motivate,” what I really meant is “change them.” And you can’t do that.

Only they can change themselves.

Let’s take a look at a couple other scenarios where I previously would have thought I could “save” someone.

With my children, I sometimes get frustrated if I can’t motivate them to do something. One of my kids is very self-motivated and competitive when it comes to … well … pretty much everything. The other is very laid back and didn’t used to have that natural competitive edge until he reached the 8th grade. When he was in the 7th grade, he almost flunked out (despite being an A and B student before that). Back in 7th grade, I felt like I was doing a “metaphorical cheerleading dance” to motivate him to find his competitive edge and turn his grades around. But I know deep down that I was wasting my time. He had to do it himself. And luckily, he got his act together and became a straight A honors student from 8th grade on.
I would like to take credit for that, but I can’t. He’s the one who turned it around, not me.

Another scenario from my life is when a family member (not in my primary family) got addicted to meth. She was college educated, married, had a child, and yet she still got sucked into the world of drugs. Her immediate family was devastated and tried everything they could to motivate her to go to rehab and quit. But it wasn’t until she got arrested by the police and did some jail time that she started to quit. I don’t know if she’s still using or not, but one thing I do know for sure – only SHE can make the decision to get help and stay clean, no one else can do it for her.

I have come to the conclusion that there is a difference between motivating, inspiring, and saving people. For example, I’ve watched the TV show The Biggest Loser a couple of times before, and I’m always very inspired by those people and their stories. But does it motivate me to go out and start a new diet and an exercise program? Unfortunately, no. And does the program save a grossly obese person from their eating addiction? No.

No one can save another person. Only they can save themselves.

I don’t want to kill your efforts in trying to inspire people. Inspiring people is great! It implies that you have moved them mentally or emotionally in some way. But motivating and saving people implies action – on their part. Go had and inspire all you want. Leave the saving to other people!

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