Worrying About Others' Problems: White Knight Syndrome

Some people have a tendency to take on other's problems. They're often suffering from white knight syndrome. It's a condition that means they're only interested in solving other people's difficulties. However, it can sometimes turn them into intrusive figures.
Worrying About Others' Problems: White Knight Syndrome
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Some people not only care about the problems of others but they go out of their way to solve them. These people are eager to rescue others and take on responsibilities that don’t belong to them. However, they feel as if they do.

These situations aren’t easy for anyone. Neither for the savior nor for those who don’t really want to be saved and see their actions as an intrusion. Indeed, there’s a fine line between ‘supporting’ someone and wanting to ‘fix’ them. Nevertheless, there are many who can’t avoid this kind of behavior, and the need to be the savior who relieves others’ suffering and resolves their problems.

For example, there are some fathers, mothers, siblings, and friends who, in their attempt to do the best for their children, end up crossing the border between offering useful and tiresome assistance. It’s not easy to tell them that they’re overdoing it. That’s because their intentions are honorable, even though they don’t understand that sometimes doing nothing is better than trying to do everything for those they love.

On the other hand, perhaps you’re a rescuer yourself, defined by an excessive empathy that doesn’t allow you to see anyone suffer.

What can be done when worrying about others’ problems becomes a problem in itself? Let’s take a look.

Sad woman thinking about people who care about each other's problems
Many people who feel the almost compulsive need to worry and help others suffered some kind of trauma in the past due to abandonment.

Worrying about others’ problems: why does it happen?

People who worry too much about the problems of others feel their suffering as their own. This is extremely difficult to handle. In fact, compassionate empathy is really difficult to control or regulate.

For example, if a father or a mother sees that their child is having problems with their partner, they might try to mediate even though it’s an intimate problem in which they really shouldn’t interfere.

We care because we love and we often don’t know how to recognize the limits. We want to ‘fix’ the suffering of others and don’t recognize that their happiness isn’t always our responsibility. These are the kinds of lessons that nobody ever teaches us. Furthermore, the characteristics of our personality factors are also intermingled.

The perpetual rescuer is often defined by rather specific characteristics. Let’s take a look.

1. White knight syndrome

Many people with an almost obsessive need to help and solve other people’s problems suffer from the white knight syndrome. This term was coined and described in a 2015 study conducted by psychologists and professors at the University of Berkeley (USA).

These people are usually defined by a specific type of profile:

  • They suffer from low self-esteem and reinforce their self-concept by helping others.
  • They present high levels of empathy. In fact, they can’t avoid being affected by the suffering of others.
  • They build relationships based on emotional dependency.
  • They’ve often been the victims of authoritarian parents or have suffered previous abuse or abandonment.

People with white knight syndrome are vulnerable and idealistic. Helping others reinforces their identity. If they don’t feel useful or others won’t accept their help, they suffer greatly. 

2. The need for control

Behind the action of excessively worrying about others’ problems is often the need for control. This kind of behavior and inclination to worry and even intrude on others’ territory is common in many families.

As a matter of fact, wanting to solve their children’s difficulties is a way of always having them under their control.

We’re not responsible for the happiness of others. When someone suffers, our greatest contribution can often be in knowing how to listen without doing anything. After all, not everyone wants to be rescued.

3. The magnification of everything

We see this dynamic often. Sometimes, when we have a bad time, we just need to be listened to and supported, and not have our suffering increased. However, there are personalities with a clear tendency to make mountains out of molehills.

Indeed, there are many people who experience the problems of others as their own due to their own hypersensitivity. It means their emotions are always extremely close to the surface and they worry excessively and catastrophize. Naturally, this magnifies everything.

Sad couple hugging symbolizing people who care about each other's problems

The importance of knowing how to act

Those who love you will care about you. It’s just the way things are. We all have significant figures around us who can’t help but experience our problems as their own. Some will act intelligently in those situations and others will respond intrusively or less skillfully.

We could say that people who care about others are basically responding to a sense of sociability, empathy, and community that defines the human being.  Furthermore, as humans, we frequently look at other people’s problems to assess our own and anticipate any risks or threats that we might also suffer.

Be that as it may, you should remember that you have the right to worry about what happens to others, but must always know how to act. Bear in mind that knowing how to help others is an art. Its main components are respect and understanding.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Mary C. Lamia, Marilyn J. Krieger (2015). The White Knight Syndrome: Rescuing Yourself from Your Need to Rescue Others. Echo Point Books & Media
  • Timmers I, Park AL, Fischer MD, Kronman CA, Heathcote LC, Hernandez JM, Simons LE. Is Empathy for Pain Unique in Its Neural Correlates? A Meta-Analysis of Neuroimaging Studies of Empathy. Front Behav Neurosci. 2018 Nov 27;12:289. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00289. PMID: 30542272; PMCID: PMC6277791.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.