I excel at everything I do in life. Maybe you can relate.
I spoke in sentences at 18 months old. At five, I could spell complex words like strawberry while other kids were learning to spell cat and dog. I was top of my class throughout grade school, head cheerleader, and on the leadership team of my extracurricular activities. I earned a full-ride scholarship to university, and was top of my class there, too. In addition to my studies, I was in leadership in several clubs and travelled internationally every year for volunteering and “mission trips.” I painted and exhibited my work at the university art gallery and in art shows around town. My parents were so proud. My thesis supervisor, and most adults I knew for that matter, regularly alluded to the fact that I was the kind of person who had so much potential to change the world. Inwardly, I nurtured my private fantasies of leading the charge to world peace and dignity for all. I imagined myself in the popular archetype of young adults in the 60s who were barefoot and artistic and who stood up for what they believed in, vehemently opposing war and the subjugation of people.
The way I lived my life mirrored these beliefs. Instead of Christmas gifts, I asked for donations to be made to organizations that provided people with water and other necessities. I volunteered my time regularly to increase awareness about the genocide in Darfur or to spend time with immigrants who needed help with English or who needed a friend. I did everything I could with what I had.
Within a few years of graduating with my bachelor’s degree, I left Texas and the Christian belief system that informed and sustained my visions of the world and my place in it. I went on to run a successful photography business from New York City, traveling internationally and living an enviable fantasy life. There were moments during those five years that I would feel the pull to “do more” or have “more meaning” in my work. It wasn’t enough for me to create beautiful images and be paid well to do it. In my mind, I wasn’t saving the world. Even though I shed my identity as a Christian, I could not shed the sense—which was 25 years in the making—that I was supposed to be a heroine.
And so, I finished out all of my pending photography contracts, packed up my two-bedroom apartment and my cat, and journeyed across the pond to start afresh in Brussels, Belgium. This time I would make sure that I was destined for greatness. This time I would foster world peace. I was still naively idealistic, mind you, but I was 28 years old and had not been spared loss and hardship. It’s not like I hadn’t seen how the world works or was ignorant to the reality of life. Over the next three years, I worked part-time while earning my master’s degree in Cultural Anthropology, thinking I would still manage to find a way to my higher purpose — one that could be considered “world-changing.”
In 2018, I finished that degree. Shortly thereafter, I began going through a personal philosophical crisis. It was subtle at first, but it continued to grow until I could no longer cope with my internal distress. When the world shut down in early 2020, I shut down right along with it. I’m still dealing with the aftershocks.
Throughout those years, I was working as a freelance anthropologist and researcher for different kinds of companies and organizations. I could directly see the impact (and value) of my work for these organizations. Being an ethnographer, I also got to witness the tangible impact on the lives of individuals that I have had the privilege to research with. And yet, I still felt I wasn’t doing enough. My “purpose” wasn’t evident to me, I couldn’t sum up my “mission” into a neat sentence that I could plaster onto my Twitter bio and my website landing page. I felt like a waste of potential. I grieved the sense of disappointment I imagined my parents must feel. Especially when they would do generous things for me like cover my international plane ticket since freelancing wasn’t making me particularly well-off.
This year, 2021, I signed on full-time with the advertising agency that I freelanced with for awhile in 2018. When I was alone with my thoughts, and being honest, the work I had done with them back in 2018 was the most fun I had ever had in my professional life. My colleagues not only made me laugh every day, but they cared deeply for me in just a few short months. The work was cool and it was creative, and everyone there seemed to respect my fellow anthropologist and I for our academic training and our brains that thought differently than others in the agency. I loved it.
Somewhere along the way, I internalized a sense of shame about loving that work and wanting to funnel all my “potential” into advertising. While I do think advertising is culturally significant and is deserving of some of the most forward-thinking minds (this is a subject for a different post), I felt lesser-than and shallow for enjoying that world. I still feel like I have to justify my work, and try and convince others it is important.
The thing is, my ideas—which are also informed by substantial cultural ideals and values—about what counts as meaningful work have been covertly stealing my joy and prolonging my sense of internal crisis. I have a hard time letting myself enjoy my career, or even enjoy my free time, because I’m constantly obsessing about the fact that I’m not like Amanda Gorman, Malala Yousafzai, or AOC. But it’s not just the well-known figures that I compare myself to. It’s also the incredible applied anthropologists in my industry, the entrepreneurs I encounter in my research, and every speaker at SXSW ever. I also happen to have friends who are running successful consulting businesses, publishing feminist magazines, and working in organizations to ensure more equitable financial systems in marginalized communities. Perhaps the most insidious and toxic comparison of all, is the one I sanction daily between myself now and myself at 22 who had all the time and potential to join the ranks of those destined for greatness.
Today is Saturday, and like many Saturdays before it, I stepped away from the work computer to allow myself time to “relax.” And in my relaxing, I began the usual berating of myself for not using my days off to create beautiful art to display, write provocative articles for publication, build an empire, or…something that feels important. I’ve been carrying the yoke of self-disappointment so long that it almost goes unrecognized. If it’s not disappointment that I haven’t become a public figure, then it’s because I’m not awesome enough on my days off.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve serendipitously come across several signals that are beginning to inspire an inner paradigm shift. Or at least a strong desire for one. Quotes like the one above from an article in The Atlantic, or coming across accounts like Jamie Varon‘s on Instagram have struck a nerve, but I wasn’t sure what to make of it or how to process everything I had been reflecting on. It wasn’t until this morning, while drinking my coffee and thinking about all the impactful things I should do to make the most of my weekend, that I was able to put words to what might be going on. Yes, there is my insatiable desire for success (and therefore to be seen as special), but I also have what might best be described as a savior complex.
It’s not that I would be called out by @NoWhiteSaviors for being a person of privilege presumptively imagining that marginalized communities need me in order to live better lives. While I might have believed something like that in my Christian youth, my anthropological education stomped out any such remaining pretenses. It’s more that I doubt my own value and undermine my own happiness via my underlying beliefs that I am unworthy because I don’t have a job that society believes is “helping people.” And on top of that, I don’t let myself fully enjoy my non-working hours if they aren’t explicitly connected to producing something that the world would deem valuable. In an era where everyone is writing a book, starting a business, building a community, creating a platform, recording a podcast, collaborating with a nonprofit, or speaking at an event, I feel pretty uninspiring. I look at all the ways I’m failing to be remarkable, and I minimize the successes I do have or the ways in which I do matter to people.
As an anthropologist (who also happens to be an empath), I spend a lot of time listening to people’s stories. I’m often struck by how others are living beautiful lives, but telling themselves that they aren’t, and therefore robbing themselves of joy. And today it finally dawned on me that I’m doing precisely the same thing. My desire to be the humanitarian hero and to be recognized for my achievements, big or small, is poisoning my own appreciation of my exceedingly beautiful life.
I don’t mean to suggest that wanting meaningful work, or to do good in the world, or to put one’s energy towards positive change means that one has a savior complex. It is the context of my personal experiences, my thoughts, and my wider environment that has produced this particular outcome for me. What I do know is that I’m over it and I’d rather start making choices to be happy rather than to feel morally superior or special. I’m not sure where to start, but I know that I’ve got to confront these beliefs and come to terms with a healthier perspective (for me) on what makes for a valuable life. I’ve also got to reconcile my ambition to succeed with what I actually enjoy doing. I love my job, I love my life, and I love the experiences I’ve been afforded. And that needs to be enough. Enough is enough.
Can anyone relate? Savior complex support group anyone?