Do-gooding White Lady Saviour Complex

Early in training for social work, you will likely be warned that if you showed up to become a saviour, you had the wrong idea. You will be told you can’t save anyone. You will be told this is not even the goal. You will be told trying to save people is an abuse of power.

Likely, a trainer will suggest that if you are struggling to witness their pain, you must remember that this period in which your lives have crossed is just one part of their journey. Someone will warn that if you think you can save people, but fail, you will not be able to survive this work. You are assured that people are resilient.

Even as I write about these teachings in this cynical tone, I acknowledge how important they have been in reducing my compassion fatigue and in helping the traumatized youth and women I’ve worked with for over a decade.

Technically I am not a social worker by training. I patched together information from all over to build my social justice-oriented approach to helping, as well as my understanding of what was expected of me by the institution of social work. For me social work is the labour of service and solidarity.

I’ve tried to walk the talk. Some guest speaker said, “People are experts in their own lives.” I’d never felt like an expert in anyone’s life, including my own, but I added “client-directed” to my ethics. At some point, I was given language like, “Engage the community in meaningful activism, collaborating to change the material realities of their lives.” So I took youth to a protest, and then the same one a year later, and the year after that. A clever colleague said, “You can’t empower people; you can only create an empowering environment.” I ate that up; I’ve done a lot of cheerleading homeless youth while they ran workshops themselves.

At some point, I learned that part of the work is trying to become prepared for my clients’ deaths, for sitting with the possibility that the people I cared for and about may never leave behind their risky survival strategies (theft, substance use, violence). So resisting the saviour complex, I’ve gathered, is essentially, “Believe in them, but also know they might die.”

So yeah. There’s these really solid theories, and then there are these actual human beings suffering in front of our very eyes. As a person in relationship with young people in crisis, I want to say out loud that I do kind of want to save them. Like actually, I would really, really like to save them.

And I want to be able to say I would like to save them and not be told I have some do-gooding able cis straight middle-class white lady saviour complex.

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Black and White photo of a feminine angel helping a girl (how some social workers see themselves!). Statue is silhouetted against sky.

Maybe I don’t mean “save them” like save them from themselves or poverty or some bad guy. (Although wouldn’t that be nice too?) I just mean save them from a moment in time when the wave is too big and they’re drowning. Is this not a basic human response — to hear someone cry and want to be able to do something more than pass a tissue? And to be able to do it right then, when tears are falling, to say or do the exact right thing at the exact right time?

Don’t we wish for magic sometimes? Don’t we wish for power? Not just offering a hug, which I will absolutely break rules to give. Not just new case management processes that are supposed to make us more effective. Not just some new modality we learned because there was nothing in our degree to prepare us for this amount of suffering. Not just saying, “You have the ability to get through this” when we’re thinking, “but you shouldn’t have to.” Not just, “Let’s solve this together” when the problem is traumatic memory; when the problem is not wanting to live at all; when the problem is that rent costs $1300 and welfare is $600.

Can we, as social workers, just admit that if we could erase traumatic experiences, we would? If we had the chance to literally remove pain from their bodies, to even give a moment of relief, we’d all do it, right? Heck, if we could make it so their abusers were never born, that would be cool.

We would love the power to make housing affordable. We want to completely eliminate the dangers of drugs and bad drug laws. We dream of making education and employment more accessible to those who have so much extra stuff to work on. We think, if only we could solve in minutes these huge social problems that will likely take decades of political advocacy to address.

Wishing we could save people is not always a saviour complex, which admittedly is a pretty crappy complex. It’s not necessarily about ego, or pity, or charity. It’s about watching a young person try and fail at sobriety every day, and knowing you don’t have any solutions for her. She works so hard and she’s so tired. Wanting to save people is about being frustrated about how little we can actually do to help when the resources are so spectacularly inadequate.

Since we are not angels or superheroes, we are indeed left with simply walking alongside service users on their journey. But if that “saviour” feeling comes up, and we guiltily squash it down, I think it is more likely that we will screw up our boundaries. This desire to save is something to hold space for. So let us say out loud that we want to save them — not to be judged, but to be reminded that our job is to care about them without expectation.

Our service users absolutely can navigate hardship using their own skills, resilience, and self-knowledge. Even with huge obstacles ahead and the past following them like wolves, they are brilliant. Funny. Kind. Badass. Very capable, especially with help.

Audrey is an educator, counsellor, and curriculum developer running her own business in Toronto. She writes about social services, mostly.

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