Is It Service? Or an Unintentional, Savior Complex?
Growing up I was taught that there was no greater demonstration of love than to serve your family and community. Love, by default, therefore, was all about self-sacrifice. Sacrificing to family, friends, colleagues, neighborhood, school, religion… And the list went on. As a child of privilege — money, education, and a “good upbringing” — my worth revolved around, not me, but my service to others. And without it, I was invisible, or worse, in trouble. Because when I didn’t step in to serve, everything would apparently and quickly fall apart.
Kind of stressful, right? The result was a lot of misplaced responsibility on the shoulders of a very young girl who didn’t know any better than to take it all very, very seriously, if for no other reason than to just keep the cart rolling. The other result was the misperception that this was the role “I wanted to be playing”. That I agreed with it and wanted to be seen as sweet, patient and all-compliant. But the truth is, I didn’t want any of it. That being said, after playing that role in an incredibly convincing manner my whole life, trying to shed the persona — even to myself — became pretty much impossible. So, I invariably defaulted into my service persona, in all areas of my life; family, friends, education, career, and community. Even vacations ended up revolving around putting myself last.
Now before you “feel sorry for me” please don’t, because in some ways it had the opposite effect on me than you might think. It gave me an unintentional “savior complex”. And that’s much more challenging to shed. Especially after surviving cancer a couple of times. At that point I was no longer sweet and patient, but a “warrior”. A “Wonder Woman” wielding her lasso of Truth and Justice. Fighting for the “less-fortunate”.
I took that attitude into my run for Congress as well as my IPEC coaching course. In IPEC world, I was living at what I thought was a Level 4, of gratitude and service to all, but myself. Or as I like to think of it, the Tropicana orange effect of too many straws sucking me dry of all my juice. The parts of the Level 4 message I missed were that Self-Care, Wanting, and Boundaries, were essential to any true act of service.
It wasn’t until I had moved to Bermuda, watching New York decline from a distance, and feeling guilty for the one CLEAR act of boundary-setting and self-care I’ve probably ever done, that I started to wonder whether I’d taken on a savior complex. And it took a series of my peers and friends in NYC asking me THE SAME QUESTION to get it through my head… “What makes you think that New York is your responsibility?”
When my response kept coming back as, “I have to”, because others are “less-fortunate”, I realized not only had I taken on that complex, but I was making some pretty judgmental assumptions about the fortunes of others and whether they even wanted or needed my help. And with that, my Wonder Woman glasses came off and I was able to just be me, looking after me, living the life and opportunities I wanted. For Me.
So, for all you, who are like me and default into service, my only question is: “What do you actually want to be doing?”
Holly Lynch is a 20+ year communications veteran and life-long social impact advocate and strategist who has helped individuals and companies tackle the toughest challenges in their worlds. Having survived countless life setbacks and two rounds with terminal cancer, while seeing the country-wide collapse of the systems and safety nets for the most vulnerable in and outside our communities, she is now shifting her life and career trajectories to focus on coaching those facing down fundamental
shifts and transitions as they try to navigate and rebuild their lives and businesses during these unprecedented times.