The Atlas Complex

Do you have heroic tendencies? If so, your altruism might save the day or rescue the helpless. Perhaps you will seek a Hero’s Journey, a compelling quest that could transform you and benefit your community. Either way, if you act as a true hero, it is a win-win scenario; people will thank you and situations will improve.

But what if your heroic instincts bring you trouble? What if instead of saving someone or fixing the problem, you find yourself propping up people and situations that never seem to improve? Many of us think we are stepping in to fix things like Hercules, only to find ourselves stuck holding up the world like Atlas. We stoop under the heaviness of other people’s problems, feeling the weight of their issues atop our shoulders. We end up exhausted and emotionally burdened, worrying more about other people than they are about themselves. These feelings are symptomatic of having an Atlas complex.

When we operate out of an Atlas mindset—thinking it’s our job to hold up other people’s worlds—we find ourselves trying to give people something they should be seeking on their own. Our hero impulse makes us think we can nag them into accomplishment, pressure them into attentiveness, or manipulate them into success. Worst of all, we even think we can make them happy. We confuse their issues with our mission in life. We are dumbfounded when they don’t seem to recognize our heroic efforts to make things better for them. For the hero with an Atlas complex, it often seems that no good deed goes unpunished.

An Atlas complex is a kind of co-dependency. Instead of helping others, we unwittingly support the very behavior we don’t like. We don’t realize that when we step in to shoulder other people’s burdens, they will step away. If we assume responsibility for changing them, we will be left holding the whole thing. Our own lives go on hold. We wait for them to be okay before we can be okay.

The first stage of the Atlas complex is noticing a problem that the other person isn’t working to solve. We see that they are headed for trouble down the road, or we see how a few adjustments could lead to a much better outcome. Perhaps we feel their unhappiness and just want to make it better. We see how they need to change, and we want to help with that. But for some strange reason, the recipients of our co-dependent heroism don’t seem very interested in our help. 

If they were really in need of a hero, you might get a different reaction. People who know they are in trouble feel joy when someone steps in to help. People who want to improve or stop suffering will embrace any good help they are offered. If we can really help, the situation will improve as we apply our efforts. Things will shift from hopeless to hopeful, and people will be grateful to you.

But when we are caught in an Atlas Complex, we obsessively ruminate about the other person’s predicament. We feel scared, anxious, or guilty, like we should be helping them more. When another person’s problems keep spinning in your mind, it means that you are thinking you can do more than you really can. When you find yourself obsessing, you know you are too far into their business. You have bought into the unrealistic belief that you are responsible for somehow changing that person. Unfortunately, you can never be effective when you have tackled the impossible.

So why do those of us with an Atlas Complex keep trying to take on other people’s burdens (or what we imagine are their burdens), even in the absence of reward, improvement, or appreciation? It may go back to childhood. If you were a sensitive and perceptive child, you might have sensed that the grown-ups in your life didn’t seem to be doing such a great job handling their emotions or their lives. As a child, you may felt it was up to you to make things better. 

What is the solution to an Atlas complex? First pay attention to the reaction from the other person. If you are really being helpful, they will be receptive and show appreciation. But if the other person keeps complaining and is not improving—maybe even getting worse as a result of your input—stop emotionally shouldering his burden. You can still make your offers of help or advice, but it is the other person’s business to live his own life. 

In the upcoming New Year, there will be many opportunities for you be a true hero, helping people who want your help, which is probably what you had in mind in the first place. This year may be the perfect time to stop taking emotional responsibility for people who reject your help and recover from that Atlas addiction. You can make 2015 the year you shift some burdens back to where they belong. 

 

Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. For information, call 757-490-7811.

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