NOT your Mother Teresa

Elisa A. Escalante/ LMSW/ 8-5-2020

“When helping someone, if you are working harder than they are, that’s a problem.” -EaE

     The kindest people of the world get put up on the most dangerous types of pedestals. The pedestal of people pointing at them as the ‘go to’ person anytime anyone needs anything, ever. Unfortunately, it’s not always as simple as ‘you come first’ statements to cure this issue. Someone who is constantly exploited for their kindness, emotional maturity and excess empathy may not even see the true pattern. It feels so natural, so right, to always step up and help others. It feels good to get that constant reassurance through ‘thank you’ s’ and ‘you’re the bests’ as well as ‘No one has helped me the way you have’. However, beneath every kind/ foolish heart is a lifetime of pain. A person that constantly helps others at the detriment of their own mental health, is NOT an okay person. I will start by laying out some key terms that correlate with the ‘Mother Teresa’s’ of the world, the ones that are constantly doing for others.

Fawning- A trauma response/ defense mechanism that consists of constant ‘people pleasing’ to diffuse conflict, feel more secure in relationships and earn approval from others. If confrontation puts someone head to head with ‘fight or flight’ (common for abuse survivors that needed to appease a temperamental guardian) said person may likely fawn over others to keep the peace.

Savior complex- (AKA White knight syndrome) describes the need to ‘save’ people by fixing their problems. Some explain a sense of feeling good about themselves and/ or ‘worthy’ only if they help others. (Common for children that grew up with parent(s) struggling with Domestic violence and/ or drug addictions & needed consistent saving)

Survivor guilt- A moral injury/ grieving process that occurs when someone feels wrong or guilty about surviving a traumatic event that others did not survive. Guilt may cause individual to feel they deserve to suffer and may consistently attempt to make up for the past while disregarding their own well being. (Extremely common with war traumas)

Codependency- A behavioral condition in a relationship in which someone enables another person’s addiction(s), poor self-care choices, lack of accountability etc due to their own excessive reliance on that person’s approval. Requiring said approval for their own sense of purpose/ identity. (Common in addiction & abusive households)

Rigid Obligatory Roles- When family members or coworkers place one key person in a place of heightened obligation and said individual consistently steps up to the role until it becomes what feels like a ‘natural’ compulsion. (Examples: the ‘ATM’ of the family, the ‘go to’ for emotional support, the DD for every event etc. The obligatory person is often someone struggling with a savior complex or survivor’s guilt)

Trauma bonding- Strong emotional attachments between an abused person and his/ her abuser, formed as a result of a cycle of violence and enmeshed identities of ‘the controller’ and ‘the victim’. (Often the result of a child being loved & abused interchangeably during childhood from 1 or more abusive guardian. Love and tragedy become enmeshed)

     If anyone suffers from any of the above conditions, behavioral traits and/ or defense mechanisms, it is worth reflecting on. If we suffer from said conditions and find ourselves in a constant state of anxiousness, irritability, relational issue’s and work-related stressors, there may be a direct correlation. My very first hint of this being an issue for me came from no other: A social worker. A social worker that I happened to be deployed to Afghanistan with. After many long (and I’m sure annoying) slew of vents from me regarding my difficult friendships and relationships she blurted out: “Have you ever thought about why you have the types of relationships that you do? Why are you always attracting those types of people, who always seem to be in a state of crisis?”

     I was stunned. I was not out of denial just yet. I was just shocked and appalled that she would assume it’s ‘my fault’. I desperately in my own mind searched for someone I knew that was ‘normal’, someone that did not cause any drama. Okay, yea there were none. Then again, I used to believe ‘normal’ existed back in those days. However, what this social work colleague was really trying to point out was that there was a role I chose to play in every friendship, relationship or acquaintanceship I got myself into. I was typically fawning, saving, and providing an endless amount of emotional support meanwhile living in denial about my own issues. It was a distraction/ avoidance technique that eventually turned into a heavy compulsion. I had no clue now to create boundaries for myself. This was an extremely crucial thing to learn.  We are accountable for the types of people we bring in and out of our lives. We are 99.9% accountable for the ass pain we want to deal with or NOT deal with. It is never as simple as “I’m a good person and the world is evil toward me.” With a statement like that, we fail to see our own personal role in savior/ victim relationships.

     Here’s some important questions/ reflections: Are people using us (savior mother Teresa types) on purpose? Are they viciously and selfishly using us? Or are we compulsively helping even when some people didn’t ask for our help? Perhaps it’s a bit of both. Perhaps they are using us selfishly. Then again, perhaps they are codependent and don’t even realize they are in a chronic state of victimhood, meanwhile we may not realize we are in a chronic state of fawning. Perhaps we are hunting and jumping at every opportunity we can find to save someone in order to feel ‘worthy’ or make up for an everlasting regret. The world is full of people that need saving, if we look hard enough, it’s never hard to find them. We (saviors) also need saving but tend to neglect those needs due to the preference of getting distracted by the need of others.

      What happens when Boundaries are made?

     Typically, if we are brave enough to start setting boundaries for the sake of our self-preservation, the ones that ‘need’ us most don’t respond well. There is a likelihood that they will question or counter the boundaries. There is a likelihood that they will ignore them completely. There might even be anger or guilt tactics involved to try and reel the savior back into the role. For those that are serious about eliminating their Mother Teresa Ambiance, DO NOT CAVE. Remember that a part of what makes us so approachable and inviting is exactly that: We are approachable and inviting. STOP. Learn to say no, if we don’t know how to, we must practice it. There are very little excuses needed, as boundaries are a natural human right. IF we do not teach others of our boundaries, they may never even realize that said boundaries exist. Here’s another crucial question: Can we find an identity outside of being a savior? Yes, we can. Look for it, explore it, fight for it. It’s is NOT easy, but worth it. If life feels meaningless and empty without saving other’s, we have a lot of work to do with learning to love ourselves.

     A person exhibiting codependent traits may personalize their friend and/ or family members boundaries. They may believe it’s about them. I can easily assure anyone I know that my boundaries are never about them, they are about me, and my own personal sanity. Do not put me on a pedestal, do not believe I am the answer to all your problems. Do not assume I want to go from a 9-5 where I help people all day to an evening of helping you, for free, with all your issue’s too. Do not believe that someone else is ever more responsible for your issue’s than you are. Do not believe that anyone owes you anything, ever. I (and many others) will always be a kind, because it was a value instilled in us from childhood. True kindness and empathy are extremely rare, and unfortunately the world can spoil it fast. Many of us do not want to be depleted of kindness, and in order to preserve this value, we must make boundaries. We must protect ourselves; we are not your Mother Teresa.

Published by functionallymentall

Social Worker, Writer, USAF Veteran

One thought on “NOT your Mother Teresa

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