Aug 01, 2017

I Gotta Watch Out for the Saviour Complex

Deepa Krishnan

One of the problems in doing “social work” is that I have become a real worry-wart. I worry about our Abhyudaya kids all the time.

It’s really not surprising. I see a lot of poverty and injustice around me. The children live in a terribly unhygienic environment, and don’t have access to toilets or sanitation. They go to schools that provide very poor quality education. They don’t have enough career opportunities. There’s the added threat of early removal from the education system, and the threat of early marriage… in other words, there’s a lot that can derail the journey of these kids. So like an anxious shepherd tending a flock, I worry all the time about seeing them safely through.

Sometimes I fight battles on their behalf. And I even win some. When I realise that I can actually make a difference, this makes me feel even more responsible for their welfare. But the size of the problem is very large, so I worry that no matter how much I do, it is not enough. I worry that the world will suck the children into a whirlpool of tribulations.

Yesterday I was talking about some of these worries to a friend. And then suddenly it struck me that I am probably suffering from a Saviour Complex. Just because I have won a few battles, it doesn’t mean that the whole world of the children revolves around me. I need to stop thinking that I am the only one making an impact on their lives. They themselves have a lot of agency, and so do their parents. They have many well-wishers, including a big support system of family and friends. It struck me that all social workers need the humility to accept their limited roles. The Saviour Complex is a dangerous thing, because it leads to self-aggrandizement. Instead, we need to tread light and easy.

It’s important that I fight battles. It’s important that I do what I can. But I must realise that if I were to disappear off the planet tomorrow, the children’s lives will still go on. Abhyudaya is a strong programme, and it will continue.

Prof. Deepa Krishnan, Head of SPJIMR’s Abhyudaya initiative, with the Abhyudaya kids

My focus should be to build systems into the programme that will ensure its continuity. I must strengthen the programme so much that I myself become completely redundant. That is the road to making a lasting impact.

People are always talking about leadership, and how important it is. But when it comes to social work, it is more important for the organisation to be sustainable and strong, rather than have any dependence on a dynamic individual leader.

By the way – as a footnote – the same Saviour Complex lesson applies to parenting also. As a mother, I worry all the time about my daughter. I fret about her future, and I make efforts to shield her from any possible trouble. But the truth is that I am not my daughter’s keeper. Her life is her own, and she will lead it with or without me. I am there to guide, to mentor, to wipe tears if needed. But she is her own person. My role should only be to develop her own independence, to the point where she no longer needs me. Easier said than done!

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